Book Reviews

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A Review by Dr Anita Worrall

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The Reading Comprehension Blueprint – helping students to make meaning from text by Nancy Lewis Hennessy

John P Kotter in his seminal book “Leading Change” (1996) writes “without a sense of urgency people won't give that extra effort that is so often essential for change.” We know that in South Africa, change in the way we teach reading comprehension has created a sense of urgency and will require many sacrifices. Statistics are grim: 78% of our South African children in grade 4 do not comprehend what they read. Research in the UK has shown that poor comprehenders at age 8 achieve lower scores in receptive vocabulary at age 12 than the good comprehenders. Furthermore, poor comprehenders don’t just grow out of their difficulties.

The sense of urgency is recognised by the 2030 Reading Panel whose mission is to ensure that all South African children will read for meaning by 2030. Nancy Hennessey's book addresses itself to the problem. She observes that teachers typically do not have a conceptual model or knowledge of comprehension research to effectively address students challenges on reading comprehension. There is a huge gap between the science of reading and educational practice. She describes herself to be a teacher, diagnostician and administrator, who presently works as a consultant. She has worked across grade levels from K to 12 with both general and special educators, she is a specialist in dyslexia (dyslexia applies to word recognition difficulties not necessarily to comprehension of text) and has served on the board of the International Dyslexia Association. It is at one of the IDA conferences that I heard her speak on reading comprehension and I was impressed with the extent of her knowledge and experience.

 

She has worked with Louisa Moats on Developing Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading - an important work which is being introduced in all teacher’s colleges in the USA. It describes the knowledge and skills that teachers of reading should possess to teach all students to read efficiently and for meaning. Louisa Moats writes in her introduction to the book that it is a “unique combination of scholarly referencing, adherence to major research findings, and very practical guidance.” Throughout the book Nancy Hennessey is guided by Scarborough (2001) Reading Rope which identifies the essential components of reading comprehension and the relationship between them.

The Reading Rope is a graphic representation of skilled reading comprehension. It represents the strands of a rope with the upper strands representing language comprehension (background knowledge, vocabulary, language structure, verbal

reasoning and literacy knowledge, that is genres and print concepts.) The lower strands represents word recognition such as phonological awareness, morphology, orthography and sight recognition.

The Reading Rope illustrates how the upper and lower strands work together to become increasingly automatic and increasingly strategic. As skilled reading comprehension develops over time, with skilled instruction and practice, the relationship between core aspects of reading changes. In first grade decoding and word recognition account for most of the success. The relationship between components gradually shift so that by grade 10 abstract verbal reasoning accounts for most of the variance of reading outcome. The blueprint is a framework for organising comprehension instruction and Hennessy describes it as a “master plan or a guide to action.” Chapters are devoted to teaching various components of The Reading Rope. An important starting point for teaching is a clear statement of the purpose of reading and an explicit statement of what the teacher hopes the student will take away.

 

A teacher approaches with a clear plan for how to integrate information in a text with the student existing knowledge and beliefs and will actively guide the students in constructing a mental model. Crucial is for educators to have the knowledge of the core language skills that underlie reading, reading comprehension and written expression. Skilled reading comprehension is a complex activity of language and cognitive processes. Teachers of ‘thinking’ will recognise that “reading is thinking” (Cartwright, 2015.) As teachers of reading comprehension, we are working at the intersection of psychology, education, language structure and neuroscience. Making meaning from text is complex and a new educational curriculum will require to be structured for teachers of literacy.

This is a brilliant book and I strongly recommend it. It can be purchased as an E-book or from Takealot. Cartwright, K Executive Functions and Reading Comprehension - Guildford, 2015.

Kotter, John P. Leading Change - Harvard Business School Press (1996)