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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Infer This - Many Educators Have Misconception About Teaching Reading Comprehension

From Daniel Willingham's Science & Education Blog

By Daniel Willingham
March 5, 2018

In a 2014 commentary, Gail Lovette and I argued that many educators have a misconception about the teaching of reading comprehension. We suggested that they often think of comprehension as a transferable skill—as reading comprehension improves, it improves for all texts.

We suggested, in contrast, the comprehension is highly text-specific and dependent on background knowledge.

Further, we suggested that all-purpose comprehension processes (e.g., monitoring whether you’re understanding, remembering to coordinate meaning across sentences and paragraphs) makes a contribution, but is not much susceptible to practice. As evidence, we cited eight meta-analyses that examined data from studies of comprehension strategy instruction.

All of these analyses showed a sizable benefit for strategy instruction, but the amount of instruction or practice had no impact on the benefit. Our interpretation was the strategy instruction told students (who didn’t already know it) that things like coordinating meaning was a good thing to do, but such instruction can’t tell you how to do it, because the how depends on the particular meaning. The instruction can’t be all-purpose.

A new meta-analysis shows the same pattern of data.

Amy Elleman summarized data in a meta-analyis of 25 studies that used various methods to teach children to make inferences, and to apply them to texts. She examined three separate measures of comprehension: general comprehension, inferences in particular, and understanding of things literally stated in the text. She also separated the benefit of instruction to skilled and less-skilled readers.

The data showed “moderate to large” effects of instruction to general comprehension and to making inferences for both skilled and less skilled readers. The pattern differed for the “literal” measure, however, with skilled readers showing almost no gain but unskilled readers again showing a sizable gain.

It’s somewhat surprising that these students showed such a large gain on an outcome for which they received no instruction…but it must be remembered that less skilled readers are often characterized as somewhat passive in their reading.

Hence, instruction may have improved literal comprehension by prompting them tackle the task with more cognitive resources.

Especially noteworthy to me was that Elleman observed no effect of what she called “Instruction intensity” i.e., number of hours devoted to inference instruction, as Lovette and I noted for the other eight meta-analyses.

This finding was not discussed in the article, but supports Willingham & Lovette’s interpretation of the effect of comprehension instruction: it alerts students to the importance of making inferences, and perhaps more broadly (for less skilled readers) that it is important to THINK while you read.

But practicing inferences does not lead to a general inferencing skill for two reasons. One, as noted, inferencing depends on the particular text, and two, whatever cognitive processes contribute to inferencing are already well practiced from use in oral language---we continually draw inferences in conversation.

As Willingham & Lovette suggested, comprehension instruction is a great idea, because research consistently shows a large benefit of such instruction. But just as consistently, it shows that brief instruction leads to the same outcome as longer instruction.

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