Teacher: What does the sea otter do to prepare lunch?
Delia Pompa: What are the best ways to teach our students how to understand what they read? What does the latest research tell us?
I’m Delia Pompa. Please join me for our next Reading Rockets webcast, Make Reading Count.
Narrator: Funding for the Reading Rockets webcast series is provided by the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.
Delia Pompa: Hello, I’m Delia Pompa. Welcome to the Reading Rockets webcast series. Today we’re going to talk with three top reading experts about how best to teach reading comprehension to young readers.
Joining me, we have Sharon Walpole, assistant professor of education at the University of Delaware. Isabel Beck, professor and senior scientist at the University of Pittsburgh. And Nanci Bell, who is CEO and director of Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes. Thank you all for joining us. We also have our studio audience. I’d like to welcome our studio audience of educators and parents, and they’ll have some questions for us near the end of the show.
Dr. Walpole, why do we have to teach comprehension? Isn’t it enough that we teach kids words, and shouldn’t they understand what they’re reading once they can read words?
Sharon Walpole: Well, teaching children to read words is critically important, and I’m glad that you give me a chance to advocate for that. If children can’t read words, it doesn’t make sense to focus very much on comprehension processes. However, reading words is necessary for comprehension but not sufficient. We have lots of evidence of that. Teaching children to comprehend is much more complex, actually, because the cognitive processes that are involved are much more complicated. So we can’t just teach kids to read words.
Delia Pompa: Well how does the reading comprehension process work? Can you describe what goes on in a child’s mind when he’s reading?
Sharon Walpole: Comprehension’s definitely the most complicated of the cognitive processes that we try to develop in school. I try to think of it like building a structure, and researchers sometimes call it a text model. And that really helps me, because I feel like it helps me conceptualize that we have building materials that we have to organize, and that it’s very complicated. Actually, some of the materials come from the text, from the author’s words and, in children’s picture books, from the wonderful illustrations that are provided to guide the text model. But a lot of the rest of the building blocks come from the child’s mind. They’re background knowledge about the world, they’re specific knowledge about the word meanings that the author has chosen for the text, and they’re knowledge of strategies to actually make all those things work together, to build the text model.
Comprehensions are really active, interactive process, where the child’s creating a coherent version of the text in his or her mind. I used to not be able to think of it that way. I used to think comprehension was finding answers in the text, but that’s really not true.
Delia Pompa: Well where do the breakdowns occur?
Sharon Walpole: I think they can occur in any one of those processes, so it could be that the breakdown occurs because the child’s knowledge of the world is inconsistent with the world knowledge that the author expected the child to bring. That’s one way. Could be at the level of the words. Maybe the child’s vocabulary knowledge, is inconsistent with the choices that the author made in constructing the text. Could be general language knowledge. I mean, English syntax is complex. Sometimes children don’t have the syntactic knowledge to understand. Could be they don’t have enough strategies to make all of those processes work together. Any one of those could be a potential breakdown, and I don’t think – We don’t have a developmental model to really guide thinking about comprehension. We have to think of it much more interactively.
Delia Pompa: Well it is complex. What does research tell us about teaching comprehension?
Sharon Walpole: Each of those processes can be taught, the good news is. Each of those particular potential breakdown areas can be developed. You can teach kids word meanings before they read, and that’ll help them comprehend. You can teach them text structures that help them, sort of, make sense of all of these different components. For example, you can teach them how stories work. You can teach them how different kinds of information texts tend to work, what are the, sort of, rules of a story. You can teach kids to make inferences, and to really be more active when they read. And you can teach them comprehension strategies, specific procedures that they can use before, during, and after reading to make that text model a little bit more coherent.
Delia Pompa: Well, these are teaching strategies. What could kids do on their own to use comprehension strategies?
Sharon Walpole: You know, I think that good reading research has identified a small set of strategies that good readers tend to use over and over and over again. And that sort of makes this very complicated world a little easier to navigate. And I think it’s helpful if we tell kids exactly what those are, we name them, and we might call them slightly different names. That doesn’t matter. We name them, and we teach children exactly how what procedures they could use to enact them, and then we do the – This takes a lot of effort, so we have to teach children when and where the strategies might be useful. You don’t want kids to be using comprehension strategies when they don’t need them, because that would be a waste of cognitive energy. And it would be distracting, actually, from building that really neat, coherent, text model. That’s a lot for a child and a teacher to do.
Delia Pompa: When should teachers start working on comprehension? I mean, should kindergarten teachers be doing it?
Sharon Walpole:I really think kindergarten teachers should be doing it. I worked with some really fantastic school staffs that have really organized the whole reading program around comprehension strategies, and we came up with an interesting little way of remembering them.
At Johnson School, in Charlottesville, Virginia, teachers helped construct an acronym, PICTURE, to identify what cognitive strategies we want kids to use, and to remind teachers to teach them, and to remind children to use them. And we made bookmarks, and posters, and all kinds of things to infuse that notion into the school life. And here they are. And people would call them slightly different names, but I think we would find them very consistent.
The P in PICTURE stands for Predict. Take information from the text, and information from background knowledge, to make a reasonable guess at what might happen next, especially in a story.
The second one was Imagine, or visualize. You know, really take background knowledge to create a coherent mental image to bring to bear background knowledge to fill-in what the author has left out of the text.
Clarify. I think this one’s the hardest, but actually make sure you’re making sense. You know, stop and make sure the building that you’re building is standing up. Be meta-cognitive, and reflective.
T. T stands for Try in our acronym, and it was, “Try to ask yourself how and why questions,” to keep that inference building going.
U is Use what you know, and it seems odd, but children sometimes don’t know – especially young children who are novice comprehenders, that you’re allowed to use background knowledge. Because they might answer a question and say, “it doesn’t say,” “the book doesn’t say,” when in fact the answer was right there in their heads.
Review – summarize. During and after reading, good readers stop and summarize, and check, and make sure that what they’re making in their head makes sense.
And then Evaluate. To what extend did this text actually meet my reading purposes? How is it connected to our texts? How can I talk about it with other readers? So, all of those things actually can be begun in kindergarten.
Delia Pompa: So we should remember PICTURE? What are the characteristics of a classroom where the teacher’s doing a good job teaching comprehension? Can you paint a picture of such a classroom for us?
Sharon Walpole: They’re filled with language. You can’t teach comprehension quietly. Teachers are talking, children are talking. There are wonderful books being read that are complex contexts for comprehension. You can’t teach comprehension in a very, very simple book, you have to have something that actually has some meat to it. Teachers are actually modeling thinking, which is the hardest thing about teaching comprehension. Making that thinking verbal and accessible to the kids. And the kids are asking questions of the teacher, of the text, and of one another. So, they’re noisy places.
Delia Pompa: Well, should comprehension instruction be connected across grade levels? Is there a school you worked with where you found that happened well?
Sharon Walpole: Yeah, at Johnson Elementary School, and then at Jackson-Via Elementary School, I was lucky enough to work with teachers who were willing to say, okay, we’ll try it. We’ll try it K through five. We’ll try it in read alouds, and in reading instruction. And they used that acronym, PICTURE, to organize their work. But there’s many other ways to do that. I think core program materials often have a set of, a simple set of, strategies that they ask teachers to use across the elementary grades.
Delia Pompa: Why do we see drop-off in comprehension skills as kids go into the fourth and fifth grades?
Sharon Walpole: You know, I don’t think of it that way as drop-off. I think we have to remember that the tasks that we’re asking children to complete in fourth and fifth grade are different. Oftentimes, we’re asking them to read much more dense information texts, and we’re asking them to read in areas for which they have no background knowledge. They’re reading in order to build background knowledge. So, of course there – It could be that they have word recognition problems. It could be that they have fluency problems. But, it also could be that the task is just much more difficult, and sometimes we’re not providing enough support for them before, during, and after reading to really help.
Delia Pompa: Well, since we know this challenging period might come, what can teachers do to help kids make it through this period?
Sharon Walpole: Well teachers in the elementary grades can do a really careful job making sure children know how to decode easily and well. They can give them enough practice reading that they’re reading sounds like oral language, what we call fluent reading. And then we can provide support. We can build vocabulary and concept knowledge. We can teach children comprehension strategies, and we can help them to apply them many, many, many times in many, many texts and flexible ways. And we can give them lots of chances to interact with teachers and texts, and with one another.
Delia Pompa: Dr. Beck, you’ve listened to all this, you’ve taught all this, you’ve experienced all this. What are some good ways the teacher can access a child’s level of comprehension?
Isabel Beck: A very simple way, by asking the child to tell them, to tell her or him, “What was that all about?” And when you get to a part that the teacher’s not sure whether the child understood it or not, by saying, “Can you tell me more about when Charlie had a headache?” And so, what you do is ask the child to tell you what they understood from the text, and you can certainly learn a great deal about whether they are comprehending it or not. It’s my favorite way. Just ask them. don’t make it complicated.
Delia Pompa: That’s a simple instruction. Hard to carry out for some teachers, maybe. Nanci, what should a teacher, who’s assessing a child with dyslexia for comprehension skills, expect to see in that child?
Nanci Bell: Typically what we do is look at language processing as a spectrum, so we would see students who are possibly dyslexic – that would be on this side of the spectrum, where they’re having decoding problems – or we would see students on that spectrum that might be having difficulty with comprehension.
For example, if it’s the dyslexic student that we’re looking at, we’re looking at their oral vocabulary, and their oral language processing, and their decoding, their word attack skills. Very often for those students, we see that they have high vocabulary, or higher vocabulary than their decoding ability, and they frequently have higher comprehension ability than their decoding ability. And so we’re looking at a range of skills that would let us see the whole child.
Delia Pompa: Thank you, Nanci. And thank you, everyone. Now let’s take a look at comprehension instruction in action. Here’s third grade teacher, Robert Vettese, and his class in Harlem.
Robert Vettese: So you’ve seen people play checkers before? Wow!
Narrator: At Community School 200, Robert Vettese helps his third graders discuss complicated narratives. He uses a program called the Theme Scheme, designed for struggling readers.
Robert Vettese: What I like most about the Theme Scheme is the general map that it gives students to read a story with.
Joanna Williams: With comprehension programs like the Theme Scheme, I think what we’re really trying to do is have children move up in their basic thinking skills, because reading is, in fact, thinking. We don’t want children just to be able to read very fluently off the printed page, but not understand what they’re reading. It kind of sounds good but they’re not really getting the point.
Robert Vettese: A long time ago in China there was a boy named Ping.
Narrator: The Theme Scheme focuses not only on plot but, as its name implies, on the underlying theme of a story.
Joanna Williams: We’ve always chosen stories that have good, clear, accessible themes. It’s very, very important in instruction to really show the children something that they can, in fact, get.
Robert Vettese: When Ping receives his seed from the emperor, he was the happiest child of all.
Narrator: To find a successor, the emperor gives many seeds to children, but only Ping is honest enough to admit his seed won’t grow.
Robert Vettese: So who’s going to be the new emperor? One, two, three:
Robert Vettese: Very good. Ping is going to be the new emperor. Why is Ping going to be the new emperor? Mablei?
Student: Because maybe he told the truth?
Robert Vettese: Hmmm, interesting.
Joanna Williams: We just don’t teach stories that kids understand those stories, we want them to do a little more and go into another level of comprehension, which is, in fact, theme comprehension. Stories have messages for us. They have lessons, sometimes. They relate to other stories. And most important, they relate to real life.
Robert Vettese: Now, in the story, it was really hard for Ping to be honest.
Narrator: The Theme Scheme challenges students to find echoes of the story’s theme in their own lives.
Robert Vettese: Has anybody ever had a time when it was hard to be honest in their lives? Elizabeth?
Student: When I was washing the dishes, and I was drying. It was a glass cup, and it just fell, and the handle broke. And it was hard to tell my grandmother.
Reid Lyon: So when you look at reading, and its complexity, you’re looking at this integration of a number of fairly complex and cognitive linguistic skills. They’ve got to know sounds. They’ve got to link sounds to letters. They’ve got to rapidly apply all of this to a whole page of print.
And then, as they’re reading, they have to structure themselves. They’ve got to ask questions about what they’re reading. They’ve got to summarize as they go along. They’ve got to predict what’s coming next. All of that goes into comprehension.
Student: I told her, and then she just told me to throw it into the box. She didn’t get mad.
Narrator: The Theme Scheme has made for richer discussion in Mr. Vettese’s class. And studies show that kids who use this program do better on comprehension tests.
Joanna Williams: Comprehension is the end goal of all reading instruction, really. And we trained phonics, we trained for phonemic awareness. We give children lots of practice so they become very fluent in reading. But it’s all in the pursuit of one goal, to get the meaning off the printed page.
Delia Pompa: Dr. Beck, the word connections comes up a lot in your work, and we just saw kids making connections between a story and their own lives. What kind of connections do you hope children will make as they read?
Isabel Beck: I think a major connection that they need to make is to connect parts of the text as they’re going along. Sharon talked about the need to build a coherent representation of what one reads, and that’s exactly right. You can’t remember, or understand, a basket of facts or a basket of sentences. What you need to do is be able to connect what sentence to the next, one part to the next, or part that you’re reading to what you read earlier.
For instance, if you’re reading about someone who was yawning and rubbing his eyes in a peculiar situation where one shouldn’t rub, one shouldn’t be tired, then the teacher might say, “Now how does this connect to what we read before?” And sure enough, on the previous page, he had not been able to sleep well. So that’s an important connection to make, and kids need to be encouraged to do that. “How does this connect to how the mother felt about it?” That’s the way of building this connected representation, so that what you remember is coherent, rather than just a basket of facts.
Delia Pompa: Well, beyond encouraging, how do you teach children to make these connections?
Isabel Beck: Well, I think I wouldn’t underestimate encouraging. I would say it by saying you need to encourage them by asking them to do it time, and time, and time again. And I think what’s particularly important is that kids and the teacher work through texts with the kids. They read a part of it, and then they talk about it. And what they talk about ought to be aspects of the text that connected up, so that they bring it together. “So how does that connect with what we read before?” “Does that connect with something we read in the earlier chapter?” I mean, that’s an important idea too, especially when you’re in to content area books. So, you just keep asking them to do it.
Delia Pompa: Well, you spent a lot of time working on vocabulary instruction. Why is vocabulary – excuse me – vocabulary instruction so important, and what does it have to do with comprehension?
Isabel Beck: Well, comprehension is made up of words, and words are the building blocks of language. And so, obviously, kids need to know the meanings of words. And here, I do want to distinguish between teaching kids to read words they already know from oral language, that talk about the code, which of course is critical, and the aspect that I’ve paid attention to – not that I haven’t paid attention to teaching kids the phonics – but the aspect that I paid particular attention to more recently is learning words whose meanings they don’t know from oral language. And this is quite critical, because one does not learn a lot of the more literary words, or the more literate words, from oral language, even among the conversations of college graduates. Oral language is limited in the breadth with which words are used.
So, words like – for kids – reluctant, pinnacle, absurd, are not likely to come up in every day language. Therefore it’s really essential that we start teaching little kids big words, and they love it. Little kids love big words. So that those words will be available when they start reading about, when those words are included in texts that they’ll be reading about.
Delia Pompa: Well, there’s teaching and there’s teaching. How important is it for teachers to explicitly teach vocabulary?
Isabel Beck: Well, I think that it is very important. I mean the idea of taking advantage and of opportunity, like walking into a classroom of first graders and saying, “My, are you boisterous today!” and then playing with boisterous the rest of the day. But it’s also a very good idea that a reasonable set of difficult, I mean hard words, in the sense that they are not common to speech, become, actually, the focus of some instructional time every day. And for little kids, those words are easily brought from the books we read to kids. The books that we read: Make Way for Ducklings, A Pocket for Corduroy, Socrates, Curious George, are full of very sophisticated words that we can use.
Delia Pompa: What’s challenging about teaching those words? It just seems simple. Here’s a word, memorize it. What’s difficult about it?
Isabel Beck: Whether it’s young kids, or whether it’s the older, intermediate kids, there’s an enormous amount of evidence that very little, if anything, is learned by just explaining it once.
One issue is that one has to explain it better than a dictionary. One can’t – People use dictionaries to kind of clarify a meaning, not to learn the meaning of something. So teachers need to get used to just explaining a word, like reluctant is something that you kind of don’t want to do. That’s different than what you would find reluctant for in the dictionary.
Delia Pompa: When you walk into a classroom, what does vocabulary instruction look like? What should it look like?
Isabel Beck: Well, you would see little kids, or not-so-little kids, learning very interesting words, sophisticated words, what’s called tier two words, some of the so-called hard words. They’re low frequency words in oral language. They appear in written, printed language, in written texts. So that’s what you would see, traces of that. You’d see them talking about the word. You’d see them trying to distinguish whether one usage of the word, one example of the word, is a good one and one is not. You’d see them trying to develop a situation that would use the word.
Delia Pompa: So you’d see lots of interesting talk, and directed talk, about a word, a sophisticated word. Give us an example, like from Corduroy, if you remember one. You’ve read it a lot of times.
Isabel Beck: Corduroy is a special one that I like, because early in a program of research, my colleague, Mark McCullen, and I, used to go out to kindergartens and first grades and read stories to kids, and then, afterwards, pull out a couple of the words. And one would read and the other would take notes.
So I was reading A Pocket for Corduroy to a kindergarten class, and we’d gone through it, stopped and asked some questions, and afterwards I said, “So one of the words in the story was reluctant.” “Do you remember Lisa was reluctant to leave her teddy bear in the laundromat?” “I’m reluctant to ride a rollercoaster.” So I tried to expand the use of it. “Some children are reluctant to eat spinach.” “Could you tell me something you’d be reluctant to do?” And one said, “I’d be reluctant to leave my teddy bear in the laundromat.” And I went, “Hmmm, just like Lisa.” “Could you tell me…” And that’s what they will do. “Could you tell me something that is not like Lisa?” “Ah, I’d be reluctant to leave my teddy bear in the supermarket.” “Oh yeah, that’s different.” Then it went on until finally, “I’d be reluctant to leave my drums” – this was right after Christmas – “at my friend’s house.” And then it clicked in my head that reluctant means something to do with leaving something.
So I said, “Could you tell me something that you would be reluctant to do, that has nothing to do with leaving anything?” And I probably got the best answer I’ve ever gotten from kindergarten through doctoral programs. This little five-year-old raised her hand and said, “I’d be reluctant to change a baby’s diaper.” Now I do believe that every child will pass that item on her college entrance exam, because the example was so superb.
Delia Pompa: How does a teacher handle a classroom where you’ve got kids with extensive vocabulary – like this child seemed to have – and some kids who have limited vocabularies?
Isabel Beck: Well, there’s not a hierarchy in learning words. You can have a limited vocabulary, but you can still learn reluctant. You don’t have to know X number of words, or these words, to learn reluctant. So, what you do is you teach hard words to all kids, and that then says there’s really no problem.
The only thing about teaching hard words to little kids is that you have to be able to explain them easily. If you can’t explain a word easily, in concrete every day terms, then the word is probably one that you don’t want to teach. For instance, I tried to teach exotic to first graders and, you know, bombed. It just didn’t work, because I didn’t know how to explain exotic in ways they would understand it. But that’s rare. Most words can be explained in simple terms.
Delia Pompa: Are there ramifications for kids to enter school with limited vocabulary, and what are those ramifications?
Isabel Beck: Horrendous. The relationship between knowledge of word meanings and comprehension is, some people say, a point-nine. It’s like almost the same thing. If you know the meanings of lots and lots and lots of words, the likelihood is a point-nine likelihood that you will be a good comprehender.
Now, what to do about that is the big issue, because lots of kids are going to enter school with very limited vocabularies, and certainly limited to these literate words that are in subsequent texts. And I think the answer is teach big words to little kids, and do it interestingly. And they love it! They kind of walk around being dilettantes, like, “He’s being a nuisance,” “There’s a commotion out there.” They like to use big words.
Delia Pompa: Well, I guess kids with limited vocabularies can include all kinds of kids, but I guess English language learners are an important category, too. Dr. Walpole, what do you do to keep kids engaged, all kinds of kids engaged, in learning vocabulary every day?
Sharon Walpole: Actually, I agree with Isabel. There’s no trick to that. It’s engaging in and of itself.
If the words come from wonderful children’s literature, and they’re taught directly and clearly by teachers who are interested in word learning, it’s not at all difficult to keep kids engaged. Actually, I think it’s one of the easiest things we have to do.
Delia Pompa: Nanci, how is vocabulary, and instruction, and learning vocabulary different for children with learning disabilities?
Nanci Bell: I don’t think that it’s different, but I think that the students that I described on that spectrum, where they may have decoding problems, or comprehension problems, and often the students that we see that have pure comprehension problems, some of them, as Isabel said, have subsequent vocabulary problems and some of them don’t. Some of them have good vocabulary. And some of these students that are dyslexic have very good vocabulary, and some of them, a few of them, don’t. But I think that what needs to happen for those children that have a weakness in processing language, whether it’s decoding or comprehension, you have to take the instruction back to a sensory level, as far back as you can go.
Karl Pribram, a cognitive psychologist, said that we cannot consciously think about something that doesn’t come to consciousness at the sensory level. And so, when we’re working with students that have – they’re L.D. – and have vocabulary issues, we try to make the experience of the word… We try to help the child experience the word vicariously through imagery. So when Isabel’s talking about making it interesting, she’s talking about how difficult it was to make the word exotic real for them. That’s partially because it’s difficult to get mental representations for exotic.
And so, one of the things that we do is we heavily focus on helping the child picture the meaning of the word. So we’ll say, “What are you picturing for skyscraper?” not the meaning of skyscraper. Something that’s extremely sensory in how we interactive with the student, we call it driving the sensory bus. We teach our teachers to do that. That’s an image in and of itself.
Delia Pompa: Yeah, it is. Thanks everyone. Now let’s visit a classroom in Washington State, to see another strategy for teaching comprehension.
Shera Lubliner: Okay, could I have group one, please, come up to the table?
Narrator: At Frank Love Elementary School, reading experts Shera Lubliner, shows off a technique called reciprocal teaching that’s designed to improve reading comprehension.
Shera Lubliner: Tap-tap, tap-tap. A sea otter lies on her back in the water.
Narrator: The goal of reciprocal teaching is to prepare students to run their own discussion, taking turns as leaders. But first, Ms. Lubliner shows them how to guide a conversation about a book.
Shera Lubliner: See, my first job is to ask a question. And I’m going to try and ask an important, main idea, question that starts with a question word. Let’s see…What does the sea otter do to prepare lunch?
Louisa Moats: There is no replacement for a teacher who can generate a good discussion, and get kids to really ponder what they’ve read, and the whys and wherefores, and connect those meanings to their own lives.
Shera Lubliner: I’m going to predict that we’re going to learn some more about what sea otters eat.
Narrator: Now it’s time for the kids to lead their own discussion, with a little help from Ms. Lubliner.
Student: There’s a sign of danger.
Narrator: The kids begin with the first of four clear steps, asking a question.
Student: What do sea otters have to be careful of?
Narrator: The next step is clarifying the meaning of unfamiliar words.
Student: Prefer fur.
Student: It means, like, somebody likes somebody better than they like something else.
Student: Afloat. Jessie?
Student: Afloat means a little bit above the water, and floating on the water, not just under it or over it.
Narrator: The next phase of reciprocal teaching is summarizing, finding the main idea.
Student: Sea otters have a lot of enemies, so they have to be careful of eagles, white, I mean sharks, and fishermen.
Narrator: The final step is prediction.
Student: I predict that I will learn more about otters in this story.
Narrator:Reciprocal teaching promotes a give and take between teachers and students that achieves the ultimate purpose of reading: finding the meaning.
Delia Pompa: Nanci, let’s you and I talk about sea otters. How important is it for a child that’s reading a book about sea otters, to be able to picture a sea otter? I mean, you started talking about mental images earlier. How important is that in comprehension?
Nanci Bell: I think that it’s extremely important that a mental representation be able to be accessed from text as part of the strategies that Sharon was talking about, and part of what Isabel’s talking about. I think that reading is a cognitive act.
It’s a special area of cognition, because it’s written language that we’re cognating. But it’s a cognitive act. And early on, when I was trying to help students who were having difficulty with comprehension, I came across a student who had excellent comprehension. And this was years ago. Millions of years ago, it seems. I said, “How is your comprehension so good?” And he said – he was a college student, by the way, who was flunking out of school because of substantive reading and spelling problems – and he said, “I just make movies when I read.” This was in the early eighties and I said, “What are you doing?” And he said, “I make movies when I read.” And he said, “I just connect everything through mental imagery.” “I have a movie of it.” So I made it my business to try and find out, was that something that something that anybody had ever talked about? Was anybody talking about mental representation? And a theory of cognition called duel-coding theory was talked about, or written about, by a man named Alan Pavio, a cognitive psychologist in Canada, in the late sixties. And he’s still writing, by the way. He has a new book coming out in ‘06. But he had done a lot of work on memory and its relationship to cognition.
And that’s how he started. And he says, in duel-coding theory, that we have two great mental codes. So when children or individuals are trying to make sense of text, that’s one of the codes, that’s the language code, and that’s the verbal code. And then there’s the non-verbal code. And he says, and I happen to agree with this, that it’s an interplay of these two great codes that enables us to, or helps us, or it’s involved in getting meaning from text. So it’s the verbal and non-verbal code, which is language and imagery in helping you connect all of that. I think it’s an extremely important thing. It’s a part of the code.
Delia Pompa: Well, picturing things as we think seems fairly natural, pretty innate. Is it innate, or is it something we have to teach kids?
Nanci Bell: First of all, we don’t have a test for imagery, so it makes it very difficult to say specifically, like in full name awareness, that is highly correlated to not being able to decode. We don’t have a test for mental imagery, but you can tell from experience, and working with students, that it’s a factor that a lot of students just say, “It’s just dark, I don’t know what you mean for picturing that.” And that student may have really weak comprehension. What we have found is if you’re thinking again, back to my mental picture I’ve given you here, where the students have decoding problems, the students have comprehension problems on the spectrum, these students that have decoding problems tend not only to have the sensory processing weakness of full and logical awareness, they also have difficulty with creating mental representations of letters. So they have difficulty with memory of sight words.
So, consequently, when we do full and logical awareness activities, we can improve their word attack skills, but sometimes their fluency doesn’t improve because they don’t hold, in visual memory, a memory system for sight words. These students, that are over here, that have comprehension problems, often decode well. But their problem is that, unlike this student that has difficulty with parts, these individuals tend to have difficulty processing wholes. And so, when Isabel’s talking about you need to connect sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, page after page, these students have difficulty creating what I call gestalts, big picture stuff. And so, because they are processing language and getting just parts, a few facts, they may remember some dates, they have difficulty with the main idea, with inferential thinking, in part because they don’t have that second code working for them all the time.
So, to answer your question, it seems like there are individual differences in this ability to create mental representations.
Delia Pompa: Well, how do you teach these skills to kids who don’t do it automatically?
Nanci Bell: Well, I think there might be a lot of ways to develop imagery. Specifically, what we do is we start with the smallest unit of language, which is a word, and help students – these are all ages – visualize a given word, and then a phrase, connecting like that, and connecting to a sentence, words to a sentence, and then sentence to sentence using imagery. So, we are asking questions like, “What are you picturing for this sentence?” And then they read the next sentence, and we say, “What are you picturing for that?” And they have to create a movie.
Interestingly enough, originally, when we started doing that the students with a weakness would get an image, and it would be an image over here, and the next sentence would be an image, an image over here, the next sentence would be an image, an image over here. And the images did not connect. Their thoughts did not connect.
Delia Pompa: You mentioned some research about mental imaging earlier. Is there more research on it, and do we know it really works with kids?
Nanci Bell: Well, first of all, in the National Reading Panel Report, in 2000, mental imagery was one of the instructional practices cited as helpful, as to having a sufficient research base to be helpful. It’s certainly not the only thing you need to do when you’re reading text, as she was saying. You have to decode words, you have to understand the vocabulary of them.
And so, there’s been a lot of research cited for that clinically. We have seen, again, back to these students over here that have the comprehension weakness, and with the 1,000 students that were performing below the ninth percentile, and that’s very weak, they had 75th percentile in fluency decoding, 80-something percentile in all word recognition skills, word attack skills, full name awareness, and their vocabulary was at the 50th, the 53rd percentile – this is for a group of 1,000. After a relatively short period of time of what’s called duel-coding theory, integrating imagery and verbal processes, those students can move to the 50th percentile, which is an extremely significant gain for them, and life changing.
It does not happen as easily for the students that have weak oral vocabulary. One of the things that we have struggled with is to increase their vocabulary level as fast as we can increase their ability to make mental representations.
Delia Pompa: Well, speaking of weak vocabulary level in English, how does this whole mental imagery process work in aiding comprehension for English language learners?
Nanci Bell: We were involved in a research project in Pueblo, Colorado, that was recently written up in an American educational research journal by Dr. Sadowski, that analyzed what happened with eight years of imagery and verbal processes being taught to these children. It’s important to know that these, Pueblo, Colorado, has… There are 61 and 63% minority and low socio-economic status compared to the state, which is 30%. And eight years ago they were below the 50th percentile in the Colorado State Achievement Test, which is called CSAT, and people had written them off as these children don’t have the cognitive abilities, or they don’t have the income, they don’t have the cultural advantages.
And 25,000 children have now been taken through this whole process of adding mental imagery and they are now at the 80, I believe 87th percentile. They beat the state. They outperformed the state. Probably more importantly is that if you look at their skill scores on the CSAT. The skill scores look like, this is a bell-shaped curve. This is the state. They moved their scores over here, so they’re better than the state, which means that their lowest students are not as low as the state’s lowest students. And, a comparable district of ELL learners looks like this. So it’s like this, it’s like this is the state, and then there’s Pueblo.
Delia Pompa: Sounds like some good evidence. Dr. Walpole, we’ve talked about lots of strategies today, how well are students – Excuse me, how well are schools doing, implementing these strategies?
Sharon Walpole: It varies. I mean, what we are talking about is very complex stuff. And I can tell you that, there are, almost all schools have crackerjack teachers at teaching comprehension strategies and building vocabulary. But what we need are crackerjack schools, where every teacher in the school can do a good job with these very complicated things. And I think, when I try to think in my head about what are the most successful environments like that, there’re the ones that have the largest capacity, really, for collaboration. Because if this is new to teachers, if this notion of teaching kids to really construct mental images is something new, it’s tough stuff, especially at the beginning. So, I think schools are doing better where teachers spend more time working together, and that’s the kind of school where I like to do my work.
Delia Pompa: I imagine so. Dr. Beck, how well are America’s schools doing with vocabulary instruction?
Isabel Beck: Well, far be it for me to speak about all American schools, but I must say that I see trends. Vocabulary is on teachers’ minds in ways that it would not ten years ago. That vocabulary, that how to teach it, is taking root in the sense of they’re happy to dismiss the look-it-up-and-write-a-sentence mantra that has been the way too much of it was done. I get more requests for ideas. I get e-mails in response to ideas. It seems to be active and catching on, about teaching hard words and teaching them in interesting ways. I have a feeling, like it’s moving ahead, and I’m pretty excited by it.
Delia Pompa: Encouraging news, thank you. Now it’s time to take questions from our audience. Who’s got the first question? Thank you.
Audience Member: Thank you. What impact has federal funding had on comprehension instruction?
Delia Pompa: Dr. Walpole?
Sharon Walpole: Again, I think that’s a giant question, and it’s a really, really important one. And I think it varies.
I can tell you that reading-first money has, in lots and lots of schools, has brought two sort of giant sets of resources into schools that serve many, many low SEsS families. And, actually, sometimes those schools just don’t have the stuff they need. Teachers don’t have the curriculum materials, and they don’t have rich children’s literature. And I can say for sure that there’s lots and lots of schools who have been able to purchase commercial reading programs that define and highlight comprehension strategies, but also they’ve been able to purchase classroom libraries so that teachers can model during read alouds and children can practice during their own reading, applying those strategies in many contexts. So, one hopeful trend that I see of federal funding is it’s bringing back better books to kids who really need them.
Delia Pompa: Dr. Beck, you wanted to add something to that.
Isabel Beck: Yeah, another very important issue is that the Institute of Educational Sciences has supported research in comprehension for a number of years now, and some very exciting research is going on that probably would not go on if funding was not available. And that research is being disseminated. It’s an exciting time. So I would say, in terms of comprehension research, the federal government has supported it.
Delia Pompa: Thank you. Let’s go on to our next question.
Audience Member: What role can writing play in helping children understand what they read?
Delia Pompa: Nanci?
Nanci Bell: I think that writing is an extension of what you’ve read. Oral language is, expressive language for oral language is, in terms of verbal processing, is what you’re doing is talking, but I think as you’re reading your expression of writing is your way to interact with that text. And I think that it’s important to bring in all the aspects we’ve talked about here, vocabulary, decoding, encoding skills for spelling, and also mental imagery, and a specific level. For example, we ask a student to make sure that what they write creates a mental representation for someone. And that makes them get adjectives, not only what and why, but they get color and they get number and they get what we call structure words as part of their writing, to make their writing richer.
Delia Pompa: Thanks. As we get ready for our third question, I’m going to give this to you, Dr. Beck, so listen hard!
Audience Member: Hi. What is different about teaching comprehension to English language learners?
Isabel Beck: Different about teaching comprehension to English language learners… Well, I don’t think it’s a matter of different, or what you want them to do, but I think it’s a matter of knowing where their issues are. Are there issues that they don’t have the English labels for words that they do have under control in their first language? So, for instance, for table, they know in their first language. Or running, or teacher, or unhappy. So, one needs to diagnose the every day conversational words that, you know, how much difficulty are they having with that? And then they have to be taught the English labels for those. That’s one level that doesn’t happen with first language English learners. On the other hand, it is the case that often – take a fourth grade – that first language English kids, kids speaking English, and second language kids, don’t know the sophisticated words in either language, and therefore you can teach them both, the same words. And I think that’s really very helpful, because the issue is you learning hard words, or sophisticated words. There are not real prerequisites to it. It’s a matter of learning them. So, it’s different and the same.
Delia Pompa: We have lots of questions today. Let’s go on to the next one.
Audience Member: What can we learn about comprehension from FMRI and other types of brain scan studies?
Delia Pompa: Nanci, I bet you’ve got the answer to this.
Nanci Bell: I don’t think that I have the answer, but I think that we need answer though. I think that we are just now focusing, in the field of education, more on reading comprehension and perhaps less on decoding and dyslexia. Maybe we’re going to start looking more at hyperlexia, so if you’re back again to my mental frame for you, we are maybe going to start looking more at the students that are over here in the comprehension bucket. And I think that because, if we’re looking over there, it’s easier for us to get FMRI research done, and I’m hoping we’re going to be involved in one coming up on looking at hyperlexics. And hyperlexics, if all of you are not aware of what that is, is really the flip side of the coin for dyslexia. Dyslexic students have difficulty reading words. Hyperlexic students generally read words really well, and have comprehension skills down here.
It’s not been a lot looked at for those students that are often also in the autistic spectrum. There’s a recent FMRI study done that shows that there are parts of the brain that activate for sentence, for high sentence imagery, and that there are connectors – this is all in the left hemisphere – connectors that seem important in the left hemisphere and autistic children, not hyperlexic children, but autistic children don’t seem to be able to access those connectors. And I think the more we learn about what’s happening in the brain, it’s going to be easier for us to look at this good behavioral methodology as opposed to another one, and see what works.
Delia Pompa: Lots of hope in our research, isn’t there?
Nanci Bell: Absolutely.
Delia Pompa: We have another question.
Audience Member: It’s become standard practice to evaluate comprehension by testing a child’s ability to respond to questions in a written form. How well does this reflect the child’s ability to understand what they’re reading?
Delia Pompa: Dr. Walpole? Do you want to take a crack at that?
Sharon Walpole: Oh, alright, it will be a crack. It’s a very difficult question. I think, actually, in my own thinking, the hardest question for me if I really think that comprehension is building a text model in the head of the reader that’s really fused with background knowledge and very personal construction, how can I test it? I think asking questions and having children write written responses can be one way of testing comprehension, but it surely doesn’t get at that thing that’s so transitory in the mind of a child whose comprehending a text. Also, we could underestimate children’s abilities, especially novice comprehenders and novice spellers, because when we ask children to write, we are asking them to do a lot of other things besides comprehend. So, it’s an important thing to do, but it’s not the only way to assess comprehension.
Delia Pompa: We have time – thank you – for one more brief question with a brief answer.
Audience Member: Hi. What can parents do to help build their child’s comprehension skills?
Delia Pompa: Volunteer? A short answer?
Isabel Beck: Read to them and talk with them about what’s going on. Don’t just read it through, but when you get to a part, say something like, “My goodness, what’s happening here?” Or ask questions that have the kid tell you about what’s going on, and how things will proceed. It’s the talk around the story that research shows affects comprehension a great deal.
Delia Pompa: Thank you everyone. Now I’d like to get a final thought from each of our panelists. Nanci?
Nanci Bell: Oh, I think that probably I’m encouraged just by the fact that I’m sitting here and talking to you about reading comprehension. And that’s very different from what happened four or five years ago. I would be sitting and talking primarily about decoding and dyslexia. And the fact that we’re sitting here and talking about comprehension, and that I’m hoping comprehension will, that we’ll sort out, that comprehension has sensory components, the way decoding has sensory components, I’m really encouraged by where we are.
That’s a perfect reflection on today.
Delia Pompa: Dr. Walpole?
Sharon Walpole: How about this? Let’s keep working at it on both ends. We need both accurate automatic decoding skills and active comprehension skills and strategies. Both are complex to develop, and any time we’re talking about instruction for little kids, I want to make sure we’re thinking about both decoding and comprehension. Both can be taught.
Delia Pompa: Thank you, Dr. Walpole. And, Dr. Beck, a final thought.
Isabel Beck: Use big words. Use big words. My three-year-old grandson, when I ask him whether he was impressed about something I did, he said, “I’m a little impressed; I’m not a lot impressed.” So, where did he learn that, because I’ve been talking about, “Oh, that’s, I’m impressed with what you did, Ethan.” So, use big words. The kids like it, and teachers like it.
Delia Pompa: An easy final thought. Thank you. Thank you all so much. And thank you for joining us for this Reading Rockets webcast.
For more information about how you can help the struggling readers in your lives, please visit us at the web, at www.readingrockets.org. Please let us know what you thought about this program. Click on webcast to find our online survey. Again, thank you for joining us, and take care.
Narrator: To order a DVD of this program, or other Reading Rockets television shows, please visit us at www.readingrockets.org, or call 1-800-757-6845. Funding for the Reading Rockets webcast series is provided by the United State Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.
Isabel Beck, Nanci Bell, and Sharon Walpole discuss the components for developing good reading comprehension skills, identify potential stumbling blocks, and offer strategies teachers can use in the classroom.