The Art and Science of Teaching Reading Comprehension

By Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D., Professor of Literacy Education, Kent State University

“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” – Albert Einstein

Science of Reading research has long recognized that reading comprehension is the overarching goal of reading. After all, making sense of the printed words we encounter is the reason we read in the first place, but what does that tell us about how we should teach reading comprehension? First, I’d like to mention that what I have covered in my previous blogs on reading instruction involving word recognition, vocabulary, and fluency all contribute to the concept of reading comprehension. In order to read, one must first be able to decode new vocabulary words, understand the words in print, and read those words in a fluent, effortless, and expressive manner. So, in a sense, my previous blogs have provided useful tools to contribute to fostering reading comprehension in students.

But beyond these foundational approaches, how else might reading comprehension be taught? The professional literature on reading comprehension has suggested strategies such as identifying cause and effect, compare and contrast, fact and opinion, author's purpose, and classifying and categorizing, to name a few, as approaches to teaching reading comprehension. However, none of these strategies have demonstrated statistically significant effects on reading comprehension (Pennington, 2018; Willingham & Lovette, 2014).

Searching for a Solution to Reading Comprehension

So what would a suitable remedy be and how do we know when a reader has fully comprehended what they read? One answer refers to when a reader is able to apply something they read. Examples of this could be:

  • Becoming involved in a discussion of the text with others
  • Writing a review or critique of the text
  • Using information from the text to support an argument

Once a reader is able to take actions such as these, there is a positive indication that reading comprehension is taking place.

Bloom’s Taxonomy: The Pathway to Higher Learning

Next, let’s take a look at levels of learning, as comprehension can also be considered a form of learning. You may remember Bloom’s Taxonomy, a framework many learned in psychology as an undergraduate that has been used by many K-12 teachers and college educators to encourage higher-order thought. The six levels of increasingly complex learning according to this framework are remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Note that creating is identified as the highest level of learning and a characteristic of art. In other words, when we are able to create something new from what we have learned, we are exhibiting the highest level of learning.

When a reader uses what they’ve read to create something new, they are exhibiting a high or deep level of comprehension. Additionally, creation involves doing something that is not only authentic but also creative – in essence artful. This sort of comprehension is evident in so many areas of real life. For example, understanding the directions on how to assemble a gadget comes from reading the instructions and applying the information gained to achieve the task. Similarly, in my own professional life, I often write about new thoughts and approaches to reading instruction. In such writing, I cite others who have written about similar topics. For me to be able to write successfully, I must understand those texts written by others who preceded me. My desire to write something that may be considered, to some extent, novel or creative motivates me to read and understand those texts that precede me.

Increasing Comprehension With Artful Instruction

How might this form of artful comprehension instruction look? One of my earliest “aha” moments came from fluency instruction. As you may recall from my previous blog on artful fluency instruction, I suggested that the rehearsal and performance of texts meant to be read aloud (e.g. readers theater scripts, poetry, songs, etc.) are an authentic and artful way to teach fluency with regard to both automaticity in word recognition and prosody. I found that students began writing or creating their own scripts, poems, and songs in response to the material they had read for fluency instruction. It occurred to me that for students to turn one of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad stories into a script including narration and dialogue, or to write their own version of Langston Hughes’ poem Mother to Son they had to understand the original story quite well.

Later, students had to rehearse and perform their created works with expression to reflect the meaning they wish to convey to complete the activity. In essence, students involved in reading, writing, rehearsing, and performing are engaged in deep comprehension in a way that is truly artful and engaging.

Additional Ways To Apply Artful Instruction

So how else can students engage in this artful process I call text transformations to promote comprehension? Here are just a few ideas I have employed in my own work with students:

  • Transform a story into a reader's theater script.
  • Transform a poem into a song.
  • Transform an informational text into a dialogue between two characters.
  • Write a sequel or prequel to an existing story.
  • Rewrite a story changing the characters or setting.
  • Write a parody to a poem or story, changing one or more of the elements of the original.
  • Create a summary or commentary of a story by creating a parody of a familiar poem or song (e.g. Yankee Doodle or Jack and Jill).

In all of these activities, students will be asked to rehearse and perform their written work with meaningful expression.

An artful approach to comprehension does not see comprehension as a skill to be taught and mastered. Rather, artful development of comprehension is a method of providing students with authentic and engaging experiences to make meaning of texts and apply this to the creation of something new. It’s not so much that we read and understand, it’s more that we use what we read and understand to create. That’s art.

Inspire Students to Create While Boosting Reading Comprehension

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Read more of Dr. Rasinski’s Art and Science of Reading series:

The Art and Science of Reading Instruction
The Art and Science of Teaching Vocabulary
The Art and Science of Teaching Word Recognition (Phonics)
The Art and Science of Teaching Reading Fluency
The Art and Science of Teaching Struggling Readers

References
Pennington, M. (June 6, 2018). Should we teach reading comprehension strategies? International Literacy Association Blog. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Willingham, D. T., & Lovette, G. (September 26, 2014). Can Reading Comprehension be Taught? Teachers College Record. New York, NY: Teachers College.

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