Comprehension

What is comprehension?

Comprehension is an active process that involves the reader understanding and interpreting what is read.

The Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) suggests that reading comprehension is the product of two sets of skills: decoding and linguistic comprehension. Since Gough and Tunmer’s original paper, many researchers have provided evidence that ‘measures of decoding and linguistic comprehension each predict reading comprehension and its development, and together the two components account for almost all variance in this ability’ (Castles, Rastle and Nation, 2018 p.27).

The simple view of reading

The Simple View of Reading was first proposed by Gough and Tumner in 1986. Their research showed that skilful reading comprehension is a combination of two separate but equally important components - decoding skills and linguistic comprehension ability.

Early in my teaching career, I spent eight years living and teaching in Cambodia, a country in South-East Asia. While there, I learnt to speak the local language, called Khmer. For a long time, I could understand what I heard and I could speak to make myself understood in most everyday situations. I had good basic vocabulary and had learnt most of the grammatical structures that were used in spoken language. I could understand a basic text if it was read to me, but I couldn’t read a text because I hadn’t learnt the code. In this case, my linguistic comprehension was ok but my decoding was not meaning I could not achieve reading comprehension. Over time, I learnt to read the code. I could decode the unfamiliar squiggles and lines to read with some efficiency. I learnt to read phrases and sentences. When reading simple texts, I could decode the words and apply my simple vocabulary to comprehend the text.

In this case, my linguistic comprehension was sufficient and my decoding was sufficient meaning I could read simple texts with comprehension. However, I would have significant problems if I picked up the newspaper. Despite being able to decode or read the words, I struggled to read with comprehension. I often lacked background knowledge and could not comprehend the complex vocabulary and language structures used in the newspaper. No matter how efficient I was at decoding, I was not able to comprehend the text because my linguistic or language comprehension was not sufficient.

In order to read with comprehension, you must be able to read the words on the page or decode and understand what the words and language within the text mean. Research tells us that poor skills in either one creates a breakdown in reading comprehension.

Dr Deslea Konza (2011) explains that comprehension is “the ultimate goal of the reading” and that it is dependent on the development of the previous elements.

Dr Deslea Konza on comprehension

Comprehension. This is the ultimate goal of the reading process, obviously.

It does require all those other things to be in place and the two most important contributors to high level reading comprehension once the words can be lifted off the page.

So once they can be decoded the two most important contributors to comprehension, are vocabulary and background knowledge.

As we build children's vocabulary we increase their chances of making connections with other things which is what inferential comprehension is all about.

So, vocabulary remains such a powerful part of the reading process.

Scarborough’s reading rope further explains reading comprehension using a rope metaphor with strands of the rope representing the various interconnected components of skilled reading necessary for reading comprehension.

Scarborough's reading rope

As teachers, we want to understand how we can teach students in such a way that their decoding skills and linguistic or language comprehension will be strong.

In 2001, Dr. Hollis Scarborough used a metaphor of a rope to represent the many strands that must be woven together over time to develop skilled reading. Dr Scarborough described the two essential components of skilled reading as language comprehension, which must become increasingly strategic over time, and word recognition, which should become increasingly automatic over time.

The lower part of the reading rope focuses on word recognition and includes three critical skills: Phonological awareness, decoding and sight recognition.

The upper part of the reading rope focuses on language comprehension and includes: background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning and literacy knowledge.

Reading comprehension is heavily dependent on a student’s word recognition skills because, to be able to understand written material, students need to be able to decode the words in the text. Scarborough’s rope explains that word recognition skills are made up of phonological awareness, decoding and sight recognition.

The lower strands - word recognition

Let's explore the lower part of the reading rope and its three critical skills for successful word recognition. The first strand in the lower section of the rope is phonological awareness.

Phonological awareness refers to oral language - what you are hearing and saying. It is the understanding of the different ways speech, can be broken down into smaller units of sound and manipulated.

Learning to read requires an awareness of the sound structure of spoken language such as words, syllables, onset and rime and phonemes. For example the word rainbow can be segmented into two syllables rain – bow. Each syllable can be segmented into onset and rime r - ain, b – ow. The onset and rime can be segmented into 5 phonemes, the smallest units of sound /r/, /ai/, /n/. /b/, /ow/. An awareness of phonemes, or phonemic awareness, is particularly important for learning to read.

Development of this understanding requires explicit instruction, modelling, and lots of practice opportunities for segmenting words apart into their component phonemes and blending those phonemes back together to form words.

It is important that students understand the phonemic structure of spoken language first, as it is necessary to grasp the alphabetic principle or code that underlies our system of written language. In other words, the alphabetic principle is the insight that there is a direct connection between the sequence of phonemes in spoken words to the sequence of letters used to represent them in the written word.

The second strand in the lower section of the rope is decoding. Decoding requires knowledge of the alphabetic principle which is the relationship between the sounds of spoken language and the letters that represent them. Learning to read requires deliberate explicit and systematic instruction in the letter-sound correspondences of the English language - commonly referred to as phonics.

Readers must be able to recognise these correspondences to decode words. When using phonic knowledge to decode words the reader will: First look at the letters in the word, pronounce the individual phonemes in the word using their letter-sound knowledge, blend the isolated sounds together using their phonological blending skills, pronounce the word that has been activated from their vocabulary and phonological long term memory. Once a word is accurately decoded a few times, for most students, it is likely to become recognised without conscious deliberation, leading to efficient word recognition.

The third strand in the lower section of the rope is sight recognition. A sight word is any word that we recognise instantly, automatically and effortlessly, without sounding out or guessing. It is important to know that here we are not just referring to high frequency words. Research has shown us that sight recognition of words requires strong phonemic awareness and phonic knowledge as well as an understanding of the meaning of the word.

As the lower strand skills become stronger through repetition and practice, they become increasingly automatic and fluent. This is important because this frees up cognitive load that can then be applied to the upper part of the rope - language comprehension.

As readers encounter increasingly complex texts, they develop an understanding of how to navigate extended texts with unusual or complex features such as footnotes, endnotes, references, acknowledgements and often intricate visuals or diagrams that are essential to make meaning from the text.

Genre and text structure refers to the framework or patterns used within the text to organise or convey information and ideas. Knowledge of text structure is critical for skilled reading because this helps us know what to expect and pay attention to in a text.

Skilled readers are also constantly engaging with the purpose of a text and as the complexity of texts increases, the purpose may become more difficult to determine or deliberately disguised.

In the top strands of the rope, through modelling and experience, readers become increasingly strategic in extracting meaning from texts.

Readers will continue to develop their background knowledge, vocabulary, knowledge of language structures and verbal reasoning skills over a lifetime.

When readers are developing and applying increasingly strategic language comprehension skills alongside increasingly automatic word recognition skills, the complex task of reading comprehension is made possible.

Comprehension also requires readers to strategically apply their language comprehension knowledge to make connections between what they read and what they already know. Scarborough’s reading rope explains that language comprehension includes background knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, language structures, verbal reasoning and literacy knowledge.

Upper strands - language comprehension

Let's explore the upper part of the reading rope and the critical elements of language comprehension.

Background knowledge refers to all the knowledge, facts, concepts and beliefs you bring with you when comprehending or learning from a situation or text. In relation to reading, we rely on background knowledge to attend to and make sense of what we are reading. The more familiar a reader is with the content of a text, the more easily they will process, chunk, understand and remember the information.

Imagine you were asked to read a text about a topic you have very little knowledge about-perhaps theoretical quantum physics. The reading task would likely feel very demanding. Now consider reading a text about a topic you know a lot about- this reading task would likely feel much easier and less cognitively taxing.

Teachers can support students to build background knowledge by providing exposure to rich and deep content that can be drawn upon and applied as background knowledge to problem solve and create meaning from texts.

Vocabulary refers to the knowledge of the meaning of words. It can be thought of in terms of width, the number of words known and depth, how well the word’s meaning is known and understood. We may have: no knowledge of a word, heard a word but not knowing what it means, a narrow and contextually based understanding. Or we may:have deeper knowledge but not able to readily recall and use it. Deep knowledge is when we have a rich decontextualised knowledge of a word’s meaning, its relationship to other words, and its extension to metaphorical uses.

The level of a person’s vocabulary knowledge is a strong predictor of reading comprehension. The more words we know and understand in a text, the greater opportunity we will have to understand, interpret and reflect on the intended meaning of a text. Beck, McKeown and Kucan suggested a framework for thinking about vocabulary. It is important to note that research has shown that it is essential that we explicitly teach tier 2 words- words that are not often in oral language but are characteristic of academic writing.

Language structures refers to the way our language is organised. It is about the relationships between the words, sentences, paragraphs and ideas in a spoken or written text. An understanding of language structures helps readers use the order and organisation of words, phrases and clauses within sentences to make sense of what they are reading.

Verbal reasoning refers to the ability to look deeper into what the words on the page are intending to say. In relation to reading, it involves being able to monitor understanding, problem-solve, and to make inferences based on connecting background knowledge with the vocabulary and language structures of the text.

Readers must infer meaning and understand how to interpret figurative language that is so often used within writing across all subject areas. For example, if we read a text that includes the sentence “The classroom was a zoo.” The reader must reason and process whether this statement is literal or figurative. They must ask what the author is saying and what they author is implying. The must connect this statement back to what the author has said previously and bring together their background knowledge about classrooms and zoos.

Developing a mental model to represent the situation described by a text is an important part of comprehension. A reader attends to the information within and across sentences to establish local coherence and to integrates their background knowledge with new information in the text as well as the inferred messages from the text.

Readers continue to adapt and refine the mental model they are creating as they read. Skilled readers monitor their comprehension to ensure that the mental model they are constructing makes sense. Where comprehension breaks down, skilled readers are able to recognise this breakdown and implement repair strategies.

Literacy knowledge refers to print concepts and the genre of texts written for specific purposes. Beginning readers learn print concepts such as reading from left to right and top to bottom, that texts and books are made up of different parts such as titles, headings, contents and index pages and that the print on the page represents words.

How can we teach comprehension?

In the context of effective reading instruction for the early years, it is important to understand that while students are learning the alphabetic code the majority of comprehension instruction should focus on oral language comprehension development through explicit teaching during modelled and shared reading experiences. An explicit focus on teaching students to strategically apply their background knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, knowledge about texts, understanding of language structures and reasoning skills to texts will support them to develop strong language comprehension abilities as they develop fluent word recognition skills.

We know that explicit teaching practices involve teachers clearly explaining to students why they are learning something, how it connects to what they already know, what they are expected to do, how to do it and what it looks like when they have succeeded. Explicit teaching provides students with opportunities and time to check their understanding, ask questions and receive clear, effective feedback.

The Gradual release of responsibility model is a helpful framework to understand what explicit instruction can look like when teaching reading.

At the heart of the model is the concept that, as we learn new content or skills, the responsibility for the cognitive load shifts from primarily sitting with the teacher as the model or expert, to the responsibility sitting with the student as they take on independence in their learning and application.

It is important to note that the model is not linear and can be used flexibly rather than from beginning to end over the course of a lesson or in the same way for every student. Instead, it should be seen as a dynamic model that is recursive, meaning it can be repeated and revisited as needed and informed by formative assessment. As the students increase in their ability, teachers gradually carry less of the cognitive load and students gradually assume more responsibility for the learning in order to become independent in the knowledge, skill or concept understanding and the application of this across contexts.

gradual release of responsibility model
Image: Gradual release of responsibility model - adapted from Fisher and Frey (2003)

Modelled instruction

The Gradual release of responsibility model begins with the teacher assuming a significant proportion of the cognitive load for the learning. Modelled instruction is when the teacher models how an expert reads with a particular emphasis on the skill, concept or knowledge focus. This section is when the teacher is saying “I do, you watch”.

Although modelled instruction is characterised by teacher voice, the students are active participants and engaged in careful observation. As the teacher explains the learning intention and its purpose, the students should be encouraged to reflect on their current knowledge, understanding or skill. The teacher builds understanding of the academic language or background knowledge necessary to access the learning and the students reflect on and add to their background knowledge or academic vocabulary. Modelled instruction is often characterised by the teacher ‘thinking aloud’ to demonstrate how a skilled reader monitors and controls their comprehension. At the end of modelled instruction:

  • revisit the learning intention and reflect on what the students observed the teacher doing to show the learning intention

  • co-construct the success criteria based on what the teacher modelled and the students observed

  • co-construct an anchor chart that students can refer to as they continue their learning.

Shared practice

Shared practice offers rich instructional opportunities as teachers and students both engage with a shared text. This is when the teacher invites the students to share responsibility for the thinking, with the teacher saying “I do, you help.” Shared instruction is an interactive reading experience with the teacher or expert continuing to model or demonstrate the skills, concept or understanding that is the focus of the learning, however, the students are now invited to join the teacher in sharing the cognitive load for the learning. Shared practice is characterised by rich and authentic conversations amongst the community of readers as both teacher and students discuss, pose ideas, ask questions and extend their thinking.

Guided practice

The next stage is guided practice when the student takes on significantly more responsibility with the teacher saying “you do, I help.” Guided practice often involves the teacher working with a small group of students and encouraging the students to think aloud about the strategy focus. The teacher asks questions to prompt or clarify thinking, supporting and guiding the learning of the group. Guided practice is characterised by high challenge texts scaffolded with high support for the needs of the learner.

Collaborative practice

Collaborative practice is when the students take on and share more responsibility with their fellow learners. The teacher is still present and available but is saying “you do together, I will support you as needed.” Students are often paired with a partner or work in a small group. They work collaboratively on a strategy focus, sharing their thinking as they work together. Students are encouraged to think aloud as they read and to engage in shared discussion, questioning and collaboration. During collaborative practice, the teacher supports students by observing, monitoring, prompting and guiding them towards independence. The teacher encourages the use of support structures such as anchor charts, learning intentions and success criteria.

Independent practice

Once the student is confident with the learning, they continue to practice independently. The teacher is present and available and is now saying “you do alone and I will watch.” The students can record how they think aloud, problem solve and use the focus strategy to support their reading. The teacher uses this stage as an opportunity to observe and formatively assess students. Multiple opportunities across varying contexts need to be offered to students in order for them to develop independence with a skill or strategy

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