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Learning from Text: Facilitating and Enhancing Comprehension

Learning from Text: Facilitating and Enhancing Comprehension
Danielle S. McNamara, Rachel Best, Corina Castellano
October 13, 2003

Correspondence should be addressed to Danielle S. McNamara,
Department of Psychology, The University of Memphis,
e-mail d.mcnamara@mail.psyc.memphis.edu


The students'ability to comprehend challenging textbooks typically used in classrooms is questionable -- particularly those covering scientific material. McNamara's research addresses this problem by investigating the effects of manipulating text structure and providing reading strategy interventions. The goal is to find real-world solutions to help students better understand difficult text. The first solution is to provide relatively cohesive texts, matching as best we can the reader to the text. The second solution is to provide students with reading strategy training that focuses on reading the text actively, attempting to explain the text (while reading) and making text and knowledge-based inferences to support those explanations.

This paper discusses these interventions and technology, developed by McNamara and colleagues, designed to evaluate text cohesion and teach active reading strategies.

Learning from text:

Understanding and learning from written materials is among the most important skills to possess in modern society. The importance of understanding text ranges from being able to decipher the ''three easy steps' for setting up your computer to understanding the ever-dreaded physiology textbook. Indeed, the ability to comprehend challenging textbooks is one of the most important keys to academic and professional success. However, many students are poor readers, or have difficulty understanding informational texts (Bowen, 1999). In sum, students' ability to comprehend the challenging textbooks used in classrooms is questionable, particularly when the textbooks involve scientific material (Bowen, 1999; Snow, 2002).

This review examines ways in which we can facilitate and enhance reading comprehension. It is based on the premise that reading comprehension can be improved under particular conditions, such as when the reading environment is adapted to the needs of the reader. Of key relevance to this approach is the notion of the "Zone of Proximal Development," (ZPD) which forms a part of Vygotsky's theory (Vygotsky, 1978). The ZPD refers to the difference between the individual's capacity to solve problems on their own, and their capacity to solve them with assistance or scaffolding. According to this view, the reading environment can be structured to support comprehension that may not otherwise, under spontaneous reading conditions, have been successful. Importantly, the review takes a constructionist perspective on learning as it advocates the active role of the reader in the comprehension process. According to this view, reading comprehension is facilitated by a combination of what readers bring to the reading situation (e.g., prior knowledge, reading skills and motivation) and the manner in which they interact with the text.

Reading contexts are supportive learning environments, particularly when they are adapted to the needs of the reader. For one thing, the way in which texts are written can be modified, so that concepts are presented in a manner and rate that is appropriately suited to the reader's prior knowledge and aptitudes. Furthermore, readers can be taught techniques for comprehending difficult texts. These take into consideration their reading ability and background knowledge.

Moreover, reading contexts have some advantages over oral contexts because the reader can process information at their own pace (e.g., read slowly). The reader also has the option of re-reading, which is likely to be beneficial to the reader's understanding of a text.

Danielle S. McNamara

Rachel Best

Corina Castellano

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