Teachers prize students’ ability to comprehend what has been read, but how we lead students to greater comprehension gains is a matter of debate. The RAND Reading Group (2002) stated that comprehension is “the process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language” (Pardo, 2004). Most teachers use comprehension questions to both aid students’ understanding of a text as well as assess their recall. These comprehension questions are the traditional method for both teaching and assessing reading comprehension. This teaching method involves students answering who, what, when, where, and how questions posed by the teacher. Educational research during the 1980’s and 1990’s recommended retelling as a comprehension-fostering instructional strategy. A retelling is a post-reading or post-listening recall in which the reader or listener retells in their own words what they remember from reading or listening to a text. Retelling can be oral or written, and it can be used to assess or develop comprehension. If one of the goals of literary instruction is reading comprehension, then is it best to spend time utilizing retelling or traditional comprehension instructional methods?
Retelling is a powerful comprehension strategy because it is social in nature. Morrow, Rand, and Young (1997) found that students achieved significantly higher on both tests of reading comprehension and story retelling after participating in a social cooperative literacy program. McKeown, Beck, and Blake (2009) uncovered that teachers who focused on content instruction (such as retellings) led to students discussing the text for a greater amount of time and achieving higher reading comprehension scores compared to that of instructors who taught comprehension strategies. Goodman (1982) explains that retelling after reading leads to greater comprehension because students engage in rehearsing the structure and content of the text.
The research suggests that retellings is a comprehension-fostering activity. Schisher, Joseph, Konrad, and Alber-Morgan (2010) designed a study to compare the instructional effectiveness and efficiency of oral retelling, written retelling, and passage review comprehension strategies on students’ ability to accurately answer reading comprehension questions. Schisher et al. (2010) found that the students’ accuracy in answering questions was better under both retelling conditions (written and oral) than that of passage review conditions. Johnson (2008) conducted her research in a middle school setting, and uncovered that the effect of retelling was greater than that of traditional comprehension methods on reading comprehension performance. Strickland and Morrow (2000) explain that retelling is an effective comprehension strategy because students use their prior knowledge of a story and information structures for remembering the text. Retelling also helps students focus on the main ideas, supporting details, and order of events.
One theme throughout the research is that all students can benefit from retelling. Students may have varying reading proficiency, social economic status, and learning abilities, but all can retell, gaining from the literacy experience. Moss (1993) explains that children of varying ability groups in kindergarten through fifth grade are capable of retelling. Johnson (2008) found that both proficient and less-proficient readers benefitted from the substitution of retelling for traditional reading comprehension instruction. The findings of Gambrell, Koskinen, and Kapinus (1991) are congruent with that of Johnson in that both proficient and less-proficient readers increase their comprehension achievement merely through the act of retelling. Gambrell et al. (1991) also noted that the quantity and quality of the retellings from both proficient and less-proficient readers improved over time. Reed, Vaughn, and Petscher (2012) discovered that students classified as economically disadvantaged, bilinguals, ELLs, and special education students achieved comparable scores on retelling assessments to students in and out of these categorical groups. Interestingly, these students in the above named subgroups performed significantly worse compared to peers on the standard measure of comprehension (Reed et al., 2012). Furthermore, Kuldanek (1998) performed a study with learning-disabled students that used retelling techniques to foster reading comprehension and found it to be a successful strategy for this specific category of students.
The current retelling research demonstrates that practice in retelling coupled with teacher guidance is key to fostering greater comprehension. Like mentioned previously, Gambrell, Koskinen, and Kapinus (1991) found that all the fourth grade students in their study benefited from retelling practice. Morrow (1985a, 1985b, 1986) demonstrated in three separate kindergarten classroom studies that frequent practice of story retellings with structural guidance dramatically improved reading comprehension achievement. Morrow recommends that teachers of early childhood students should allow time to retell. She explains that teachers should guide student retellings with prompts based on story structure, theme, plot episodes, and resolution.
The book Read and Retell, by Hazel Brown and Brian Cambourne, has been used by classroom teachers as a handbook for utilizing retelling as an instructional strategy. Brown and Cambourne noticed an enormous growth in the confidence of the young readers when approaching any tasks that involved reading, writing, and talking after using retelling. Children shared comments such as, “Retelling sessions help me read better and understand more” (Cambourne, 10). This child is affirming the reality that retelling builds comprehension. Retelling should be incorporated into existing literacy programs because it deepens students’ understanding and positively affects their comprehension capability.
If students can better comprehend what they are reading through retelling, then such a method should be utilized more in studying the Bible. The research regarding reading comprehension connects to the biblical principals of understanding and wisdom. Full comprehension of a text allows for deep understanding, which the Bible extols. Proverbs 16:16 (ESV) says, “How much better to get wisdom than gold! To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver.” Understanding is an inherent characteristic of wisdom, but wisdom also requires action. If greater comprehension of a text leads to understanding, and understanding leads to wisdom, then retelling is a way to teach our students the fear of the Lord. In this way, students can better absorb and put into action what they have read. As Christian educators, we seek that our students fully understand the Word of God so they may live out these precious truths. This type of wisdom should be our daily prayer for all our students as it seeks to glorify Christ in all of life. It all starts with comprehension of God’s Word.
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