Harvard Educational Review
  1. In a Reading State of Mind

    Brain Research, Teacher Modeling, and Comprehension Instruction

    by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Diane Lapp

    Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2009. 160 pp. $24.95

    In their book In a Reading State of Mind, Fisher, Frey, and Lapp attempt the complex task of exploring how the neuroscience of reading connects to a robust model of reading comprehension instruction. They argue, convincingly and in language appropriate for practitioners unfamiliar with neuroscience, that studies of brain function and memory indicate that aspects of well-known instructional practices based on teacher modeling of reading activities facilitate student learning and advanced reading proficiency. They also argue that scaffolding—providing students with support that decreases over time—is necessary because of the way that the brain operates when learning new information. They operationalize recommended instructional practices using vivid examples and helpful illustrations of classroom scenarios.

    The authors first define modeling and explore why this instructional practice is effective for teaching reading. Modeling is often defined simplistically as a teachers’ demonstration of a skill to students. Yet, the authors present a more complex definition. They advocate for building teaching practice on three distinct stages: teacher mimicry or teacher demonstration, oral language and discussion (which involves collaboration between teacher and student), and transformational talk or writing through which students can develop independence in using their newly acquired skill. This stage model mirrors the well-known “gradual release of responsibility” model, wherein during activities teachers gradually relinquish the cognitive load of using a particular skill to students over time. The authors then explore how this instructional practice suits the way the brain functions.

    A great strength of these introductory three chapters is their clarity. Though the authors present many theoretical ideas that make the book conceptually quite dense, they clarify new concepts with examples, analogies, and illustrations. For example, to examine how the brain stores information in hierarchical representations, the authors use the analogy of an organized closet, wherein similar items are stored together, to explain how background knowledge is organized, refined, and then used in the act of comprehending text. Without relying on neuroscience jargon, the authors present brain research in a manner that is understandable and readily applicable to the work of a classroom teacher, who must understand his or her diverse students’ reading development. The authors even make a case for how motivation helps prepare brains to acquire new knowledge, providing a strong argument for why engaging texts and activities build student understanding.

    In the remainder of the book, the authors address textual mechanisms that support reading, including vocabulary, text structures (such as cause/effect or problem/solution), and text features (such as charts, captions, subheadings, or indexes). The chapter on vocabulary discusses word storage in the brain and retrieval for use. The authors then connect the brain’s storage of information to the classroom practices they recommend for a strong vocabulary program. Much has been said about vocabulary instructional strategies, but the authors provide new understanding for practitioners by exploring strategies connected to modeling. For instance, they provide useful new ways of modeling outside-the-word strategies for using context clues to ascertain meaning from a sentence. Practitioners might be familiar with teaching about how to use context clues, but the authors divide this typical strategy into four categories, making the context clue strategy more precise and useful.

    Throughout the book, muddy and difficult concepts are similarly parsed into usable components for instructing readers. The authors accompany these concepts with lists of practitioner-friendly ideas that can support teachers who attempt to model each of the skills discussed. Occasionally, the lists of examples drift into extreme detail and away from theories of brain information storage, but the examples are generally useful and compelling. Although many of the instructional strategies presented will be familiar to readers, the book makes a unique contribution by connecting how the brain operates with deep explorations of these instructional strategies.

    The book includes a CD-ROM containing classroom videos that illustrate modeling, and the final chapter contains brief synopses and discussion questions to accompany each clip. The samples are ripe for generating conversation, and they demonstrate elements of the modeling strategies described in the book.

    Fisher, Frey, and Lapp connect brain function to modeling in new ways. They apply these large ideas to day-to-day classroom practices that practitioners can implement. By connecting neuroscience research to a theory of modeling as an instructional best practice for reading comprehension, the authors have created a volume that actually does what many claim to do: connect research to classroom instruction in a manner that is sensible and usable by practitioners.
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    The Editors

    Book Notes

    So Much Reform, So Little Change
    by Charles M. Payne

    Corridor Cultures
    by Maryann Dickar

    In a Reading State of Mind
    by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Diane Lapp