Variability in Reading Comprehension

When I saw the title of this article up on the iLearn site, bells immediately started going off in my head. As luck would have it, the topic of the article is directly related to the subject which I began to examine in my last blog post, how to teach to a classroom of students with different reading levels. I took this as a fortuitous sign that the stars and planets were aligning behind my chosen topic (OK, it’s not exactly winning the Mega-Millions draw, but grad students have to take what we can get), and dove right into the reading with an eye towards creating this blog post and furthering my research.

Right away I could tell that the article would be beneficial for me, as the author, Catherine Snow, started out with a point that I think I had glossed over in my original conception of the issue I was dealing with: the fact that students have varying sets of skills and contexts that are more or less developed which account for their overall “reading level.” I think that in my original thinking (and I’m sure that many other teachers fall into this reductivist trap as well), I had sort of pegged students as being at a certain reading “level” without giving much thought to what that meant or why that might be. Sort of, “Oh this student is obviously advanced, this one is beginning,” and so forth but without really considering what those differences meant or implied. Yet as Snow states, “Proficient readers bring to the task of reading an array of capabilities and dispositions.” It must fall upon me then as a teacher to recognize what these capabilities and dispositions are. In other words, I can’t stop my thinking at “This student is a beginner” but I have to find out what aspects of their skills and context make them so, and what aspects may in fact be more developed than this.

Snow also brings the concept of sociocultural differences, stating that understanding these is, “…one important in understanding variability in readers. While I mostly agree with this idea, I am also wary of reducing students to members of ethnic, social or economic groups and forgetting about their individual differences. I think Snow might have gone on to address this issue further, though in her defense much of this section(and for that matter the article as a whole), was more of a call for research than a definitive statement on these issues.

Another important point for me that Snow brought up was the idea of inter-individual differences, including vocab and linguistic knowledge, non-linguistic abilities, engagement and motivation, understanding of purpose and goals, discourse knowledge, domain knowledge and cognitive and metacognitive strategy development. I was particularly interested in those differences mentioned here that did not seem to directly pertain to reading, such as engagement, motivation and non-linguistic abilities (these are listed as attention, visualization, inferencing, reasoning, critical analysis and working memory-though I like to think of them simply as good habits of mind). I was interested because again they seem to be factors, like sociocultural ones, that would not directly show up on a standardized test or during the course of an in-class reading, but which can hava a dramatic impact on reading ability nonetheless.

Snow went on to talk about variability in text and activity. One line in particular caught my attention, as it seemed to offer the beginnings of a potential solution to the dilemma I’m addressing in my research (Hallelujah!). This was when Snow said, “…texts that seem too difficult may be read successfully if the topic is sufficiently interesting to the learner.” Translated into “Field of Dreams” terminology, “If you make it interesting, they will read.” I love this idea that students can accept even a challenging text if it is well presented and relevant to them. I imagine even the opposite could be true, that if I wanted to give the less skilled students in the class a bit more attention, I might due this by choosing a lower level text, but one which, due to its interesting subject, could potentially keep the attention of the more highly skilled readers in the class as well. There is also the idea that the upper level readers could help the lower level ones with the reading as well, in either group or pair work.

Lastly I just wanted to touch on two more things Snow mentioned, the first being the crucial idea of keeping long term reading goals in mind during lessons. I think at times we as teachers get too caught up in the day to day, if not minute to minute goings on in the class. We want students to simply be able to get through the task at hand, but forget about the importance of the tasks to come.


Also, Snow ends the article on a final note about context and socio-economics. It would seem that the availability of books plays a big factor in the eventual success or difficulties of students. I wonder if the advent of the internet and ever cheaper computers could help improve this situation. A student with a good connection and knowledge of how to use it may not even need the structure of a library anymore, and this is of course significantly less cost prohibitive. This just goes to show the importance of making sure students are well versed in technology and the internet in our classes.


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