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Reading Comprehension by Jo Russell

Reading comprehension is a skill which underpins access to the curriculum in all subjects.  By the time students are of secondary age it seems reasonable to expect that they can read and make sense of text.  However, this may not be the case for all students.  Some students may have obvious difficulties accessing text because of phonological difficulties resulting in dyslexia.  Other students, however, may have reading comprehension difficulties which are less obvious to spot.  Specific difficulties in reading comprehension occur when a student has adequate decoding skills, so they can read all the words in the text, but they have difficulty in understanding the content of the text. 

When we read, we make sense of the text on several different levels.  We can read at word level, paying close attention to individual words and their meanings.  This type of reading is useful when proof-reading for spelling.  While we hold individual words in our memory, we need to read at sentence level too.  This requires us to understand grammatical structures and punctuation to make sense of the individual words.  Alongside this, we need to maintain our focus across the text as a whole, to make sense of the entire passage.  Most people have probably had the experience of reading through a paragraph or two in a book, then having to go back and re-read because focus and concentration have been lost.  As a result, the meaning of the passage will not be processed, even though all the individual words have been read.

Factors affecting reading comprehension.

Reading comprehension difficulties can mirror these processes, and there are several factors which can affect comprehension.

Firstly, vocabulary knowledge.  If a student has a limited vocabulary then this will affect their ability to understand the text greatly.  If knowledge of word meanings, synonyms and figurative language is weak then students will struggle to establish accurate comprehension.

Secondly, grammatical awareness and understanding underpins the process of making meaning from text.  Relatively common grammatical structures which may cause confusion when reading include the use of pronouns, tense markers and word order.

Thirdly, inferencing.  The ability to bring background knowledge to a text and to infer meaning from the words on the page can be hugely difficult for some students.  Inferencing can employ skills of general knowledge, life experience, emotional awareness, empathy and many other types understanding which it is all too easy to assume students have, but which, in fact, they may lack for diverse reasons.

There are other skills which contribute to the complex process of reading comprehension.  Comprehension monitoring is the name given to the process of consciously monitoring our own understanding of a text.  Good comprehenders tend to be much more skilled at comprehension monitoring, and to employ strategies to improve comprehension when they suspect they haven’t fully grasped meaning.  They might stop and re-read a section of text for clarification, or look up a word in a dictionary for meaning.  They might go back and work out who is speaking to or about whom, or what is being referred to by the pronouns in a passage.  However, to do any of these things readers must first be aware of their own understanding, and this skill seems to be difficult for poorer comprehenders.

Working memory skills are also used while reading.  The more information that is ‘captured’ from the text and stored in memory, the better the understanding can become. A related skill is that of discerning and discarding irrelevant information.  Someone struggling with comprehension may have difficulty suppressing irrelevant information and knowledge and then going on to identify the key points of a text. 

Strategies to promote good reading comprehension.

 Vocabulary

  • Consider introducing subject-specific vocab via word lists or glossaries, and teach assessment / exam ‘command words’ explicitly. 
  • Encourage students to think of synonyms of important or key words, and consider teaching what a word is the opposite of, to encourage linking of ideas and deeper understanding. 
  • Encourage students to use the key terms as often as possible in their own writing and give credit when they do so correctly.

 Inferences

  • Encourage students to draw out implicit meanings in discussion, to check understanding. 
  • Use ‘why, who, when, where, how?’ questions to check understanding. 
  • Encourage students to generate their own questions about a text.  This can show you if they are latching on to the central theme, and can allow a deeper understanding to result once the questions have been answered. 

 Pronouns

  • Be aware that understanding who or what pronouns are referring to can be particularly tricky for students with less effective comprehension. 
  • Explicitly draw attention to and check students’ understanding of more complex sentences – ask “Who/what is that ‘he’/’their’/’it’ referring to?”  This can be done as a whole group and may either confirm or support understanding in students of all reading abilities.

 General knowledge

  • Be aware that students’ general knowledge is varied, and fill in likely gaps in their background knowledge explicitly.
  • Consider setting background reading as extension or HBL, websites can be accessed through QR codes or links put on Google Classroom.

  Comprehension monitoring

  • Explicitly tell students that extracting meaning from text is a skill that needs to be practised and honed, and encourage them to maintain an awareness of when their understanding is shaky.
  • Give independent strategies that students can use before asking you – ‘3b4Me’ strategies such as check back in notes or look up the meaning of a word on their device.
  • If information needs to be extracted from large amounts of text, consider using paired reading strategies so more competent comprehenders can support other students in the initial locating of specific information required.
  •  Alternatively, as a whole group, search for the answers to comprehension questions orally, and allow students to asterisk next to the line in the text so they can locate the information and complete the task independently.
  • Practise summarising texts – perhaps ask for a summary of the main ideas in 20, or 50 words exactly which must focus on the most relevant information. 
  • Plenary tasks can be a great way of practising summarising key information regularly.

 

Bibliography

Hulme & Snowling (2009) ‘Developmental Disorders of Language Learning and Cognition’ Wiley-Blackwell

Nation & Norbury (2005) ‘Why Reading Comprehension Fails’ in Topics in Language Disorders (Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 21-32)