Comprehension Counts

Reading and science are unlikely allies in the quest to improve literacy in one high minority, high poverty urban school.
Apassion for a controversial and cutting-edge research topic might not seem to be a description one would associate with the genteel Margaret Lally Queenan, Ph.D., Assistant Professor and Associate Dean of UB’s School of Education, but it’s correct. Queenan is now in the sixth year of conducting research on strategies that incorporate science content into reading comprehension instruction.

Working with third and fourth grade students at an urban school in Connecticut, Queenan seeks to answer the question, “Can students learn reading comprehension strategies and science content concurrently?” Six years ago, Queenan began a qualitative study at Striving Elementary School (a pseudonym), an urban school with high poverty, high minority, and low preschool experience students.

The main purpose of the research is to determine whether or not comprehension strategies can move students towards proficiency and enable them to better understand science content in the context of science standards. Students are monitored in their progress of learning and using reading comprehension strategies, particularly visualizing (picturing), making inferences (figuring out), monitoring comprehension (their own) and synthesizing (putting it all together), as well as determining importance (noticing), asking questions (wondering) and connecting (relating the information in the science article to their own lives, other articles, and the world at large).

“Each year has a different twist,” says Queenan. “In addition to the reading comprehension strategies, I try to consider different aspects every year. I have looked into motivation, the effectiveness of working in small groups, and the application of reading comprehension strategies to writing. The results are very interesting. Children are motivated by surprising qualities such as color, so the visualization strategy plays a very important role here. If I give students color handouts when children are reading about science, they will be more engaged, understand the concept better, and learn more quickly than when I use black and white handouts,”says Queenan.

Children are also motivated by the social interaction of working with their partners and friends. One way students share their readings is to have another student explain a concept that they might have missed in the reading. Then when they go back to their reading, they understand the concept better. Another motivating factor is the avoidance of being scolded by their teachers for doing something wrong or for not doing their work. Children are not always seeking rewards or praise; sometimes they just don’t want to get in trouble for not respecting the rules or for not doing their homework.

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In the matter of writing, Queenan notes that the reading strategies have vastly improved writing. She explains, “If one is visualizing while reading, one is able to visually depict the concept while writing it down. If one is self-generating questions while reading, one can write those questions as a tactic, and then ask and answer them, so the reading comprehension strategy really improves one’s writing. That is lovely.”

At Striving Elementary School, there are many students from other countries who, despite classes for English language learners, struggle to read their schoolwork, especially the science content. Last year, Queenan taught the concept of electricity, a difficult concept, especially for children who lack English speaking and reading skills.

In order to help students understand the idea better, Queenan used the visualization strategy again. “I would read the text out loud, draw the ideas, and the other children would draw what they were seeing also. Then, the English language learners would draw what they saw and we would compare the drawings. It was one way to help students understand what the concept of electricity was all about. They loved the topic, I think because they had a guest speaker from the electric company who got them all excited about it.” Now, Queenan is teaching students in third grade about animals and their survival skills. So, even the topics of their lessons can play a motivational role.

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“The school principal and the district’s literacy director think that my being in the classroom is also providing staff development for the teachers, as I model the way I teach and the teachers continue the lesson after I leave,” says Queenan. At first, she found that teachers were bothered by the extra noise in the class, especially when students began working in small groups of six. The solution was to organize the time so that there was a certain amount of time dedicated to the lesson, to the children applying the lesson, and then to the sharing of the concepts learned. This alleviated the teachers’ concerns since only one third of the class period was dedicated to group work and that was “good” noise. “Professors follow my example. I meet with the five third grade teachers at lunch time and we talk about the lessons, the classes, the children, and their progress,” explains Queenan.

This is a qualitative, ethnographic study, so Queenan’s primary data collection occurs through observations and collecting artifacts of students’ work. The years invested in this research, along with a few small grants from UB’s School of Education, have helped transform Queenan’s passion to learn what helps struggling readers improve into tangible results. The grants helped her purchase NVivo, qualitative data analysis research software that helps organize and analyze data, inputting information until the an aspect of the data has been “saturated,” or all that can be learned from a category has been learned. Grants also helped with the purchase of trade books (books that can be bought at a bookstore), which are more appealing and fun for the children than the regular textbooks and heavy anthologies often used in the classroom.

“If one is visualizing while reading, one is able to visually depict the concept while writing it down.” – Queenan

Queenan has always been very interested in children’s ability to comprehend. She says, “It’s critically important for them, no matter what they are reading, whether it is a math book, a social studies book, or a science book. They have to be able to comprehend.”

This entire research was presented in several papers, including “Helping Urban Teachers Help Students Read Science: A Partnership,” at the 2010 Northeastern Educational Research Association (NERA) Annual Conference. “They have asked me to work on their committee for teacher research since that was the area of my doctoral research,” adds Queenan. She has also published in the Journal of the Advancement of Research and in the New England Reading Association Journal, among others. Queenan also presented a paper on the results of her work with third graders for the 2011 Literacy Research Association conference.

Queenan explains, “Many people have been researching these comprehension strategies. Many people I highly respect say that the use of these comprehension strategies is the one proven factor in increasing students’ ability to comprehend. Many insist that what needs to be reported is not just dependent and independent variables-type of quantitative research, but qualitative research, as well, the kind that reports what is actually occurring in the classroom, so you can have a portrait of the children at work.” Queenan aims to provide just that—a portrait of urban children accompanied by detailed descriptions and valuable research findings.

Queenan remembers how difficult it was to get into a school and start collecting information, mostly because teachers are not very comfortable with having researchers in their classrooms. She used to do considerable work with the Connecticut’s Department of Education and eventually met a colleague who invited her into Striving Elementary School. Six years later she concludes, “I don’t want to leave.”