Reading Comprehension: Reading for Meaning
Great progress has been made during the past 15 years in the area of reading, and particularly, in our understanding of the underlying skills needed to be an efficient reader. Beginning readers must master a set of phonemic awareness and phonics skills that allow for new words to be "unlocked." Research has demonstrated that:
- children are more likely to have trouble reading in the later grades if they lack phonemic awareness (as early as in kindergarten)
- simple tests of children's skill at working with phonemes could predict later reading problems and failure; and
- children's reading can be improved using simple techniques to show them how to identify the phonemes in words.
Research has also demonstrated that phonemic awareness and phonics, while necessary to learn to read, are not sufficient, especially when we think about reading as a way to extract meaning from printed text. Good readers must also be able to apply these skills quickly, understand the words they read, and to relate what they read to their own lives and experiences.
Much More Than Sounding Out
Even when children can break spoken words into smaller units (called phonemes) and are able to blend sounds together to form words (phonics), there are at least three other skills that are important to master to be able to extract meaning from written text. Skilled readers, in order to understand what they read, must also:
- read with fluency (practice reading until they can recognize words easily, read with greater speed, accuracy, and expression)
- build vocabulary (learn the meaning of new words, both as they appear in written texts and as a way of better understanding the world in which we live)
- have guided oral reading opportunities (reading out loud while getting guidance and feedback from skilled readers)
- develop reading comprehension strategies (techniques for helping to understand what is being read)
Reading Comprehension Is...
It's clear that reading comprehension is a complex cognitive process that depends upon a number of ingredients all working together in a synchronous, even automatic way. Vocabulary clearly plays a critical role in understanding what has been read. The reader must also be intentional and thoughtful while reading, monitoring the words and their meaning as reading progresses. And the reader must apply reading comprehension strategies as ways to be sure that what is being read matches their expectations and builds on their growing body of knowledge that is being stored for immediate or future reference.
Some effective techniques for building vocabulary skills:
- computer-based vocabulary instruction programs
- storybook reading or listening to others reading aloud
- learning new words before reading a text
- task restructuring and repeated exposure (such as having the student encounter the same words in various contexts)
- substituting easy words for more difficult words (this is particularly helpful with low-achieving students or students with limited English proficiency)
Some effective techniques for building text comprehension skills: *
- comprehension monitoring (helping readers to be aware of their understanding of the material)
- cooperative learning (pairing students or creating small groupings where students can learn reading and practice strategies together)
- graphic and semantic organizers (including story maps, where readers make graphic representations of the material to assist comprehension)
- question answering (readers answer questions posed by the teachers or peers and receive immediate feedback)
- question generation (readers ask themselves questions about various aspects of the passages being read)
- story structure (students are taught to use the structure of the story to help them recall story content and answer questions about what they have read)
- summarization (readers are taught to recall and integrate information gleaned from texts into abbreviated summaries of what they have read)
* Some of these types of instruction are helpful when used alone, but many have been shown to be more effective when used as part of a multiple-strategy approach.