By Véronique Parent, Anne Rodrigue, Carole Boudreau, Julie Myre-Bisaillon, Annick Tremblay-Bouchard
Several studies on high school students have examined strategies for improving reading comprehension. High school students are often required to learn course material by reading on their own and, in most cases, this material is in the form of expository texts.
Students with learning disabilities find expository texts more difficult to read than narrative texts. With expository texts, the structure varies; the text is very dense conceptually; and the text contains a great deal of unfamiliar vocabulary. Students with learning disabilities generally lack prior knowledge that would assist them with comprehension (Saenz and Fuchs, 2002). They are at a further disadvantage because of their lack of knowledge of, and ability to use, strategies to support comprehension (Jitendra et al. 2001).
Studies have shown that teaching reading strategies to students with learning disabilities improves comprehension (Gersten, Fuchs, Williams and Baker, 2001; Mastropieri, Scruggs andGraetz, 2003; Swanson, 1999). Studies have also shown that when students were taught strategies to identify the main ideas of a text (Graves et Levin, 1989), recognise the structure of a text (Bakken, Mastropieri and Scruggs, 1997), and summarize a text (Berkeley, Mastropieri and Scruggs, 2011), their performance improved. These studies also made it possible to identify winning practices for improving reading comprehension:
- Systematic and explicit instruction that incorporates modelling (thinking out loud), as well as guided and independent practice and providing students with explicit, corrective feedback;
- Clear objectives, following a specific teaching sequence;
- Explicit demonstration of the importance of using a strategy;
- Monitoring the progress of students;
- Encouraging students to engage in self-questioning;
- Encouraging students to attribute their results to their correct use of strategies;
- Teaching generalized use of a strategy.
Context of the Research
Berkeley and Riccomini (2013) tested an approach for improving the textbook reading comprehension of high school students. The researchers used a history textbook; however, they explained that this approach could easily be used with other subjects as well. QRAC-the-Code is an approach that teaches students to work like detectives, using different strategies to understand a text and to manage their reading comprehension.
Three hundred and nineteen students, 12 and 13 years of age, (288 regular students and 31 students with learning disabilities who were in special classes) took part in the study. They were divided into two groups: an experimental group (177 students, 21 of whom had learning disabilities) and a control group (421 students, 10 of whom had learning disabilities). The students in the experimental group had three lessons on the QRAC-the-Code approach. The students in the control group had no direct instruction on the content of the chapter being studied. The students were asked to read the chapter by themselves and to note three important points that they retained from their reading. The instructions were written on the board, as a form of visual support.
Description of the Approach
QRAC-the-Code consists of four main steps:
- Question: Students transform a subheading of a textbook section into a question.
- Read: Students then read the section and pause.
- Answer: Students ask themselves whether they can answer their question, based on the information they read. They circle Yes or No on a checklist. They answer their question if they can.
- Check: Students check the answer to their question in order to be sure that it is correct and that it is a good summary of the section they read. If they cannot answer their question, they use one of the fix-up strategies provided.
To support them in this process, students were given a checklist. This checklist included:
- The four main steps of the QRAC-the-Code approach,
- Examples for each of these steps, and
- Suggestions of fix-up strategies to be used if the student still didn’t understand the text.
Students were also given a sheet where they could write the question associated with the section or chapter before reading, and then circle whether or not they were able to answer the question after reading. If they circled Yes, they then read the following section or chapter and started all over again, with the first step. If they circled No, they used one or more of the fix-up strategies, which were presented to the students in the form of questions:
- Did you understand the vocabulary? Look at the definitions of words, particularly those in boldface.
- Are there clues in the characteristics of the text? Study the maps and figures.
- Do you know something else about this topic? Use your previous knowledge.
- Were you unable to find the answer to your question? Try to summarize the section!
- What is being talked about in this section?
- What happens in this section?
- Explain what this section is about in less than 2 sentences.
- Are you really stuck? Re-read the section and try again!
The follow-up sheets placed minimal demands on the students in terms of writing; this was to avoid distracting them from the main task at hand: comprehension.
The students learning the QRAC-the-Code strategy were taught three lessons over three days. The lessons were taught during 20 free minutes at the beginning of each history class. In the first lesson, students were introduced to:
- The goal of the approach (why),
- When it could be used (when), and
- How this approach could help them (how).
The teacher then did some modelling, thinking through the entire process out loud for a given chapter. The second lesson consisted of a review of the steps of the approach and guided practice of reading the chapter for the study (2/3 of the chapter), followed by individual feedback on the student’s ability to develop his/her own questions, as he/she learned to do in Step 1. The third lesson consisted of a review of the steps of the approach, the students’ reading to the end of the chapter for the study on their own, followed by individual feedback to encourage the students to use the approach.
Supports for the Efficacy of the Approach
All of the students who took part in the study were assessed one day before and one day after the study. The measurements that were used were a content test designed by the researchers to evaluate the students’ retention of the information they had read in the chapter (multiple choice questions and open-ended questions based on the subheadings) and a survey of the strategies that the students had used to recall the information they had read. According to the retention test, regardless of whether they had reading disabilities or not, the students in the experimental group had better results after the intervention than the students in the control group. In terms of their use of the approach, 64% of the students in the experimental group reported that it had helped them to recall the information in the chapter. Of these students, seven were able to state one or more of the fix-up strategies. By contrast, a limited percentage of students in the control group (12%) reported that note-taking had helped them to recall the information they had read. In addition, the survey results indicate that, before the intervention, 68% of the students used one or more strategies to help them to remember the information they had read; after the intervention, 75% used strategies. Thus, this approach is conducive to the use of various strategies for retaining information and supports better reading comprehension for a greater number of students.
To sum up, the results indicate that students with learning disabilities are able to use the QRAC-the-Code approach and that this approach increases their reading comprehension. Specifically, the results indicate that students who learned to use the approach improved their understanding of the content they read, compared to students who only read the text and took notes. In spite of the brief period of instruction on the approach, the students in the experimental group identified more strategies that helped them to retain the information they read than the students in the control group and they reported that the approach helped with their recall of the content.
According to the authors, this approach is easy to use because it is simple and can be taught in a brief amount of time. It can be integrated into learning support models such as the step-by-step approach
(Vaughn et al., 2007). For example, the QRAC-the-Code approach can be taught first to the entire group/class. It can then be reviewed with students with learning disabilities, as a way of providing them with additional opportunities for guided practice and independent practice. This approach can also be used as a framework or foundation for comprehension tasks in every subject, by teaching students to be aware of the strategies they use to improve comprehension. In addition, the fix-it strategies included in the QRAC-the-Code approach can easily be adapted, based on the needs associated with different subjects.
This study does have some limitations however. First, the students learned to use the approach with a history textbook. This does not make it possible to infer generalization of the approach in other subjects, especially if the text does not have the same goal (e.g., the acquisition of knowledge). Second, the study results do not make it possible to determine or predict whether students with learning disabilities are able to maintain the knowledge they acquire.
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Berkeley, S., Mastropieri, M. A., & Scruggs, T. E. (2011). Reading comprehension strategy instruction and attribution retraining for secondary students with learning and other mild disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 44(1), 18-32.
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Julie Myre-Bisaillon is a full professor at the Département des études sur l’adaptation scolaire et sociale (Department of Academic and Social Accommodation Studies) in the Faculty of Education at the University of Sherbrooke. She is in charge of the Collectif de recherche sur la continuité des apprentissages en lecture et en écriture (CLÉ) (Research Group on the Continuity of Learning to Read and Write), a research team with roughly twenty members. Her research interests focus on teaching accommodation for special education students, using by-project approaches based on children’s literature from a multidisciplinary perspective, and on reading and writing awareness in disadvantaged areas. She has also taught at the high school level and performed remedial work.
Carole Boudreau teaches at the Département d’études sur l’adaptation scolaire et sociale (Department of Academic and Social Accommodation Studies) at the University of Sherbrooke. Before accepting this position, she worked as a remedial teacher in the school environment, as a guidance teacher specialized in hearing impairment and as a project officer for the Quebec Ministry of Education’s Direction de l’adaptation scolaire (Academic Accommodation Branch). Her research interests focus on reading and writing difficulties as well as remedial instruction. She is a member of the Collectif de recherche sur la continuité des apprentissages en lecture et en écriture (CLÉ) (Research Group on the Continuity of Learning to Read and Write).
Véronique Parent is a psychologist and professor at the Département de psychologie (Department of Psychology) at the University of Sherbrooke. Her research interests focus on cognitive disorders related to learning disabilities and accommodation. She is also interested in using novel intervention approaches in school environments, such as the use of cognitive training programs, to promote the development of special education students’ learning potential. She is a member of the Collectif de recherche sur la continuité des apprentissages en lecture et en écriture (CLÉ) (Research Group on the Continuity of Learning to Read and Write).
Anne Rodrigue is a Ph.D. student in the Département des études sur l’adaptation scolaire et sociale (Department of Academic and Social Accommodation Studies) at the University of Sherbrooke. She was trained as a remedial teacher and for over 10 years has been dividing her time between research at the University and practice in schools.
Annick Tremblay-Bouchard is a Masters student in Education Science focusing on academic accommodation at the University of Sherbrooke. Trained as a primary school teacher, she specializes in students with hearing disabilities.