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The assessment of reading comprehension cognitive strategies: practices and perceptions of Western Australian teachers.

Context for the study

The study being reported here set out to investigate how teachers of 10- to 12-year-old children (Years 5 to 7 in WA) teach and assess reading comprehension cognitive strategies (RCCS) and how confident they feel about their teaching and assessment practices in this important area. Although the study primarily aimed to find out about assessment practices, it was also necessary to ask about teaching, since the two are inextricably linked. In this article, the emphasis is on the participating teachers' perceptions and self-reported practices in the assessment of RCCS.

For the purposes of the present study, reading comprehension is defined as 'the ability to derive meaning from text' (Rathvon, 2004, p. 156) and is deemed to be the ultimate aim of most reading activity. Some 30 years ago, Durkin (1978) found that comprehension was rarely taught explicitly, if at all, in classrooms. Since then, researchers have put considerable effort into investigating how reading comprehension processes and strategies might be taught, and research evidence indicates that the teaching and learning of cognitive strategies is highly beneficial in improving reading outcomes (e.g. Pressley, 2000). In recent years, the importance of cognitive and metacognitive comprehension processes and strategies has been foregrounded (Block, Rodgers & Johnson, 2004), with the US National Reading Panel (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000) acknowledging their centrality by conceptualising reading as an active process that is directed by intentional thinking. According to this view, readers need to make meaningful connections between their thinking processes, the text, and their own prior knowledge. Thus, in order to comprehend texts efficiently, they need to not only be able to identify the words (graphophonic skills and sight word knowledge), have knowledge of grammar and syntax, have an appropriately developed spoken vocabulary, knowledge of text structures, and some relevant background knowledge to bring to the text, but they also need to be able to choose, use and evaluate a range of RCCS, such as inferring, creating mental imagery, self-monitoring for meaning, clarifying, summarising and predicting (Duke & Pearson, 2002; Irwin, 1991; Keene & Zimmerman, 2007; Palincsar & Brown, 1984; Pressley, 1999, 2002; Williams, 2002; Zimmerman & Keene, 1997). These strategies are essentially ways of thinking, and their effective use involves metacognition, or the ability to think about thinking. Much is now known about teaching RCCS, although it has been suggested that research findings have not necessarily been successfully transferred to classroom teaching contexts (Allen & Hancock, 2008).

The importance of readers' ability to select and use RCCS has, in recent years, been recognised through its inclusion in literacy curricula, both in Australia and internationally. For example, in WA, teachers must teach a 'processes and strategies' aspect in reading (Curriculum Council, 1998), and the Draft National Curriculum (English) (ACARA, 2010) includes comprehension strategies as essential areas of achievement. Clearly, in order to effectively teach these strategies, teachers need to be able to assess them, since it is impossible to target teaching without good assessment data (assessment for learning). However, because RCCS are not directly observable, they can be difficult to assess. Often the teacher can only infer the cognitive processes being used by children through the analysis of comprehension products or representations, such as written work, role plays, conversation, and so on. In other words, students' thinking somehow needs to be made tangible or visible so that teachers can attempt to assess it. Unfortunately, there is relatively little direction available in the literature on how teachers might best assess RCCS in real classroom contexts.

What does the literature say?

The literature indicates that reading comprehension assessment needs to involve more than comprehension-check questions as in standardised testing, since such assessments will not provide a teacher with a full continuum of a student's comprehension capabilities and areas of need, and will thus fail to inform instruction (Fiene & McMahon, 2007; Wade, 1990; Oakley & Barratt-Pugh, 2007). On the other hand, effective ongoing classroom-based assessment can result in a series of assessments that show progress over a period of time and over multiple contexts as opposed to a snapshot on a particular day. This type of assessment is more likely to allow teachers insights into the processes or strategies that children use to make and check meaning.

As noted above, finding effective ways to assess children's RCCS can be a difficult and frustrating task for teachers (Israel, Bauserman, & Block, 2005). Yet it is essential to attempt do so in order to inform instruction and provide useful feedback to children. Sometimes children can misuse strategies, for example by making images and inferences that are tangential to the text (Block & Pressley, 2007), and it is important for teachers to find out if this is happening in order to remedy it.

In teaching and assessing RCCS, it is necessary to also teach and assess metacognition, as this is what enables children to choose and evaluate appropriate cognitive processes. Almasi (2004) summarises that children need to learn declarative, procedural and conditional knowledge about comprehension strategies, and all three categories of knowledge need to be assessed. Declarative knowledge is essentially what knowledge, or knowledge about the strategy and what it is. Procedural knowledge concerns how to carry out the strategy, and declarative knowledge concerns when and why to use the strategy, and this involves a high degree of metacognition.

The literature on the subject, which is still somewhat limited, describes several techniques for assessing RCCS, including questioning, think alouds, interviews and surveys, and analysis of artefacts. These approaches will now be briefly outlined and critiqued. Questioning has always been a popular means of assessing comprehension, and this can be used effectively to probe children's RCCS. For example, a set of questions designed by Keene (2006, p. 55) to assess making connections includes: 'When you read (or listened) to the text, did it remind you of anything you know about and believe? What? Why did it remind you of that? ... Did it remind you of any experiences or things that have happened before?'

Questions designed for this purpose need to focus on the child's thinking, and not on the text and its contents. Questions can be presented either orally or in writing, although it should be remembered that for young children or those who have difficulties in literacy, questions that require written answers are not the optimal assessment type since responses will be limited by the level of children's writing ability.

Verbalised thinking or 'thinking aloud' can provide highly valuable information about a child's cognitive processes and may allow insight to the reasoning underpinning cognitive behaviours (Wade, 1990). Think alouds require the child to say aloud what comes to mind as she or he reads a text (or has a text read aloud to them). In order for children to be able to do this effectively, though, they need to have witnessed teachers thinking aloud during comprehension instruction on many occasions; the importance of teacher modelling cannot be emphasised enough. To facilitate think alouds, such devices as 'Stop and Think Cards' (Annandale et al., 2004b) or stickers making 'thinking suggestions' can be inserted in pre-selected places in the text. Students can also use sticky notes to record their thoughts as they progress through texts (Fiene & McMahon, 2007). However, think alouds do have limitations in that readers may not be fully aware of what they are thinking. Furthermore, some children may find it very difficult to articulate their thinking.

The literature indicates that the interview can be a highly effective means of assessing the thinking children do when attempting to construct meanings of texts. It is suggested that Reflective Metacognitive Interviews may be useful, although there are obviously limitations in that people (and children especially) cannot possibly be fully aware of all of their thinking (e.g. Nisbett & Wilson, 1977), as noted above. Reflective Metacognitive Interviews can be designed by teachers and their aim is to encourage children to describe how they read a text and why they did it that way. They assess declarative, procedural and conditional knowledge (Almasi, 2004). As well as interviews, there are several surveys and inventories available to assist teachers in assessing children's cognitive and metacognitive processes in reading. Schmidt (1990) designed a Meta-comprehension Strategy Index during the 1990s, which is a self reporting instrument that asks students about strategies they might use before, during and after reading a narrative text. This assessment is multiple-choice in format and assesses students' meta-comprehension actions, broadly categorised into predicting/verifying, previewing, purpose, self questioning, drawing from background knowledge and summarising/ fix up knowledge. It should be noted that self-reporting instruments, although valuable in that they encourage students to think about their thinking, are limited in that children may not accurately report their thinking. The Reading Strategy Awareness interview (Miholic, 1994) is another multiple choice survey that probes children's self-monitoring and awareness of reading strategies.

Another potentially useful inventory that aims to increase children's metacognitive awareness and strategy use during reading is the Metacognitive Awareness of Reading Strategies Inventory (MARSI) (Mokhtari & Reichard, 2002). This inventory was designed for use with students in Grades 6 to 12 and focuses on the transference of responsibility for monitoring meaning from the teacher to the student, increasing student awareness of strategy use and providing teachers with a means of assessing, monitoring and documenting the type and number of reading strategies used by students. Because it includes statements such as: 'I stop from time to time to think about what I'm reading', the MARSI is a form of self-assessment. Answers are on a 1-5 scale with 1 being 'I almost never do this'. Self-assessments can be powerful means of assessment as they help children think about areas that they might need to improve on (in other words, they are educative), and can be motivational in that they encourage ownership and a feeling of control. Obviously, limitations are as for self-reports.

Several researchers have developed rubrics to guide assessment of RCCS. Keene (2006, p. 63) has devised a series of rubrics to guide teachers in observing and recording comprehension thinking strategies. These rubrics comprise statements such as: '[Asks] no questions and/or poses irrelevant questions; poses literal question(s) that relate to the text; poses questions that clarify meaning'. Another relevant rubric is the IRIS (Rogers et al., 2006), which can assist teachers in assessing upper primary school children's RCCS, specifically their ability to make connections, synthesise, monitor for meaning, actively construct meaning through predicting, hypothesising and questioning, and engaging with the text through such activities as visualising. This rubric employs a four point scale, ranging from 'not yet meeting expectations' to 'exceeding expectations'. A set of interview questions is also provided to help teachers find out what children say about their strategy use. It should be noted that rubrics pre-suppose that teachers have effective methods for collecting relevant data about children's strategy use.

Miscue analysis, which has been in use in classrooms for many years, can provide some useful insights about what occurs during reading, confirm children's use of strategies, indicate self correcting behaviours, and indicate whether a child is monitoring their comprehension (Israel et al., 2005). Running records (Clay, 2002) can serve the same purpose and are thus of some value.

Finally, teachers may analyse written products or artefacts that represent children's thinking. For example, in assessing visualisation or making mental imagery it is possible to analyse children's drawing or 3D models, or even dramatic role play or tableaux. To evaluate summarisation, a written or oral summary might be analysed. To assess questioning, the teacher might look at sticky notes (in situ) that students have attached to texts, showing the questions they asked. Discussion with children about their representations will enhance such assessment.

To conclude the review of the literature, it appears that whilst research on the teaching of RCCS is fairly robust, research on its effective assessment has not been vigorous or particularly coherent. As outlined above, some work has in recent years been conducted on assessment, especially in the development of assessment instruments and techniques; however, little research about how teachers use these techniques in their classrooms, and the usefulness of these strategies, has been conducted.


The present study utilised survey research followed by semi-structured interviews. Government, Independent and Catholic schools in WA were sent letters and then emails inviting them to participate in the research. A live link to an online survey was provided. Schools requesting hard copy surveys were sent them. School principals who gave consent for their school to participate in the survey then forwarded the link to Year 5, 6 and 7 teachers. To encourage a good response, research assistants preceded and followed up the email with telephone calls to principals, where possible. Ninety three teachers completed the survey from schools in all sectors, from both metropolitan and country areas of WA.

The survey enquired about teachers' procedures for teaching and assessing RCCS. Although assessment was the primary focus, teaching also needed to be investigated since teaching and assessment are inextricably linked. Other information collected through the survey included demographic details such as: the teacher's qualifications, number of years of teaching, gender, and professional development received in RCCS instruction and assessment. In addition, information relating to teachers' confidence in teaching and assessing RCCS was collected using Likert scales (see Appendix 1 for summary of survey questions).

The second phase of the research involved eight semi-structured interviews of approximately one hour each, to collect qualitative data about the assessment of RCCS strategies. The interviewees were asked to describe their assessment practices and articulate their reasons for using them. They were also asked for perceived limitations of the techniques and what kinds of professional development they thought they required. These qualitative data were analysed using Miles and Huberman's (1984) content analysis techniques. The current article mainly discusses the survey data, although some interview data are used for clarification purposes.


The survey respondents were teachers in both Government and Independent (including Catholic) schools. Seventy two percent were female and 28% were male. Respondents had been teachers for varying lengths of time, ranging from less than five years (34%) to veteran teachers of more than 31 years or more in the teaching profession (14%).

Findings and discussion

In terms of teaching RCCS, most of the respondents reported that were reasonably confident and that they taught a variety of strategies. However, they were less likely to teach visualisation (making mental images) as a strategy and even less likely to teach the metacognitive skill of monitoring meaning. In terms of assessment, many teachers reported a lack of confidence, as will be elaborated below.

The teaching of RCCS

Overall, 90% of the teachers indicated that they teach children how make inferences. With regards to making connections, 78.5% overall claimed to teach this. Ninety four percent reported that they teach summarising, whilst 90% indicated that they teach children how to ask questions of the text. However, only 53% percent reported that they teach children how to visualise when reading texts.

Cross-tabulation of the data showed that there were some interesting differences in practices reported by teachers with different levels of experience. Forty eight percent of teachers who graduated within the last 10 years stated that they teach visualising, as opposed to only 26% of the more experienced teachers. In terms of teaching metacognitive strategies, 39.5 % overall reported that they teach self monitoring for meaning. However, more than twice as many of the teachers who had graduated in the last ten years claimed that they taught self monitoring than did the more experienced teachers, with 50% of the former stating that they teach self-monitoring for meaning, as opposed to only 25% of the latter. Some teachers reported that they did not teach any RCCS whatsoever, with one teacher who had between 11 and 15 years teaching experience writing: 'I don't know enough about it to teach it.' According to this study, teachers who graduated more than ten years ago appear to require some professional learning opportunities in this area to increase the range of RCCS being taught by all teachers.


Confidence in teaching RCCS

Only 26% of the respondents felt 'very' confident about their ability to teach RCCS, with 11% overall stating that they were 'not very' confident. A very large 33% of new graduates (with 2 years or less in teaching) stated that they were 'not very' confident. The rest (63%) of the respondents were a lukewarm 'fairly' confident. It appears that confidence in teaching RCCS may increase somewhat with experience.

Procedures used to assess RCCS

When asked to list and briefly describe the procedures they used to assess comprehension processes and strategies, respondents reported using a variety of techniques. Clearly, participants may not have mentioned all of the techniques they used but it is reasonable to suppose that those mentioned would be the most salient in their view. There was a heavy emphasis on the collection and analysis of children's written work and concrete artefacts, although several teachers mentioned the analysis of drawings and role play as part of their repertoire. The analysis of children's work may be seen as a focus on the product of comprehension as opposed to cognitive processes and strategies. Limited diagnostic data would be available from this to help teachers target teaching for those children needing further instruction in specific areas. In reporting the procedures used to assess RCCS, none of the participants mentioned think alouds and only one person mentioned the use of specific interviews and inventories.

Seventeen percent of the teachers surveyed indicated that they used questioning to assess RCCS. However, almost all of these teachers mentioned questioning the comprehension product rather than the process, using the three-level questioning technique. One teacher wrote: 'I assess the product rather than what children are doing when they are reading.' In an interview, another said that she focuses very much on assessing literal comprehension (products), mainly through oral and written questioning.

Discussion was another assessment technique mentioned frequently in the survey responses, although it is acknowledged that this survey did not deeply interrogate the ways in which discussion is used to assess RCCS. One teacher stated that during discussion she would 'ask the kids to describe how they might use ... or have used ... a specific strategy to understand the text at hand'. This would then be discussed either with the teacher or peers. If used appropriately, as by this participant, discussion can be a highly effective means of assessing processes.

In the survey, there were three references to self-assessment, three to peer assessment, one reference to rubrics and eleven to observation of children during classroom activities. One teacher mentioned observation during Reciprocal Teaching (RT) (Palincsar & Brown, 1984), which would have been highly focussed on the children's use of RCCS. The RT strategy focuses on teaching children how to predict, question, clarify and summarise the texts that they read, and this is done in small group contexts and involves a good deal of discussion. Teachers can either listen in to children's discussion about their thinking or can ask them to write brief notes about their thinking.

Many teachers mentioned formal comprehension tests such as: the Australian National Assessment Program--Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), which is composed of short texts in the form of a magazine and multiple choice questions; the Tests of Reading Comprehension (TORCH), which is a standardised cloze test (Mossenson, Hill, & Masters, 2003); and the Progressive Achievement Tests in Reading (PAT-R) (ACER, 2008), which is comprised of short texts and multiple choice questions. None of these assessments would be highly useful in assessing processes, as the comprehension product is the focus of these tests. Other teachers relied heavily on commercial schemes with their associated worksheets. Many of the assessment methods mentioned in the survey were probably not highly effective in assessing the comprehension processes used by students. This suggests that teachers may need guidance in choosing appropriate strategies. A framework such as the one used by Magliano and colleagues (Palincsar et al., 2007), might be useful in encouraging teachers to choose assessments on the basis of text characteristics, the assessment goal (e.g. process or products), the reader and the reading task. Barratt-Pugh and Oakley (2007) have also suggested that teachers use clear criteria in selecting assessment procedures. In order to use such frameworks appropriately, teachers need a very deep understanding of how children learn how to read, specifically how they learn RCCS. It is not sufficient in teaching and assessing RCCS to simply know a set of strategies and procedures; research shows that teachers need to understand the principles underlying the practices (Palincsar et al, 2007).

Confidence in assessing RCCS

As shown in Figure 2, the majority of the teachers surveyed reported that they felt 'fairly confident' about their ability to assess comprehension, with teachers who had the most experience generally tending to feel the most confident, along with those who had participated in what they saw as relevant professional development.


However, 6% of new graduates (less than two years teaching experience) indicated that they were 'not at all' confident, and another 44% stated they were 'not very' confident. It is a great concern that half of new teachers did not feel confident in this area, although it is not possible to say whether their degree of confidence was related to their level of competence. Twenty three percent of teachers with three to five years experience and 27% with six to ten years experience were 'not very' confident. Approximately a quarter of more experienced teachers, thus, were fairly low in confidence, and this is also a concern. It would be advantageous to help all teachers feel 'very' confident in this area of their work since feeling less than confident can be stressful for teachers and may, indeed, be indicative that their practices are not optimal.

In-service professional development in assessing RCCS

Fifty three percent of the teachers indicated that they had received some professional development (PD), or professional learning, in assessing RCCS and, as might be expected, those who had received some in-service training tended to feel more confident about their ability to assess children's reading in this area (Figure 3).


Most respondents stated First Steps (e.g. Annandale et al, 2004a; Annandale et al, 2004b) as the professional development received, with 58% of government teachers mentioning this. First Steps is a series of resources that views literacy learning as a developmental process which occurs within a socio-cultural context. In terms of assessment of cognitive strategies, the First Steps Reading Map of Development (Annandale et al, 2004a) outlines a variety of useful strategies, such as encouraging children to discuss and/or write down their self-assessments and reflections regarding their use of strategies, and the use of think alouds as a means of encouraging children to articulate their thoughts before, during and after reading. A few respondents also mentioned receiving professional development in 'Making Consistent Judgements', which is a WA Department of Education package that encourages teachers to use exemplars and guidelines to help them make consistent judgements. The focus here is on products, not processes.

Although teachers who had received in-service professional development tended to be more confident, some found the offerings to be of little value: 'I found that most of the information was just rehashing old information.' It is also interesting that teachers did not always appear to apply the contents of PD, such as the stop and think cards and think alouds described in First Steps.

Concluding comments

The majority of teachers surveyed report that they are attempting to teach RCCS, although fewer teach visualising or making mental imagery and less than 40% claim to teach the metacognitive skill of self-monitoring for meaning. Although teachers say that they teach RCCS, they are not always confident in this area.

In terms of the assessment of RCCS, this study indicates that many teachers lack confidence and feel inadequately prepared. Confidence, perhaps not surprisingly, appears to be linked to years of experience and to professional development received. It is not clear, however, whether some of the confidence felt by more experienced teachers may be misplaced since some who felt confident had learnt informally, though experience, and not through formal teacher education or professional development. Also, many of the more experienced teachers taught a narrower range of cognitive strategies, which might simplify assessment requirements. This is an area that requires further investigation.

Qualitative responses indicate that there was a heavy reliance on the analysis of comprehension products in order to infer effective processes. Teachers reported that when they used questioning, they often used it to probe comprehension products rather than the RCCS. According to the literature, this is not likely to be the most effective means of assessing this important area of learning. The present study suggests that there may be a need for more, or qualitatively different, professional development to assist teachers in WA effectively assess RCCS. Since assessment of these cognitive strategies seems to be a relatively under-researched and under-discussed area, it may well be the case that the assessment of RCCS needs to be upgraded outside WA also.

Before concluding, it is necessary to discuss the potential limitations of the study. One limitation stems from the fact that only 93 surveys were collected and that participating schools were self-selected in that principals acted as 'gatekeepers' in deciding whether surveys would be presented to teachers or not. Although teachers of all levels of experience were represented, it is likely that 'early career' teachers (with less than five years experience) were over-represented in the sample. On average, Australian primary school teachers have 17 years teaching experience, with 17% being 'early career' teachers of less than 5 years experience. In this study, 34% [degrees] had less than five years experience. It is likely that the number of early career teachers in WA is higher than the national average of 17% because of the unique economic circumstances of this state and the high mobility of the workforce, but accurate statistics were not available at the time of writing.

Another limitation is that the research relied on self-report data. For a number of reasons, there may be cases where self-reports are not fully accurate. Also, a few of the open ended questions yielded somewhat brief responses that were difficult to interpret. For example, many respondents wrote that they used 'observation' as a means of assessing children's comprehension strategies but sometimes did not indicate what it was they observed. This could be an indication that some teachers do not differentiate between data and the data collection method, which is a fairly common assessment error. The limitation just mentioned was to some extent ameliorated by the use of follow up interviews for eight of the respondents.

In conclusion, it can be argued that this study does provide some legitimate insight into what teachers in WA are thinking, feeling and doing in the teaching and assessment of RCCS. It also appears to alert us to the possibility that many teachers would benefit from additional or different professional learning and support. In addition, the study reveals a need for further investigation into several aspects of the assessment of RCCS, perhaps most urgently research on 'what works' for teachers who show exemplary teaching and assessment practices in this area.

Appendix 1


About you

1. How many years have you been a Primary School Teacher?

0-2 [] 3-5 [] 6-10 [] 11-15 [] 16-20 [] 20-25 [] 25-30 [] 30+ []

2. Which year level do you currently teach?--(Yrs 5--7)

3. How long have you taught this year level?--years

4. What qualification do you hold?

Bachelor of Education [] Graduate Diploma [] Diploma in Teaching [] Other []

Post-Graduate [] Name of post-graduate qualification: --

5. Gender: Male [] Female []

About your teaching of reading comprehension

6. Which comprehension processes do you teach the children in your class? (Tick boxes)

Visualising/Mental Images [] Summarising [] Other []

Inferring [] Questioning []

Making connections [] Predicting []

Self monitoring [] Clarifying []

7. For the comprehension processes that you teach, please list and/or briefly describe the teaching and learning strategies that you employ.

Visualising/Making mental images:

*Expanding text boxes were also provided for: Predicting, inferring, making connections, self monitoring, summarising, questioning, clarifying, other.

8. Please briefly describe the procedures that you use to assess the comprehension processes that you teach. Visualising/Making mental images:

*Expanding text boxes were also provided for: Predicting, inferring, making connections, self monitoring, summarising, questioning, clarifying, other.

9. How well do you think your initial teacher training prepared you for teaching comprehension processes?

Very well [] Well [] Adequately [] Poorly [] Not at all []

10. How well do you think your initial teacher training prepared you for assessing comprehension processes?

Very well [] Well [] Adequately [] Poorly [] Not at all []

11. What professional development in this area have you had, if any?

12. How well has in-service professional development prepared you for teaching comprehension processes?

Very well [] Well [] Adequately [] Poorly [] Not at all []

13. How well has in-service professional development prepared you for assessing comprehension processes?

Very well [] Well [] Adequately [] Poorly [] Not at all []

14. How confident do you feel about your ability to teach comprehension processes?

Very confident ? Fairly Confident ? Not very confident ? Not at all confident ?

15. How confident do you feel about your ability to assess comprehension processes?

Very confident [] Fairly Confident [] Not very confident [] Not at all confident []

16. Please add any other comments that you may have about the teaching and assessment of comprehension processes.


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Grace Oakley

Graduate School of Education, University of Western Australia
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Author:Oakley, Grace
Publication:Australian Journal of Language and Literacy
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Oct 1, 2011
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