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December 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 4

Special Topic / Putting Readers in the Driver's Seat

Teaching students to read strategically prepares them to cruise down the information highway.

I recently reopened the pages of Charles Dickens's Hard Times (1965), first published in 1854, and was struck by the first lines, spoken by the fictional schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind: "Now what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of service to them." (p. 3)
Certainly we have evolved well beyond the 19th century factory model of education, yet Dickens's admonishment gives us pause for reflection. Have we really replaced the factory model? Have we enabled our progeny to meet the information explosion in legitimate and thoughtful ways?

Reading Realities

When consuming facts was the sole objective of education, reading for surface understanding was enough, perhaps. But in the 21st century, facts threaten to overtake us. A reader must do more than read, recite, and regurgitate. In fact, a strategic reader must be able to sort, analyze, compare, and synthesize from texts to draw conclusions, make decisions, and use information meaningfully. The Internet has brought easy access to information, but it has created new classroom challenges. Students no longer need to spend long hours conducting research in a library. Likewise, more aspects and levels of information are available through the Web than ever were stacked on bookshelves. But educators need to be concerned about whether Internet users can recognize the difference between factual material and biased, if not exploitive, material. For example, a student researching presidential campaigns—a typical assignment during an election year—will find a deluge of Internet references operating under the principle of caveat emptor. One reference provides statistics regarding the number of voters who cast Republican or Democratic ballots in past elections, another offers to analyze the candidates' views on major issues, and another promises to rank the candidates according to input from the user.
F. B. Davis (1972) identifies skills that lead to higher processing of information, such as the abilities to weave ideas together within the text; recognize a writer's purpose, attitude, tone, and mood; follow the organizational structure of the text; and analyze the writer's style. These skills apply in all content areas. In this information age, printed matter proliferates and confusions and contradictions are inevitable: A strategic reader needs to synthesize data, evaluate credibility, and identify bias.
We know from the landmark work of Louise Rosenblatt (1978) that for comprehension to be meaningful, the reader must construct meaning by making connections to the text from personal experience and prior knowledge. Contrary to the classroom described by Dickens's (1854/1965) Gradgrind, where the children were "vessels . . . arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim" (p. 4), we know that we can't teach comprehension didactically. When children are not enabled to construct meaning for themselves, they become disenfranchised from the world of print and become victims of a world where information threatens to overtake them.
Research over the past two decades has offered an understanding of the complicated processes that occur during the act of reading. But, I. L. Beck (1989) warns, as reading becomes more complex, the human capacity for processing information does not increase. That is, "people simply cannot pay active attention to many things at once" (p. 41). Therefore, how we instruct students to manage the complexity of reading for the information age is crucial. We cannot discuss reading comprehension without acknowledging that a good reader is nothing less than a good thinker. In fact, decoding words, which for some children is a major accomplishment in itself, doesn't begin to describe the complete act of reading.
If we pay attention to what test data tell us, we have reason for concern. In the reading assessment of grades 4, 8, and 12, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) (1990) looked at two levels of comprehension: constructing meaning—the locating and recalling of facts and explicit information; and examining meaning—inferring, drawing conclusions, and interpreting. Approximately 60 percent of the students tested proficiently on items of literal understanding, but when asked to examine meaning, fewer than 10 percent of students in all grades, including grade 12, tested proficiently.
On the state level, the Colorado State Assessment Program (CSAP) measures more than literal comprehension. The tests are made up of approximately one-third selected-response and two-thirds constructed-response questions. Students read a variety of texts and perform a wide range of activities, including summary writing, analysis of author's purpose, and comparison of thematically related texts. In the first three years of this test's administration, beginning in 1997, proficiency ranged from 57–60 percent for grades 4 and 7. Like the NAEP findings, CSAP reading scores indicate that students lack competency in high levels of comprehension. It is all too easy for educators to dismiss the data for one reason or another or to criticize the stakes and the politics connected with a state-mandated assessment. But as reflective educators, we cannot ignore the directives: Reading instruction must go beyond literal comprehension and beyond the most easily measured skills.
At the elementary level, whole-language instruction has encouraged a casual approach to reading instruction. Educators typically encourage children to read according to their personal preferences and reading levels. We have supported reading as an end in itself, not as a means to an end. We have monitored the quantity of the books that students read rather than students' depth of understanding. Self-selected reading is an important factor in building efficacy in reading, but it is not enough. Students may not be exposed to a range of materials or genres, nor are they really pressed for high levels of comprehension.
R. J. Tierney (1990) describes another problem that can put a ceiling on the development of high-level comprehension. Teachers typically short-circuit the meaning-making process by predetermining the emphasis and importance of text. Therefore, students rarely have the opportunity to initiate their own thoughts and interpretations. Very simply, when we tell students what to think and how to think, we are not preparing them to think on their own. Another NAEP report (1999) examines the reading performance of students (grades 8 and 12) who had been given opportunities to explain their own interpretations of text at least once a week versus those who had not. Predictably, those who had experience in explaining their own thinking earned higher reading scores than the others.

Reading Strategies

If we want to prepare our students for the future, we cannot continue to teach for the past. Teachers need to plan reading instruction around all three stages of the reading process: prereading, during reading, and postreading (Jones, 1991). For example, teachers generally recognize the importance of prereading activities, such as activating schema, but teachers can add other strategies in the prereading stage to enable successful reading. Teachers can prepare students for the structure of the text, for instance. Weak readers tend to miss organizational patterns and get bogged down in detail until they are unable to separate important from unimportant information. We know from recent developments in brain research (Jensen, 1996) that recognition of patterns is instrumental to effective brain functioning. When students read with an organizational plan, they have a road map for reading. Strategic reading involves efficiency—knowing what to expect and where to find information.
Along with recognizing structure, knowing the components of different genres helps readers construct reading road maps. Such a map might tell students that stories always include a problem and a solution; a beginning, a middle, and an end; and character and setting. We know that the brain is always searching for coherence and symmetry. Ambiguity causes frustration and antipathy for the act of reading. By middle and high school levels, students will find identifying patterns crucial to navigating complex textbooks and other materials. Teachers should provide students with well-designed graphic organizers to use as aids in the during and postreading stages to help them sort and manage printed matter.
In addition, teachers need to plan reading lessons that go beyond decoding words. Reading comprehension tests have traditionally measured literal comprehension more than higher levels of thought. Teachers often rely on workbooks and textbook questions that dwell on literal details instead of enabling students to grapple with important concepts and ideas.
D. Pearson and D. D. Johnson (1972) define four levels of comprehension: literal, inferential, evaluative, and appreciative. Literal comprehension refers to that which is explicit in text and requires recall, whereas inferential comprehension requires synthesis and analysis. For example, hypothesizing about cause-effect relationships, drawing conclusions about characters' motives, and generalizing a main idea from specific details require active reasoning throughout the text and well beyond the final paragraph. The evaluative level of comprehension calls for students to make judgments about a text—plausibility, validity, and relevance. When students are able to step away from the printed page and formulate a position that they can defend, they have moved beyond rudimentary understandings. The appreciation level addresses the author's style and to what extent the author's techniques work to fulfill the purpose. Currently, students seldom consider issues of appreciation, yet that is a level of understanding they need if they are to manage contrasting opinions and confusing versions in print. When teachers foster all levels of comprehension, students' reading experiences sharpen from miscellaneous generalizations to focused contentions.
Knowing what we do about the importance of reader engagement, teachers must recognize that not all reading materials are well written or necessarily worthwhile. Teachers should select texts purposefully and deliberately on the basis of how the materials fit into an overarching reading design. All too often, students read material that is determined by availability, theme, or textbook sequence. More successful curriculums contain materials selected on the basis of complexity—moving from the simple to the more difficult, from explicit to abstract texts—so that each reading builds on the one before.
Likewise, the controversy between quantity and quality is also relevant. We should always encourage students to read voraciously, but we need to design strategic reading lessons to get at depth of thought. But don't expect results overnight. We need to ease learners away from the concrete details and lead them to abstract ideas. In fact, the postreading stage should be carefully planned so that students have opportunities for deliberation, focused sharing, journal writing, and application tasks. What happens in the postreading is as important as everything that came before.
The depth of student comprehension resides almost exclusively with the rigor of the questions that teachers ask. If students are asked to respond to literal questions of who and what rather than why or what if, their level of understanding will stagnate. Consider the following pairs of questions:A: Where does the story take place?B: If the story took place in ____ , how would the characters be affected?A: Who is stoned to death in "The Lottery?"B: How does Shirley Jackson want us to feel about the stoning?
In each pair, the first question requires literal comprehension and allows for just one right answer. The second question invites students to explore and expand their ideas through inference, synthesis, and evaluation. Too often, class discussions bog down in the recitation of literal information, and time runs out before the questions of comparison, evaluation, and validity are ever posed.
Teachers can ask essential questions in the prereading stage to set up a problem-based approach to reading in which reading is a means to an end. The essential question is open-ended, invites multiple possibilities, and focuses on a major idea or concept. As students work through the text, they automatically sort the facts and information in terms of relevance to the answer. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Twain, 1876/1981), for example, delights able readers, but many students read it without a means of internalizing and evaluating Tom's adventures.
In the opening pages, Twain describes the first of a series of incidents in which Tom's behavior comes into question: The new boy went off brushing the dust from his clothes, sobbing, snuffling, and occasionally looking back and shaking his head, and threatening what he would do to Tom the next time he "caught him out." To which Tom responded with jeers, and started off in high feather; and as soon as his back was turned, the new boy snatched up a stone, threw it, and hit him between the shoulders, and then turned tail and ran like an antelope. Tom chased the traitor home and thus found out where he lived. He then held a position at the gate for some time, daring the enemy to come outside; but the enemy only made faces at him through the window, and declined. At last the enemy's mother appeared, and called Tom a bad, vicious, vulgar child, and ordered him away. (p. 10)
The essential question could be, "Is Tom a bad, vicious, vulgar child?" Students would read the novel in search of an answer and gather support for their opinions. Of course, a variety of related activities would accompany the essential question so that the entire reading process moves students toward constructing an answer. In fact, launching the question should begin with students creating a working definition of what it means to be a "bad, vicious, vulgar" child. The postreading activity would require students to use textual evidence to defend their answers.
When students read to answer open-ended questions, their memory of even small details seems to improve because the reading is purposeful and the details fit into a larger framework. Even better, the focus question enables poor readers to succeed because they read systematically rather than aimlessly.
Keeping in mind that comprehension and thinking are always intertwined, we need to remember that the level of student thinking is, after all, a teacher decision. Learners rise to the level of expectations. Our goal has to be to help students gain control of their cognition, not leave them flailing and bewildered like bumper cars jolted about in an information traffic jam.

Beck, I. L. (1989). Improving practice through understanding reading. In L. B. Resnick & L. E. Klopfer (Eds.), Toward the thinking curriculum: Current cognitive research (pp. 40–58). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education; and Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Davis, F. B. (1972). Psychometric research on comprehension in reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 7(4), 628–678.

Dickens, C. (1854/1965). Hard times. New York: Harper & Row. (Original work published 1854)

Jensen, E. (1996). Brain-based learning. Del Mar, CA: Turning Point Publishing.

Jones, B. F. (1991). Reading and thinking. In A. L. Costa (Ed.),Developing minds: A resource book for teaching thinking (pp. 153–158). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

National Assessment of Educational Progress. (1990). Learning to read in our nation's schools: Instruction and achievement in 1988 at grades 4, 8, and 12. (Report No. 19-R-02). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

National Center for Education Statistics. (1999). NAEP 1998 reading report card for the nation and the states. (Report No. 1999-500). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Pearson, D., & Johnson, D. D. (1972). Teaching reading comprehension. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Rosenblatt, L. (1978). The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.

Tierney, R. J. (1990). Redefining reading comprehension. Educational Leadership, 47(6), 37–42.

Twain, M. (1876/1981). The adventures of Tom Sawyer. New York: Bantam Books. (Original work published 1876)

Paulette Wasserstein has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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