Reading purpose and standard for coherence

When a reader comprehends a text, the components of reading comprehension are woven tightly together. The Reading Rope described in Comprehension  illustrates this well.

Weaknesses in just one component can weaken comprehension significantly, but it is unlikely that any one component can fully explain the variability we see among children in reading comprehension, particularly because most of them are interrelated and interdependent.

Likewise, while teachers must know about all of the individual components that contribute to reading comprehension, discrete comprehension strategy exercises only have benefits if used for a limited time – what is known as a ‘dosage effect’. That is, more intervention does not always lead to better outcomes (Elleman, 2017; Stevens, et al., 2019; Willingham, 2006/07).

A more effective way is to teach the components of comprehension explicitly at first and then in an integrated fashion driven by reading for specific purposes (Language and Reading Research Consortium et al., 2019). One simple reason this approach works well is that fulfilling the purpose of reading is the only lasting motivation for reading. It is also the reading purpose that sets the standard for coherence, ie. the criteria for the necessary quality and specificity of the reader’s mental model of the text.

Even good readers don’t understand and remember everything they read. They make a conscious decision about the reading purpose – what they need to get from the text – and set a standard for coherence that meets that purpose. For example, skimming a text to get a specific piece of information requires a different level of comprehension monitoring than reading to gain a good understanding of a topic.

Teaching students to set their reading purpose

One broad aim of teaching reading comprehension is thus to focus on the expected outcomes of reading. The teacher can ask questions to be answered through reading, or the children can be taught to ask their own questions — a core component in reciprocal teaching (Palinscar & Brown, 1984; Rosenshine et al., 1996; Spörer et al., 2009). The type of question is important. if the questions are about simple, verbatim details of the text, there will be no strong demands for a high-quality mental representation of the text. Conversely, if the questions demand inference making and attention to possible inconsistencies in the text, the demands for comprehension will be considerably higher. The teacher (and the students) must be able to ask comprehension questions — and set reading purposes — that are sufficiently demanding.

In an instructional strategy called ‘Questioning the Author’, students are taught to frequently stop and actively think about what the author is trying to express as they are reading a text, rather than after reading the whole text. This approach helps students move beyond literal, surface-level comprehension to a more analytical engagement with the text (Beck & McKeown, 2001, 2006).

Classroom demonstration of Questioning the Author

As children get older, they need to learn to set their own purposes and aims. They need to take charge of their comprehension and become active readers. For instance, children can be encouraged to consider the topic of a text and what they already know about that topic before they start reading. They can be prompted to make associative links between text knowledge and prior knowledge by asking them what a particular object or action in a text reminds them of. Or they can be asked about pictures accompanying a text: to describe what they can see in a picture.

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