Twenty years ago, research on the reading comprehension problems of students with learning disabilities focused on their difficulties with decoding text. Today, though, researchers view such problems as arising from difficulties across a wide range of language and thinking activities (Swanson and Hoskyn, 1998).
They recognize that some students have mastered the mechanics of reading but still have comprehension problems. This type of problem may not be evident until the higher grades when comprehension challenges increase.
Although students with learning disabilities may have the ability to process information, they do so with great inefficiency. It is not atypical for students with learning disabilities to be unaware of basic strategies that good readers use as a matter of course, such as re-reading passages they don’t understand.
These are difficulties of strategic processing and metacognition (Gersten, Williams, Fuchs and Baker, 1998). Strategic processing is the ability to control and manage one’s own cognitive activities in a reflective, purposeful fashion. Metacognition is the ability to evaluate whether one is performing successfully.
Research shows that instruction can improve students’ strategic processing of text. This article summarizes relevant research and promising practices in the strategic processing of text, focusing first on the strategic processing of narrative and then expository text.
Teaching students how to comprehend narrative text
Generally speaking, narrative text (i.e., fiction) is easier to comprehend and remember than expository text (i.e., factual and informational material).
For one thing, the content of a narrative is usually more familiar than the content of an exposition. Most research on narrative text has focused on teaching students to utilize story structure as an organizing framework for understanding critical aspects of the stories they read. Even preschool children use story structure to aid their comprehension. As they get older, children improve in their ability to use it.
However, students with learning disabilities are slower to develop this ability. They may not be good at certain tasks, such as picking out important story information, making inferences, and identifying story themes.
Several studies have addressed the question of how to improve the ability of students with learning disabilities to use narrative structure.
For example, Idol-Maestas (1985), developed a strategy that consisted of the following steps:
(T): study story titles
(E): examine and skim pages for clues
(L, L): look for important and difficult words
(S): think about the story settings
Using this strategy, called TELLS, students improved their performance on comprehension questions and raised their scores on a standardized reading test. However, when the intervention was removed, student performance declined.
Maintenance of performance levels after teacher guidance or other external support has been removed is a common concern in these studies. This issue is addressed directly in work on comprehension monitoring.
For example, Chan and Cole (1986) trained 11-year-old students with learning disabilities to remember what they read by learning to ask a question about the text and/or underline interesting words in the text.
The comprehension of all of the students in the trained groups improved equally, suggesting that it was not any specific strategy that led to the improvement. Rather, all of the students had been actively engaged with the struggle to understand the texts, which triggered the use of strategies that the students possessed but rarely used.
Probably the most effective of strategies has been teaching students how to use story grammar as an organizational guide when reading. Story grammar refers to the principal components of a story:
- Main character
This technique has been applied by using story maps and by asking generic questions based on story grammar. It has also been used to move beyond the plot level of stories to teach students with disabilities to identify story themes, a more abstract comprehension level than is typically taught to students with learning disabilities.
An important question in intervention research is the extent to which one can generalize from the experimental situation to the ordinary classroom. Only a few studies have focused on teacher delivery within naturally occurring classroom settings. One interesting approach is the work of Fuchs and Fuchs (Fuchs, Fuchs, Mathes, and Simmons, 1997), who designed an effective classwide peer-tutoring program called PALS (Peer Assisted Learning Strategies).
Overall in these interventions, the effects occur mainly on measures that closely mirror the skills taught. Transfer effects – the students’ ability to transfer the skills to a different situation – are seen, but they are often small and sometimes difficult to achieve among students with learning disabilities.
Teaching students how to comprehend expository text
The comprehension of expository text is more difficult for virtually all students. Exposition usually deals with less familiar content and involves more complex and varied structures (e.g., compare and contrast, cause and effect).
Most classroom instruction does not provide enough guidance for students with learning disabilities to be successful with expository text.
Early studies of strategy training focused on teaching one strategy at a time. As in the research on narrative text, teaching the use of generic structural components has been proven effective. But the range and complexity of the various expository text structures means that students need to master several different text structures (e.g., description, sequence, compare/contrast, pro/con, cause-effect, and problem-solution.
Moreover, while these single-strategy interventions have been effective in improving performance, there is little evidence that strategy use is maintained over time or transferred to other situations.
More recent studies involve teaching interventions that combine strategies. Several studies have combined summarization and self-monitoring, for example. These studies, while promising, have not yielded strong maintenance or transfer effects. They have, however, demonstrated that the teacher must play a substantial role in guiding students step by step through the instructional procedures.
In the MULTIPASS strategy (Schumaker, Deshler, Alley, Warner and Denton, l984), students made three “passes” through an expository text. The first pass involved students becoming familiar with main ideas and organization. The next pass included getting specific information from the text by reading questions at the end of each chapter and guessing at the answer, then reading the text to find the correct answers to the questions, and finally self-testing by answering each question with the newly acquired information. Teachers led students through each of these three steps by explaining, modeling the strategy, and providing rehearsal opportunities and practice.
Other studies also involved multiple strategies, and some also used peers as tutors (e.g., Klinger, Vaughn, and Schumm, 1998). These studies indicate that such training, if carefully developed and continued for a sufficiently long time and closely managed by the teacher, shows promise for effecting good maintenance and transfer.
All in all, we seem to be poised to make major progress in our understanding of the immensely complex nature of reading comprehension.