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What research tells us about reading, comprehension, and comprehension instruction

Reading for comprehension

For many years, reading instruction was based on a concept of reading as the application of a set of isolated skills such as identifying words, finding main ideas, identifying cause and effect relationships, comparing and contrasting and sequencing. Comprehension was viewed as the mastery of these skills. One important classroom study conducted during the 1970s found that typical comprehension instruction followed what the study called a mentioning, practicing and assessing procedure. That is, teachers mentioned a specific skill that students were to apply, had students practice the skill by completing workbook pages, and then assessed them to find out if they could use the skill correctly.[1]  Such instruction did little to help students learn how or when to use the skills, nor was it ever established that this particular set of skills enabled comprehension.

At about this time, a group of psychologist, linguists, and computer scientists began to focus research attention on how the mind works – how people think and learn. A goal of this new research movement, called cognitive science, was to produce an applied science of learning.

In the field of reading, a number of cognitive scientists focused their attention on how readers construct meaning as they read. Specifically, they studied the mental activities that good readers engage in to achieve comprehension. From these studies an entirely new concept emerged about what reading is. According to the new concept, reading is a complex, active process of constructing meaning – not skill application. [2]

The act of construction meaning is:

  • Interactive – it involves not just the reader but also the text and the context in which reading takes place[3]
  • Strategic – readers have purposes for their reading and use a variety of strategies and skills as they construct meaning [4]
  • Adaptable – readers change the strategies they use as they read different kinds of text or as they read for different purposes[5]

While cognitive science research was producing valuable information about comprehension processes, reading education researchers were reporting important findings about what comprehension instruction looks like in the most effective reading classrooms.

The convergence of these strands of research has provided a wealth of information about what good readers do as they read, about how good and poor readers differ, and about the kind of instruction that is needed to help students become good readers.

[1] Durkin, D. (1978-1979). What classroom observations reveal about reading comprehension instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 15, 481-533


[2] Dole, J. A., Duffy, G.G., Roehler, L.R., & Pearson, P.D. (1991). Moving from the old to the new: Research on reading comprehension instruction. Review of Educational Research, 61, 289-264.


[3] Heilman, A.W., Blair, T.R., & Rupley, W.R. (1998). Principles and practices of teaching reading. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice-Hall.

[4] Baker, L., & Brown, A.L. (1984). Metacognitive skills in reading. In P.D. Pearson (Ed.), Handbook of reading research (pp. 353-394). New York: Longman; Paris, S.G., Wasik, B.A., & Turner, J.C. (1991). The development of strategic readers. In R. Barr, M.L. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, & P.D. Pearson (Eds), Handbook of Reading Research (Vol. 2, 609-640). New York: Longman.

[5] Dole et al., 1991.



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