Learning to read is a complex process, and of course, the entire purpose of reading to is gain information through comprehension of text. Reading comprehension is so important it requires its own teaching strategies. Research also identifies comprehension as one of the five components of effective reading instruction.
Teaching comprehension in and of itself is complex enough, however, to effectively teach reading, teachers must take a comprehensive approach and include all five components of reading instruction on a daily, consistent and frequent basis. Research now identifies the following as the five components or pillars of effective reading instruction:
- phonemic awareness – the ability to hear and identify phonemes, the smallest units of sound
- phonics – the sound/grapheme relationship of letters and combinations make words and meaning
- fluency – the ability to read with ease, to read accurately, quickly and expressively
- vocabulary – the knowledge of word meaning
- comprehension – using the four other components to conjure meaning in a written passage
Exclude one of those components and children may suffer in their reading skills and experience unnecessary difficulty in learning to read.
This post on reading comprehension is the final installment of five in this series. Visit the others linked in the bulleted list above.
What is Reading Comprehension?
It’s simple. Reading comprehension is the process of constructing meaning from written texts. For proficient readers, comprehension is the expected outcome. For struggling readers, it is always the goal.
There are two basic types of text structures that play a major role in teaching children how to gain knowledge from text.
- narrative text, which usually tells a story
- expository text, which is informational and typically heavy with factual statements
Both types of text structures play a role in teaching comprehension strategies to young readers, and yes, while some reading strategies overlap the two, not all do. So, simply focusing on only one text structure type will not make a proficient reader. Children need to be taught comprehension strategies for both types of structure.
Why is Comprehension Instruction Important?
It may seem that if a child has a solid foundation in the other four components of reading, especially in vocabulary and fluency, that he or she may not need formal comprehension instruction. This is not the case.
Within the last few decades, several groups of researchers have conclusively identified that the process of gaining comprehension for proficient readers is the same among all. It is now evident that the process of comprehension is both interactive and strategic. Proficient readers make decisions while reading by selecting comprehension strategies that fit the kind of text they are reading and their purpose for reading.
So, this means that while some children may seem to automatically employ comprehension strategies naturally, other readers do not, and therefore need modeling and explicit instruction.
But…Comprehension is Difficult…But So Important!
Being a good reader is more important that just being able to summarize or interpret a passage. In fact, reading comprehension has an impact well beyond academics that may be surprising.
Let’s take a look at some numbers and facts. Children who read well also:
- perform better in all other academic subjects
- can communicate more effectively
- are more informed about society, culture and politics
- earn a higher salary
- achieve more success within a chosen career
- are generally happier
And a few more numbers: Adults who have high levels of reading comprehension are:
- 3 times more likely to attend a performing arts event
- 4 times more likely to attend an art museum
- 2 1/2 times as likely to donate to a charity
- 2 1/2 times more likely to volunteer in their community
- 1 1/2 times as likely to attend and/or participate in a sporting event
So, is there any debate that reading comprehension is important? The evidence is clear that while up to 40% of elementary students struggle with finding any kind of meaning within a given grade-level text, it is problematic to our nation as whole.
So, How is Reading Comprehension Developed?
Reading comprehension is developed through both practice in reading and in listening. For beginning readers, who may not have acquired the decoding and word recognition skills to read, listening allows them practice in comprehension until they are able to read themselves. Oral reading, accompanied by teacher-lead discussions, provides by far the widest possible range of literature and text structures, and to be competent, children need exposure to a variety of text.
But research has also identified that comprehension instruction should include five components:
- Explicit instruction of the strategy that includes when and how it should be used
- Teacher modeling of the strategy in action
- Collaboration in the use of the strategy
- Guided practice in the use of the strategy, such as in small reading group practice
- Opportunities for independent use of the strategy
And, research has also identified a list of reading strategies that are imperative to comprehension:
- Think-Alouds (teacher or student)
- Knowledge of Text Structure
- Visual Representation of Text (reference to pictures, graphs, or graphic organizers)
- Asking Questions
What Else Should Teachers Know About Reading Comprehension?
It is important for teachers to understand that different kinds of texts put different demands on the reader. Teachers should use explicit reading comprehension techniques in their teaching to develop student’s understanding of the text structure of both narrative and expository text. Children rely on the formal instruction of those reading strategies to give them to tools they need to enable them to make sense of what they are reading.
This is really, really important, and here is why: when children start off reading, they begin by focusing all their attention and brain power on the act of reading itself. But, as children transition from learning to read into children who are reading to learn, the goal is for the children to become increasingly responsible for their comprehension.
What Are Some Tips for Teaching Reading Comprehension?
- Be aware of what students do understand, as well as identify what they do not.
- Explicitly teach reading comprehension strategies.
- Allow for children to practice comprehension skills through listening as well as reading.
- Teach text structure.
- Use graphic organizers such as venn diagrams, story maps and chain reaction charts.
- Give children a purpose for reading.
- Encourage children to ask questions and compare text to things they are familiar with.
- Encourage social reading, where children as allowed to talk and discuss with one another as well as a teacher.
What Else Does Research Say About Reading Comprehension?
- “Awareness of text structure is an important metacognition skill that should be made a part of learning to read and write.” (Irvin, 1998)
- Narrative text has proven to be particularly effective with younger and poorer readers.” (Short and Ryan, 1984)
- “The structure of story grammar acts as a model which can be used as a strategy to improve both comprehension and writing.” (Olsn and Gee, 1988)
- “Students remember and comprehend narrative text structure more easily than they do expository text structures.” (Zabrucky and Ratner, 1992)
What About Preschool Literacy Instruction?
Just like teaching reading in kindergarten and above consists of five important pillars of instruction, preschool literacy is also guided by its own four components. Check out these articles for more information about how to teach literacy in an early childhood classroom:
The Big Four of Preschool Literacy Instruction: An Introduction
The Big Four of Preschool Literacy Instruction: Print Awareness
The Big Four of Preschool Literacy Instruction: Alphabetic Principle
The Big Four of Preschool Literacy Instruction: Oral Language Development
The Big Four of Preschool Literacy Instruction: Phonological Awareness
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