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October 1, 2005
Vol. 63
No. 2

Research Matters / Teaching Students to Interact with Text

Think about the power implied in the phrase reading to learn, and then think about what it must be like to be a secondary school student who lacks that power. Outcomes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) suggest that many students can sound out words and comprehend at a literal level but cannot synthesize, analyze, integrate new ideas with what they know, or perform countless other reading tasks that are integral to reading to learn (Griggs, Daane, & Campbell, 2003).

What We Know

More than 25 years ago, a widely cited study based on extensive classroom observations found that many elementary teachers did not teach comprehension directly, presuming perhaps that students would pick up the necessary skills on their own (Durkin, 1978–1979). Unfortunately, the problem persists: In 2002, the RAND Reading Study Group found that "many students come into [middle and secondary school] classrooms without the requisite knowledge, skills, or disposition to read and comprehend material placed before them" (p. iii).
Even without formal training in teaching reading in the content areas, secondary school teachers can make a difference. One way teachers can support improved reading comprehension is to introduce and model approaches that encourage interaction with the text. A widely researched strategy called Questioning the Author (QtA) has tremendous potential. In this approach, teachers model ways to think and talk about text that can help students gain insight into their own reading strategies and also increase their understanding of content.
The QtA approach follows the model of many other research-based approaches to building students' comprehension abilities (see Kucan & Beck, 1997). Research specifically on QtA has established its effectiveness. For example, Beck, McKeown, Sandora, Kucan, and Worthy (1996) reported that social studies and English/language arts teachers trained in QtA changed their questioning strategies from primarily asking students to retrieve information to encouraging students to construct meaning, extend discussions of text, and check their knowledge sources.
In response, the students in their sample began to initiate more questions and comments. The researchers tested students' reading comprehension performance before and after introduction of the QtA approach and found significant differences in students' ability to answer questions about their interactions with text. The most dramatic improvement they found was in students' ability to monitor their own comprehension—that is, to determine whether they were understanding as they read and how they could resolve their difficulties.

What You Can Do

In lessons using a Questioning the Author format, students grapple with ideas in text as they encounter them, checking their comprehension as they read instead of puzzling over obscure post-reading questions. One of the approach's basic premises is that student reading problems sometimes reside in the texts themselves, rather than solely in student deficiencies. This realization can be empowering for students who have never dared to think that texts may be poorly written or that authors are fallible.
Teachers initiate and maintain engagement by using queries—probes that encourage students to consider meaning, question content, and develop their own ideas. Queries may be general or specific: "Why is this information important?"; "How does the information in this table support the author's statements about biodiversity?" Queries may address vocabulary or authors' choices: "This looks like an important word. Let's see if the context shows what it means"; "Why does the author want you to know this?" Other queries help students dig deeper by thinking aloud about text: "I don't understand this point; the author seems to be contradicting herself; let's figure this out."
In introducing this approach, teachers often shape the discussion by asking and answering the queries out loud or by thinking aloud to model the kinds of interaction with text that mark strong readers. Content-area teachers can reveal the specific reading behaviors that experts use: how scientists, historians, or mathematicians make sense of text; how they activate background knowledge; how they evaluate the relevance of information; and how they determine whether they need to consult other sources. As teachers model, they should also explain what they are doing. Modeling plus explanation has been found to be a stronger instructional approach than modeling alone (Bereiter & Bird, 1985; Kucan & Beck, 1997).
The Questioning the Author approach has value in studying literature. A review of the literature on student comprehension (Gersten, Fuchs, Williams, & Baker, 2001) states that older students have a good grasp of basic elements of narrative structure, but they need help to move beyond the superficial level. Much instruction in English classes is based on a transactional model (Graesser, Bowers, Olde, & Pomeroy, 1999; Langer, 1995), which argues that meaning is constructed by transactions among reader, text, and author. This echoes Questioning the Author's premise that readers need to engage actively with authors.
English teachers can help their students learn to question both the narrator and the writer of a fictional work. An initial query to distinguish first- and third-person narrators is a good way to start: "Who's telling the story? Is the person a character in the story or an observer?" Subsequent queries can target how elements of the story contribute to its unfolding, how characters feel and are motivated, and ultimately how the writer weaves together the various narrative components. Questioning the narrator brings readers into the story, and questioning the writer allows for in-depth analysis.

Educators Take Note

Many other specific strategies besides Questioning the Author are available to encourage students to interact with text. By using a variety of approaches that encourage students to become actively engaged in constructing meaning from text, content-area teachers will not only enhance students' reading comprehension but also improve their learning of curriculum content.

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., Sandora, C., Kucan, L., & Worthy, J. (1996). Questioning the Author. The Elementary School Journal, 95, 395–414.

Bereiter, C., & Bird, M. (1985). Use of thinking aloud in identification and teaching of reading comprehension strategies. Cognition and Instruction, 2(2), 131–156.

Durkin, D. (1978–1979). What classroom observations reveal about reading comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 15, 481–533.

Gersten, R., Fuchs, L. S., Williams, J. P., & Baker, S. (2001). Teaching reading comprehension strategies to students with learning disabilities. Review of Educational Research, 71, 279–320.

Graesser, A. C., Bowers, C., Olde, B., & Pomeroy, V. (1999). Who said what? Source memory for narrator and character agents in literary short stories. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 284–300.

Griggs, M. C., Daane, Y. J., & Campbell, J. R. (2003). The nation's report card. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Kucan, L., & Beck, I. L. (1997). Thinking aloud and reading comprehension research. Review of Educational Research, 67(3), 271–299.

Langer, J. A. (1995). Envisioning literature. New York: Teachers College Press.

RAND Reading Study Group. (2002). Reading for understanding. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

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