Metacognition and Self-Regulated Comprehension
Suppose that you ask a sixth grader (or a twelfth grader for that matter) to read chapter in his or her science or social studies text in order to understand and remember what is in the chapter. What does the student do? Most students begin at the beginning of the chapter and read it sentence by sentence, if not word by word, from beginning to end. By grade 6, most children's decoding abilities are good enough that they can read chapters in their textbook from beginning to end. The problem, however, is that many of those same students do not understand well what they read, let alone remember the content of the chapter later.
A few interrelated points will be made in this chapter: (a) Skilled reading involves fluent word recognition, but also much more. Good comprehenders are extremely active as they read, using a variety of comprehension strategies in an articulated fashion as they read challenging text. (b) As part of reading instruction that includes word recognition and teaching of vocabulary, comprehension strategies can and should be taught beginning in the primary grades, with it now understood that long-term instruction of sophisticated comprehension strategies clearly improves student understanding and memory of texts that are read. (c) Comprehension strategies often are not taught.
After these points are made, the nature of effective comprehension instruction will be reviewed in metacognitive terms. Metacognition is knowledge of thinking processes, both knowledge of the thinking occurring in the here and now (e.g., “I am really struggling to figure out how to write this introduction; I believe that the introduction I have just written makes sense”) and in the long term (e.g., “I know a number of specific strategies for planning a composition, rough drafting it, and revising the draft”). In the case of reading, the most important here-and-now metacognition is awareness of whether a text is being understood (or conversely, awareness of when text is not being understood and probably will not be remembered). Long-term metacognition pertaining to reading includes knowledge of comprehension strategies (i.e., knowing that good readers predict, constructing images representing ideas encountered in text and summarizing what they have read), as well as the knowledge that good readers use the strategies consciously when they read. Metacognition, which is needed to use comprehension strategies well, can begin during direct teacher explanations and modeling of strategies but develops most completely when students practice using comprehension strategies as they read. It seems especially helpful if such practice includes opportunities to explain one's strategies use and reflect on the use of strategies over the course of semesters of schooling. That is, in Vygotskian (1978) terms, the internalization of comprehension strategies involves long-term practice with the strategies, including opportunities to reflect on strategies use with others.
The Nature of Skilled Comprehension
The perspective in this chapter (see also Adams, Treiman, & Pressley, 1998; Pressley, 1998) is that skilled reading comprehension is complicated, depending on letter-, word-, and above-the-word-level processes. The focus in this chapter, however, will be on above-the-word-level comprehension strategies.
Letter- and Word-Level Processes in Comprehension
One of the most striking characteristics of skilled reading is that word-by-word reading requires little effort. That is, reading of words is fluent, with most words being recognized by sight rather than sounded out. This is important because reading, both decoding and comprehension, takes place in and depends on short-term memory, and short-term capacity is very limited. The typical high school senior can only hold approximately seven pieces of information in mind at any one time (Miller, 1956). If that student is not fluent in word recognition, or if he or she is still sounding out words, much short-term capacity is consumed by decoding. The nonfluent reader is thinking about the sounds of the individual letters and letter combinations while trying to blend them. When that is the case, there is not much capacity left for comprehension, either of the individual words being read or for understanding the sentences, paragraphs, or whole text being read (e.g., LaBerge & Samuels, 1974). In contrast, because the fluent reader dedicates little capacity to word recognition, most of his or her capacity is available for comprehension. Word recognition skills matter in comprehension.
Pressley, M. (2002).
Metacognition and Self-Regulated Comprehension.
In A.E. Farstrup, & S. Samuels (Eds.), What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction (pp. 291-309). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.