Reading Comprehension Isn't About Asking Certain Types of Questions


Recently, Tim Shanahan blogged about his top 10 pet peeves when it comes to teaching reading, and per his style, it took two separate posts (post 1 and post 2) to get them all in. His Pet Peeve #7 resonated with me most:

Pet Peeve #7: Teaching Reading Comprehension by Asking Certain Types of Questions

Here's what he had to say about it:

"Here is another issue that I get a lot of mail about. Principals (and sometimes teachers) are often seeking either testing or instructional materials that will allow them to target specific reading comprehension standards or question types from their state’s reading assessment.

Those requests seem to make sense, right?

They want to know which comprehension skills their kids haven’t yet accomplished and asking questions aligned with those skills should do the job, they presume. Likewise, having kids practice answering the kinds of questions the tests will ask should improve reading comprehension performance. Again, it looks smart. It seems like a great idea to have kids practice answering those kinds of questions they’ll have to answer on the state tests.

My mama told me that just because something seems right doesn’t make it right.

She was right in this case. There is no evidence that these so-called comprehension skills even exist. There is, in fact, considerable evidence that they don’t (Shanahan, 2014; Shanahan, 2015).

Study after study (and the development of test after test) for more than 80 years have shown that we cannot even distinguish these question types one from another. Likewise, there is no evidence that we can successfully teach kids to answer the types of questions used on tests.  

If you really want your kids to excel in reading, get them challenging texts. Then engage them in discussions of those texts. Get them to write in response to the texts. Reread the texts and talk about them again. Come back to them later to compare with other texts or have them synthesize the info from multiple texts for presentations or projects.

Ask them questions that are relevant to the understanding of those texts. Don’t worry about the question types. Worry about whether they are arriving at deep interpretations of the texts and whether they can use the information. Reading comprehension is about making sense of texts, not about answering certain types of questions."

I think Shanahan said it so well, and this is why I'm a proponent of putting the text at the center of instruction, not standards. Standards hold us to a common set of expectations for what well-educated students should know and be able to do by the end of each grade. They should be kept top of mind while planning and teaching students to plumb texts at the appropriate challenge. But the standards themselves are not the goal of daily instruction; understanding the text, gaining knowledge from it, and being able to express that understanding is. 

If you want to read more, Shanahan has (lots) more to say here and here and here.

Here's to simply teaching well,

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