Reading comprehension teaching not consistent: study

Tuesday, 27 June, 2023

Reading comprehension teaching not consistent: study

There is little consensus as to how reading comprehension is taught in primary schools, according to a new survey.

Researchers from La Trobe University surveyed 284 Australian primary school teachers about the strategies they used to teach reading comprehension.

Findings reveal that practices are ad hoc, with little agreement within the Australian primary teaching community regarding the ways that reading skills are taught.

The study, led by Reid Smith, a PhD student in La Trobe University’s Education Department, was published in the journal Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools.

According to Smith, the purpose was to examine teachers’ beliefs about how children in the first seven years of schooling develop reading comprehension skills and to characterise the self-reported practices and strategies they use to support children to comprehend connected text.

“We found that Australian elementary school teachers hold a wide range of beliefs about reading instruction, some of which are in direct opposition to each other,” he said.

The study found:

  • little consensus as to how reading comprehension is taught at the primary school level;
  • no uniformity in how much time should be apportioned to different tasks relating to teaching reading comprehension;
  • commercial programs had significant penetration in schools, and many participants reported using multiple commercial programs, with varying levels of evidence;
  • participants indicated that their most common source of knowledge about reading instruction was their own personal research, with few nominating university teacher education as a primary source of knowledge or expertise.

According to lead co-author Associate Professor Tanya Serry, despite recommendations about effective reading practices made by three national reviews undertaken in Australia, the US and the UK since 2000, reading instruction in Australian classrooms is still highly contested.

“The ‘Reading Wars’ debate impacts both the teaching of decoding and the teaching of comprehension,” she said.

“Every day, Australian teachers are tasked with helping students develop reading comprehension. Given the importance of early reading instruction in preventing reading difficulties and promoting academic achievement, the lack of consistency across teaching in Australia are of significant policy and practice interest.”

According to Smith, although Australia has a national curriculum that provides a framework for schools in terms of what to teach, “there are few guidelines as to how much time is devoted to the teaching of reading comprehension or which instructional approaches or strategies should be used”.

He added, “An additional issue is that the three national educational sectors (government-funded, Catholic and independent schools) are funded by differing combinations of federal government and student fees. These sectors vary in their policies, application of oversight and governance, all of which can affect classroom practice in ways that are difficult to identify and measure.”

Serry said that seven decades of evidence on the best way to teach reading comprehension suggests seeing the teaching “as a progression from word-level identification and meanings to sentence- and text-level comprehension. Instruction should be focused on developing each of these aspects of comprehension through explicit instruction, with the teacher playing a primary role in the classroom.”

She concluded, “Despite all this evidence, it’s clear from our survey that significant differences remain in how teachers conceptualise their role in the classroom.”

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