What am I missing?

Rapp, D., & van den Broek, P. (2005). Dynamic text comprehension: An integrative view of reading. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 14(5), pp. 276. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20183043

The primary problem I’ve noticed in all of the literature that I’ve read is that they all point to the use of alternative assessments for reading: portfolios, annotation, summary writing. Part of the problem for me as a TESOL instructor is that some of these alternative asessments don’t address one of my primary concerns. It is possible that students are comprehending more of the text than they are able to communicate through writing, even low-stakes journaling. I know this for several reasons, not the least of which is my own language learning experiences which I described in a previous post. This is particularly true with difficult texts in which the reader uses context to guess the meaning of difficult vocabulary.

I felt slightly vindicated when reviewing a bit of reading I did in English 709. In From Reader to Reading Teacher, Aebersold and Field (2006) discuss challenges face by teachers in designing assessment tools for ESL/EFL students. The question of validity is chief among them, that is, are you truly testing the thing you are indeed seeking to test (176). For example, short answer questions or summary writing could involve testing students’ vocabulary, knowledge of and ability to write using English rhetorical conventions, and/or cultural knowledge. They also support my view that teachers should recognize that students will face a variety of assessments throughout their academic careers, and the use of assessments in the classroom should reflect that variety and prepare students to be successful (177). With this, I felt satisfied that traditional assessments do have a part to play within the context of my student population and the goals of our English for Academic Purposes (EAP) program.

But, how could I design assessments that help prepare students for such traditional assessments while remaining true to my goal of giving students authentic language tasks and opportunities for washback. One problem that presents itself is the competing views of reading (Rap & van den Broek, 2005). One is a memory-based perspective from Gerrig & McKoon in which items a reader processes activates other information, in TESOL we often refer to this as schema or background knowledge. In this view, the process occurs on a subconscious level or during on-line processing (the simultaneous processing you do while decoding). Think about this:

Which is correct to say, “The yolk of the egg is white” or “The yolk of the egg are white?”

As you read this sentence, you activate your egg schema: maybe something like eggs have a shell, a yolk and a white. But the question is designed to distract you from the content by focusing your attention on the grammar. The answer is neither is correct. Go ahead and check. I’ll wait. For more like this click here. If you didn’t need to check your answer then maybe you should stop reading now and head over here.

The competing view originated in the work of Piaget and Vygotsky in the constructionist perspective in which readers are actively engaged in a process of trying to understand the text and resolve their difficulties into understanding. I imagine this might be like trying to read Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky.” We all use context clues, syntax, and morphology to try to construct meaning out of the poem. These are more typical of off-line processing that one does after decoding. It follows the conventions of a valid literary form: poetry. Therefore, there must be meaning to be made from it and we consciously seek to draw out inferences from the text.

I had never considered the two views as mutually exclusive before. However, Rapp and van den Broek note that researchers often focus on one or the other as they seek to control as many variables as possible. Consequently, the research is often skewed in one particular direction. Though this has begun to be superseded by the landscape model, which would take another twelve blog posts to explain. If you’re interested you can read more about it here, here, or here. The landscape model essentially says that the two are complementary and occur in cycles as we read, reflect, and construct, revise and reconstruct meaning from reading.

The authors essentially argue that the memory-based and constructionist approach taken separately are lacking. They combine them in the term Dynamic Text Comprehension (DTC) to account for the fact that the process of reading is recursive and that as we decode, we do indeed experience subconscious on-line activation of schema and that after we read, we then reflect (off-line) on our understanding at which point we make conscious choices that in turn lead us to other on-line processing. At this point, schema that is relevant is strengthened in our processing of the text and irrelevant information is discarded.

The authors do not in fact present any original research to support the claims, however, they do review several studies that have been conducted specifically using this model to account for data that supports both the memory-based and constructionist theories. They go to great lengths to point out that they are not in fact attempting to supplant either of these theories, but rather to unify them into a coherent whole that can be studied in its own right.

They posit that both mechanisms are necessary to account for reading. They classify the on-line processes as cohort activation. This occurs when a concept, and any associated pre-existing knowledge, is activated. The second mechanism which they call coherence-based retrieval simultaneously begins and organizes the information into a coherent structure based on the reader’s expectations. While we typically think of one as occuring on-line and the other as off-line, the authors suggest that the two processes occur simultaneously, though they don’t specifically provide any evidence to support this. A glaring omission considering the on-line/off-line debate that runs through much of the debate. They do cite a number of studies in which this model successfully predicted outcomes better than either of the theories used in isolation.

The article proved to be far more interesting than many of the others that I read specifically about assessment because I realized that I what I was hoping to do was to find a way of writing a test for students that engaged them in the process of reading, while still being contained in a familiar format. Think aloud protocols, reading journals, portfolios, summary writing are all well and good. I do use them to some degree or another in my teaching and will continue to use them for assessment. However, I realized that in understanding this surprisingly accessible article helped me to think about what I can do to make a reading test that is valid, i.e. it actually measures to some degree whether students are successfully moving through the reading process rather than can they write about what they read or eliminate wrong answers. My next step is to identify some ways to apply this new understanding to the types of traditional assessment I’m trying to incorporate into my class.

References

Aebersol, J. & Field, M. L. (2006). From reader to reading teacher: Issues and strategies for second language classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rapp, D., & van den Broek, P. (2005). Dynamic text comprehension: An integrative view of reading. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 14(5), pp. 276. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20183043

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