National Writing Project

Book Review: Essential Readings on Comprehension

By: Cathy Blanchfield
Date: January 14, 2010

Summary: Cathy Blanchfield, a teacher with the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project, finds this collection of articles focused on teaching reading comprehension in the content areas particularly useful to workshop facilitators working with content area teachers.


The fifteen articles collected here, drawn from International Reading Association journals by Diane Lapp and Douglas Fisher, noted experts in the field of comprehension research, aim to "offer a sort of 'one-stop shopping' ... related to comprehension instruction."

They do just that. Essential Readings on Comprehension is truly a teacher-friendly book with strategy lessons addressing many student needs at all grade levels.

Having coordinated workshop series and partnerships with groups of teachers of multiple disciplines, I fully appreciate what this book might do for all. The introduction gives definitions and historical background that teachers of all disciplines will find instructive. Then the editors group the chapters by comprehension topics to address these questions:

  • How important is background knowledge?
  • What cognitive strategies do readers use to support their comprehension?
  • What instructional routines can teachers use to support comprehension instruction?
  • What might the future hold for comprehension instruction?

The chapters address sets of strategies, often in articles written by the very researchers who first studied and wrote about them. For instance, Taffy Raphael and Kathryn Au write about questioning (the Question-Answer Relationship strategy in particular), and Anne Marie Palincsar and Ann Brown write about interactive teaching.

Content teachers do not want to read what English teachers might do to encourage comprehension.

Other topics include Reading/Study Procedures, Visual Images, Summarization, Expository Text Structure, Graphic Organizers, Using Writing to Enhance Comprehension, and a variety of technology ideas. For more, browse the table of contents .

Useful Chapters for All

Since this is an edited collection, the voice and structure of the chapters vary, but some features are consistent throughout.

First, all the authors begin by conveying a need that many students experience. Most readers will relate to these descriptions and will be encouraged to read on to find a way to address this need. Teachers of all grade levels will find applicable information. There is one chapter written for primary grades and two chapters for middle school, but the majority are ideas that can be applied to most grades and content areas.

The second feature of all chapters is that the audience for each is clearly content area teachers teaching with content-specific text. My experience in working with content teachers is that most do not want to read what English teachers might do to encourage comprehension; rather, they enjoy reading how they might assist students in understanding their own text book. I can't imagine content teachers not feeling the chapters are written for them.

Also, each strategy is explained through a narrative description of the procedure, followed by examples of student responses. In some chapters there are extensive examples with entire pages of student work, and others with only excerpts of student responses.

However, in all chapters the student work clearly exemplifies the effectiveness of the featured strategy. Again, these examples are drawn from a variety of subject areas and grade levels.

A Workshop Tool

Finally, each chapter ends with questions for reflection and a list of resources—from further readings to online lesson plans to YouTube videos. By encouraging reflection at the end of each chapter, the authors have created an interactive possibility for the reader, a feature that will prove a distinct advantage for those of us facilitating workshops for content teachers.

As a writing project teacher-consultant, I can envision using this book in a number of professional development settings. In an elementary group, teachers could easily read one chapter and discuss how that strategy could be adapted to science, social studies, math, and health. In a workshop for teachers of many disciplines, the challenge is to find relevant material for all. This book meets that need. Each chapter would challenge most teachers to find ways to apply the concepts to their own reading materials.

About the Author Cathy Blanchfield is a teacher-consultant with the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project.

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