Strategic Processing of Text: Improving Reading
Comprehension of Students with Learning Disabilities. ERIC Digest.
by Williams, Joanna P.
While 20 years ago research on the reading comprehension problems of
students with learning disabilities focused on difficulties with decoding
text, researchers today view such problems as arising from difficulties
across a wide range of language and thinking activities (Swanson and Hoskyn,
1998). They recognize that some students have mastered the mechanics of
reading but still have comprehension problems. This type of problem may
not be evident until the higher grades when comprehension challenges increase.
Although students with learning disabilities may have the ability to
process information, they do so with great inefficiency. It is not atypical
for students with learning disabilities to be unaware of basic strategies
that good readers use as a matter of course, such as re-reading passages
they don't understand.
These are difficulties of strategic processing and meta-cognition (Gersten,
Williams, Fuchs and Baker, 1998). Strategic processing is the ability to
control and manage one's own cognitive activities in a reflective, purposeful
fashion, and involves meta-cognition, the ability to evaluate whether one
is performing successfully. Research shows that instruction can improve
students' strategic processing of text. This digest summarizes relevant
research and promising practices in the strategic processing of text, focusing
first on the strategic processing of narrative and then expository text.
Generally speaking, narrative text (i.e., fiction) is easier to comprehend
and remember than expository text (i.e., factual and informational material).
For one thing, the content of a narrative is usually more familiar than
the content of an exposition.
Most research on narrative text has focused on teaching students to
utilize story structure as an organizing framework for understanding critical
aspects of the stories they read. Even preschool children use story structure
to aid their comprehension. As they get older, children improve in their
ability to use it. However, students with learning disabilities are slower
to develop this ability. They may not be good at certain tasks, such as
picking out important story information, making inferences, and identifying
Several studies have addressed the question of how to improve the ability
of students with learning disabilities to use narrative structure. For
example, Idol-Maestas (1985), developed a strategy that consisted of the
following steps: (T): study story titles, (E): examine and skim pages for
clues, (L, L): look for important and difficult words, and (S): think about
the story settings. Using this strategy, called TELLS, students improved
their performance on comprehension questions and raised their scores on
a standardized reading test. However, when the intervention was removed,
student performance declined. Maintenance of performance levels after teacher
guidance or other external support has been removed is a common concern
in these studies.
This issue is addressed directly in work on comprehension monitoring.
For example, Chan and Cole (1986) trained 11-year-old students with learning
disabilities to remember what they read by learning to: (a) ask a questions
about the text and/or (b) underline interesting words in the text. The
comprehension of all the trained groups improved equally, suggesting that
it was not any specific strategy that led to the improvement. Rather, all
of the students had been actively engaged with the struggle to understand
the texts, which triggered the use of strategies that the students possessed
but rarely used.
Probably the most effective of strategies has been teaching story grammar
to use as an organizational guide when reading. Story grammar refers to
the principal components of a story: main character, action, and outcome.
This technique has been applied by using story maps and by asking generic
questions based on story grammar. It has also been used to move beyond
the plot level of stories to teach students with disabilities to identify
story themes, a more abstract comprehension level than is typically taught
to students with learning disabilities.
An important question in intervention research is the extent to which
one can generalize from the experimental situation to the ordinary classroom.
Only a few studies have focused on teacher delivery within naturally occurring
classroom settings. One interesting approach is the work of Fuchs and Fuchs
(Fuchs, Fuchs, Mathes, and Simmons, 1997), who designed an effective class
wide peer-tutoring program (Peer Assisted Learning Strategies-PALS). Overall
in these interventions, the effects occur mainly on measures that closely
mirror the skills taught. Transfer effects--the students' ability to transfer
the skills to a different situation--are seen, but they are often small
and sometimes difficult to achieve among students with learning disabilities.
The comprehension of expository text is more difficult for virtually
all students. Exposition usually deals with less familiar content and involves
more complex and varied structures (e.g., compare and contrast, cause and
Most classroom instruction does not provide enough guidance for students
with learning disabilities to be successful with expository text. Early
studies of strategy training focused on teaching one strategy at a time.
As in the research on narrative text, teaching the use of generic structural
components has been proven effective, but the range and complexity of the
various expository text structures means that students need to master several
different text structures (e.g., description, sequence, compare/contrast,
pro/con, cause-effect, and problem-solution. Moreover, while these single-strategy
interventions have been effective in improving performance, there is little
evidence that strategy use is maintained over time or transferred to other
Later interventions involved a combination of strategies. Several studies
have combined summarization and self-monitoring. These studies, while promising,
have not yielded strong maintenance or transfer effects. They have, however,
demonstrated that the teacher must play a substantial role in guiding students
step by step through the instructional procedures.
Some studies have included several instructional strategies. In the
MULTIPASS strategy (Schumaker, Deshler, Alley, Warner and Denton, l984),
students made three "passes" through an expository text. The first pass
involved students becoming familiar with main ideas and organization. The
next pass included getting specific information from the text by reading
questions at the end of each chapter and guessing at the answer, then reading
the text to find the correct answers to the questions, and finally self-testing
by answering each question with the newly acquired information. Teachers
led students through each of these three steps by explaining, modeling
the strategy, and providing rehearsal opportunities and practice.
Other studies also involved similar multiple strategies, and some also
used peers as tutors (e.g., Klinger, Vaughn, and Schumm, 1998). These studies
indicate that such training, if carefully developed and continued for a
sufficiently long time and closely managed by the teacher, shows promise
for effecting good maintenance and transfer.
A FOCUS ON TEACHER TRAINING
The growing awareness that the teacher is a potent ingredient in any
of these programs has led to a research focus on developing instruction
for the teachers themselves. Pressley's Transactional Strategy Instruction
has demonstrated the feasibility of training teachers in strategy instruction
(Pressley, El-Dinary, Gaskins, Schuder, Bergman, Almasi, and Brown, 1992).
The goal of such training is to enable a teacher to teach strategies to
students in a flexible, opportunistic manner. Such training has been shown
to lead not only to better teaching skills but also superior student reading
achievement. To be successful, this type of teacher education takes a substantial
amount of time and effort.
What is likely to be the focus of future research in this area? The
emphasis on helping students develop effective strategies for reading comprehension
is likely to continue, albeit with a strong focus on teacher preparation
rather than on direct teaching of strategies to students.
More and more investigators will conduct their studies in real classroom
settings, arguing that the results of studies conducted in a more contrived
setting, though they may be subjected to better controls, are not generalizable
to other settings and situations. In fact, one main research question will
be on how more substantial transfer effects can be assured.
Interest in peer-mediated learning is likely to continue. One reason
for the success of many peer-tutoring programs may well be their ability
to generate interest and motivation among students and thus to increase
task persistence and achievement.
With the focus on teacher preparation and the realization that teaching
specific strategies is less promising than taking a more fluid approach,
attention is likely to turn away from trying to improve students' generic
thinking strategies. The field is beginning to ask questions about how
reading comprehension can be fostered and improved via content area instruction.
Past research on the role of background knowledge and on strategy instruction
will both be of great value in this endeavor.
One additional topic that seems ripe for attention concerns the assessment
of comprehension. What tasks are most appropriate for evaluating whether
students really comprehend what they read? Are these tasks the same as
those that are most appropriate for instructional purposes? All in all
at the beginning of a new century, we seem to be poised to make major progress
in our understanding of the immensely complex nature of reading comprehension.
This digest was based on Improving Reading Comprehension for Children
with Learning Disabilities by Russell Gersten, Joanna Williams, Lynn Fuchs,
and Scott Baker (1998).
Chan, L.K.S., & Cole, P.G. (1986). The effects of comprehension
monitoring training on the reading competence of learning disabled and
regular class students. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 33-40.
Fuchs, D., Fuchs, L., Mathes, P.H., & Simmons, D.C. (1997). Peer-assisted
strategies: making classrooms more responsive to diversity. American Educational
Research Journal, 34, 174-206.
Gersten, R., Williams, J., Fuchs, L., & Baker, S. (1998). Improving
reading comprehension for children with learning disabilities. (Final Report:
Section 1, U.S. Department of Education Contract HS 921700.) Washington,
D.C.: U.S. Department of Education. (Phone: 202-205-5507)
Idol-Maestas, L. (1985). Getting ready to read: Guided probing for poor
comprehenders. Learning Disability Quarterly, 8, 243-254.
Klinger, J.K., Vaughn, S., & Schumm, J.S. (1998). Collaborative
strategic reading during social studies in heterogeneous fourth-grade classrooms.
Elementary School Journal, 99, 3-22.
Pressley, M., El-Dinary, P.B., Gaskins, I., Schuder, J., Bergman, J.L.,
Almasi, J., & Brown, R. (1992). Beyond direct explanation: Transactional
instruction of reading comprehension strategies. Elementary School Journal,
Schumaker, J., Deshler, D., Alley, G., Warner, M., & Denton, P.
(1984). Mulltipass: A learning strategy for improving reading comprehension.
Learning Disability Quarterly, 5, 295-304.
Swanson, H.L., & Hoskyn, M. (1998). Experimental intervention research
on students with learning disabilities: A meta-analysis of treatment outcomes.
Review of Educational Research, 68, 277-321.