Let’s go once again into the “Way Back Machine.” This time we will go to the mid 1980’s. What was the red hot topic in the field of reading and cognitive psychology?
I will give you a hint. It wasn’t decoding or reading fluency.
The topic of the decade, the one receiving millions of dollars of grant money across the country to major university centers (especially in the Midwest region), was not dyslexia.
The central topic was reading comprehension, with a particular emphasis on higher-order thinking, inferential reasoning and that funky term that almost no one understands – “metacognition.”
Sadly, like most of these hot topic initiatives and movements (anyone out there remember Reading First), over time they are largely forgotten and put into the educational/psychological dust bin, sort of like an education psychology version of Toy Story. (“Hey, remember me, I was the toy you played with all of the time and now you’ve forgotten me.”)
Interactive Nature of Reading Process
Even though we are squarely in the Decade of Dyslexia (Is everyone “dyslexic” these days), there were important research findings from that era that are important to remember. (Sadly, our version of “evidence based” practice seems to be based on about a five year window of research, so good research conducted in a time such as the 1980’s would not make the cut.)
One of the biggest take away points from that time is the interactive nature of the reading/learning process.
We used to think about reading in more one-directional terms. That is, there was text on the page that somehow went up through the eyeballs and into the brain for comprehension.
The cognitive psychologists studying this stuff in the 1980s told us that was erroneous. Reading was not a one-directional process. Instead, we have “schema,” (i.e., prior knowledge or the stuff in our head) that gets activated while reading.
The more “stuff” (schema) we have in our head, the better will be our understanding of the material on the page.
Another big takeaway that is now in the dust bin is that in order to improve comprehension we need to interact with different types of questions that stimulate a child to seek information and find justifications in the text. In other words, just answering questions on a worksheet was not how to teach comprehension.
Inferential thinking is a skill that does not come naturally to many kids, but can be taught with good facilitated instructional practice and questions that guide this type of thought process.
Comprehension is not an easy skill to teach, but if the research findings were followed, comprehension could be improved.
Some of the toys forgotten in the toy chest may still have some value.