Struggling readers do not understand why they have difficulty comprehending. In order to assist these children we need to understand why and where their difficulties are occurring. (For the purposes of this discussion I am assuming the child’s visual perceptual skills are intact.)
A breakdown in Reading Comprehension can occur at different stages in the processing of language
Vocabulary and Prior Knowledge
Learning to read written texts is not the same as learning to understand written texts. Reading comprehension involves understanding the vocabulary, seeing relationships among words and concepts, organizing ideas, recognizing the author’s purpose, evaluating the context, and making judgments
Many children who successfully learn to read in grade one or two are unable to understand books they need to read by grade three or four. One of the reasons for this is lack of adequate vocabulary.
Prior knowledge is an important aspect to successful reading and studies have shown that lack of cultural familiarity with the subject matter has a greater impact on reading comprehension of a passage than the pre-teaching of vocabulary.
The child’s ability to recall information and make inferences is enhanced when they are familiar with the subject matter.
Before children learn to read, they are dependent on spoken language and pictures to understand the world around them. Reading requires a knowledge of phonemes (sounds) and arbitrary symbols called graphemes (letters). A child needs to use their understanding of print and sounds in order to read words. For children who experience decoding difficulties, word recognition is like a traffic jam on a highway. The cars on the highway have to slow down in order to get through the bottleneck.
A child may be able to understand the information without difficulty if it is read to them. This is called listening comprehension. In order to read with understanding, they have to recognize words by decoding them. Reading comprehension develops once decoding is mastered, and reading becomes fluent.
The information that we read needs to be held in working memory in order to comprehend it. If reading fluency is poor, it is difficult to hold the necessary information in working memory, and it affects reading comprehension. Linked to this, is reading fluency
Fluency is not an issue in listening, because the speaker controls the pace. However, fluency is needed for reading comprehension because of working memory constraints.
For children who experience difficulties with word recognition, struggle with decoding words, or read very slowly, the information in the text is often inaccessible because the child has to hold individual words in their working memory rather than a meaningful sentence. Reading quickly enough so that it sounds like “natural” language contributes to a student’s comprehension because the reading flow and focus on comprehension are not disrupted by decoding.
There are many different purposes for reading. Sometimes you read a text to learn material, sometimes you read for pure pleasure, and sometimes you need to follow a set of directions. As a student, much of your reading will be to learn classroom material. Many educators are using flipped classrooms because information can be accessed from the internet. You can get information from everything you read and yet you don’t read everything for the same reason or in the same way or at the same rate. Each purpose or reason for reading requires a different reading approach.
Two things that influence how fast and how well you read are the characteristics of the text and the characteristics of the reader.
Characteristics of the text:
- Size and style of the type (font)
- Pictures and illustrations
- Author’s writing style and personal perspectives
- Difficulty of the ideas presented
Characteristics of the reader:
- Background knowledge (how much you already know about the material or related concepts)
- Reading ability – vocabulary and comprehension
Good readers employ strategies before, during, and after reading that help them comprehend text. The following strategies have been identified:
- Begin reading with an understanding of the purpose for their exploration of the text
- Bring to the table what they already know (their schema), and associate what they read to that basis,
- Predict before they read and then adjust as necessary their predictions as they move through the text
- Self-monitor (listen to themselves when they read) and stop to reread when they recognize that they are losing meaning
- Have a broad oral toolbox of vocabulary (words they understand the meaning of when they hear them or when they use them in speech)
- Pause to ponder and consider (think deeply, in other words, analyze, interpret and evaluate).
Reading comprehension is a complex process in itself, but it also depends upon other important and complex lower-level processes. It is a critical foundation skill for later academic learning, many employment skills, and life satisfaction. It is an important skill to target, but we should not forget about the skills on which it depends.