Reading for Meaning: Helping Students Become Successful Readers
Practitioners and parents have the incredible responsibility of preparing their students to participate in a literate society. If the ultimate goal of reading is the comprehension of written text, whether encountered in academic, work or life settings, then we must ensure that our students possess those skills and abilities that are fundamental to making meaning of written language.
While comprehension can be complicated for many of us, it is estimated that up to 20% of our students experience significant problems in this area. Hence, the need to focus attention on the knowledge that is critical for creating instructional and home environments that develop and nurture comprehension capabilities.
The Nature of Comprehension
Simply stated, comprehension is an active process during which the reader constructs meaning from text whether reading Where the Wild Things Are or The Voice of Evidence in Reading Research. It has also been defined as the product of decoding and listening comprehension.
This formula represents what researchers and practitioners recognize as the "simple view" of reading comprehension (Gough & Tunmer, 1986). However, when we scratch the surface of either definition, one quickly realizes that the active processing of text, during which varied skills and abilities work together, is extremely complex.
For example, if we unpack decoding, we immediately recognize the relationships and importance of phonemic awareness, the alphabetic principle and phonics for accomplished decoding. Similarly, listening comprehension directly reflects the role of oral language development, vocabulary acquisition and fund of world and domain knowledge in this process.
One can not discuss comprehension without also attending to fluency. This ability to read words accurately and automatically, to read at an appropriate rate and/or with expression allows students to attend to and appreciate meaning.
Given the complex nature of comprehension, it is not surprising that students who have difficulty in this area demonstrate different patterns of abilities and difficulties. For some, it is the reading of word that presents the greatest challenge; for others, language including vocabulary and background knowledge is problematic and then there are students who have difficulty with both.
Reading comprehension assessment should include both informal and formal measures that focus on the two major components of the reading comprehension formula and the skills and abilities they represent. Such an assessment should yield information about the presence or absence of a problem, contributing factors, additional information needed as well as potential instructional solutions.
Nurturing and Developing Comprehension
The current view of comprehension instruction differs significantly from prior practice and has focused our attention on the role of direct instruction, increased instructional time and effective teacher and learner strategies. At the same time, we are more cognizant of how the reader, text and context are important dimensions to consider for instructional planning.
It has become increasingly apparent that practitioners need to be aware of the demands of the text itself. An examination of narrative or expository passages surfaces several instructional considerations such as overall organization, sentence construction, and use of figurative language. An understanding of academic language (language of text) should be reflected in instructional planning and evidenced by direct instruction of those features that present as challenges for students.
Additionally, a consideration of what proficient readers do before, during and after reading can inform our understanding. They are, in fact, purposeful and strategic, think about what they know about the topic, whether or not they understand what they are reading, what to do if they do not, and how they might apply or use information.
Poor readers, on the other hand, are often actively inefficient in their approach to this as well other academic tasks. Practitioners can directly teach, model, provide practice and opportunities for application of effective strategies before, during and after reading.
The National Reading Panel (2003) has recommended the following set of strategies for instructional planning: comprehension monitoring, cooperative learning, graphic organizers, story structure, questioning and summarization.
It is also important that students understand why strategies are useful, how they can be used flexibly and in what situations. Practitioners and parents can support student understanding by surfacing thinking as they read to students, encouraging the inner dialogue that proficient readers engage in continually and providing opportunities for students to express their thinking.