Making sense of school: an ecological examination of students' definitions of reading tasks

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


What students do as they work to complete academic tasks will determine what they learn from those tasks, Teachers often receive unexpected responses on completed tasks, indicating that the students did, perhaps, unexpected things as they completed those tasks, The purpose of this study was to describe how students, given similar instruction, responded differently to academic reading tasks in the elementary school classroom.

This study describes what students did as they worked through classroom reading tasks--the ways they defined the tasks, the goals they set, and the strategies and resources they used to complete the tasks, It also describes the factors within the classroom which may have influenced what those students did--the dimensions of the task as set by the teacher and the text, as well as the social and environmental demands impacting on the student.

The principal research question was: what are the dimensions of the task environment and the features of task definitions that contribute to students' successful or unsuccessful completion of assigned tasks in elementary classrooms?

Data was collected from one fifth-grade classroom. Four focal students, differing in their success as school readers, were selected for in-depth study. Participant observation, interviews, and protocol analysis were the primary data collection techniques used in this study.

Analysis of the data indicated that though students were asked to complete some comprehension and rote memory tasks, most reading tasks which required a written response were procedural. Those tasks which were ambiguous or procedurally complex were the most problematic for the students.

This study suggests that though students sometimes did not attend, occasionally chose not to respond. and at times lacked content knowledge crucial to task completion, these were not the main reasons for their failure to respond to tasks as the teacher expected. Most often they provided unexpected responses to reading tasks because the tasks were ambiguous and they did not understand what the task was asking them to do.