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Everybody can become a better a reader

15 November 2011 University of Gothenburg

Students with cognitive impairments may learn to comprehend written texts much better than commonly thought, according to Monica Reichenberg and Ingvar Lundberg, reading researchers and professors at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

‘Traditionally, we have been hesitant to challenge these students. It’s like we haven’t dared to expose them to certain things. As a result, we haven’t given them a chance to show what they are able to do. Our research project found that their potential for development is much larger than previously believed. It is therefore important that we dare to challenge the students in their nearest development zone,’ says Professor Monica Reichenberg, Department of Education and Special Education at the University of Gothenburg.
The Swedish Schools Inspectorate, Skolinspektionen, published a report in 2010 that showed that many särskolor, which are schools that provide compulsory schooling to children with intellectual disabilities, tend to prioritise a caring climate and a good emotional environment at the expense of reading comprehension training. 

A matter of participation

‘Fictional texts have typically been used in this context, but we wanted to focus on factual texts from for example newspapers. We thought this would give the kids a useful tool – well, it’s actually a matter of participation and democracy,’ says Ingvar Lundberg, Professor Emeritus in Psychology and tied to the University of Gothenburg.
The project, which included 40 students in grades 7-9 and lasted for eight weeks, focused on reading of factual texts, often from 8 SIDOR – a newspaper in easy-to-read Swedish. The reading was followed up with structured conversations about the texts where Reichenberg and the teachers focused on ‘why’ questions. The purpose of the conversations was to enable the students to understand and reflect upon the content of the articles. 

Structured teaching

There were a total of 82 text talks performed in small groups to ensure that each student was included. It turned out that the students were surprisingly successful at comprehending the texts.
‘Everybody can learn how to read between the lines and make reflections, but it requires well-structured teaching,’ says Reichenberg.
The more discussions the students participated in, the more active they became. They for example started to ask more questions. The reading and talking also developed their skills. The project included pre- and post-testing of the students’ reading skills, and most of them performed significantly better at the end of the period.
The project was funded by the National Agency for Special Needs Education and Schools.

The research project is presented in detail in the new book Läsförståelse genom strukturerade textsamtal (in Swedish) published by Natur & Kultur. The book is designed to be a teaching aid, and targets special needs teachers in particular.

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