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Reading Comprehension - let's talk about it.

Pressley and Afflerbach’s (1995) assertion that comprehension was a moment by moment process affected by complex interactions influenced by numerous factors led to concerns around strategies instruction. There was a growing recognition that reading comprehension was a more context-sensitive and dynamic process that required a more flexible approach and a more complex view of teaching rather than the accepted strategy-based approach (Wilkinson and Son, 2011). From these concerns more dialogic approaches evolved juxtaposing relative perspectives and promoting

greater student involvement and the active encouragement of interaction, struggle and conflict during discourse to enable meaning and understanding to emerge.

The most common, and most researched, dialogic approach is the use of in-class discussion. From a cognitive perspective, discussion promotes active engagement in the derivation of meaning from text (McKeown et al., 2009). Almasi (1995) highlights the sociocognitive perspective of discussion’s ability to enable students to consider alternative perspectives and reconcile conflicting viewpoints where Wells (2007) emphasises the sociocultural benefits that promote the co-construction of knowledge that enhances cognitive transfer.

Three discussion-focused approaches have emerged. The approaches can be distinguished in terms of the degree of control exercised by the teacher and the dominant stance of the text (Chinn et al., 2001). The degree of teacher control versus student control refers to authority surrounding topics of discussion, text selection and interpretative authority. The dominant stance towards the text can be categorised in terms of the teacher’s goals for discussion. The relationship between these two factors defines the approach.

Discussions where students have the greatest control and take an aesthetic stance towards the text are effective in generating reader’s affective and emotional responses (Soter et al., 2010). Discussions in which teachers have the greatest control and take a more efferent, text-focused stance encourage effective retrieval of information and inferential reading (Beck and McKeown, 2006). Discussions where teachers share control equally with students and prominence is given to more critical-analytic text stance are more effective in identifying underlying arguments, themes, beliefs and worldviews (Wade et al. 1994). In these shared approaches teachers have control over text and topic, whereas students have greater interpretative authority.

Evidence on the role of discussion improving students’ comprehension tends to be mainly correlational (Nystrand, 1997) and observational (Nystrand and Gamoran, 1991) with researchers analysing teacher questioning and student responses. The positive results were, nonetheless, replicated by Applebee et al. (2003) in a similarly interpretivist study. However, some positivist data also suggests discussion approaches to comprehension improves literacy outcomes. Taylor et al. (2000) compared school performance with comprehension approaches and concluded that higher performing schools took a discussion-based approach. These outcomes were supported by Langer (2001).

Discussion-based approaches, however, come with a major pedagogical caveat from Murphy et al.’s meta-analysis: increasing student talk does not necessarily result in concomitant increases in comprehension: it is the quality of the talk that matters.

There is some evidence that argumentation, an approach where students take positions regarding a text, give reasons and evidence for their positions and present counterarguments, helps learners build argument schema and is particularly effective for transfer to written work (Anderson et al., 2001). This approach had particular success when applied to the use of argument components in persuasive writing (Reznitskaya et al., 2008). Perhaps most importantly, Resnitskaya et al. (2008) concluded that for classroom talk to promote learning, it must be accountable. In other words, it must have its basis in the text and follow the norms of good reasoning. It appears that when these criteria are achieved, this approach can promote effective reading comprehension (Matsumara et al., 2006).

Although it would seem the sine-qua-non of dialogic approaches, intertextuality - the juxtaposition of text in relation to other texts to build and enhance meaning - is very rare in primary school comprehension instruction. Unsurprisingly, therefore, there is not a large body of research surrounding the approach. What is perhaps surprising, is that what little research there is, implies that the approach is highly effective. Pappas et al. (2003) utilised read-alouds covering similar content areas in grade two classes and analysed the intertextual references of pupils. What they found, particularly in science, was an accelerated building of understanding of scientific concepts and vocabulary as pupils made greater number of intertextual connections and references. The study lacked quantitative outcomes, but the successes were supported in a further study (Varelas et al., 2006).

The research on content-rich instruction is compelling and reveals significant gains for students’ reading comprehension and their content knowledge. What is less clear, is where dialogic approaches fit in the instruction model. Where many scholars are in agreement (Almasi, 2002; Taylor et al., 2006; Applebee et al., 2002) is that high quality (and there’s the rub) teacher-led student discussions about text create authentic opportunities for the automatization of comprehension strategies.

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