Comprehension is the goal of all reading instruction. Reading and writing are almost as important as speaking and listening in today’s world. Success in school, even in the early grades, depends largely on being able to read well. As we discussed in the unit, “What is Reading?,” understanding what you’re reading depends on interacting with the text. You construct meaning by bringing your own experiences and skills to the words, phrases, sentences, and other features on the page. At any grade in school, “good readers” are students who are able to use their experiences and skills in interacting with text written for readers their age or older. Students who lack the experiences and skills needed to comprehend books and other reading material written for readers their age are said to have a reading problem. They’re sometimes called “struggling readers.” The experiences and skills that affect comprehension most are reflected in students’ vocabulary, the inferences they make, and their use of conventional features of text.
Vocabulary and Comprehension
Words are the most important units of meaning in text. To understand a word, a person needs to understand what the word names. The word “chain,” for example, would have no meaning to you if you’d never seen one or been told about one. The word “pity” would have no meaning if you’d never heard the word used to describe the feeling in a context you could understand. Understanding what words mean comes from experience. Differences in experiences are reflected in the content of our vocabularies. Where we live, what we do, what we care about, all these are reflected in the words we use and understand.
Differences in the content of students’ vocabularies affect their reading comprehension. Differences in the number of words students understand also affect their reading comprehension. Knowing what most of the words in a reading passage mean is important for reading fluency, or how quickly a student reads. Vocabulary knowledge allows students to read quickly enough to understand phrases and sentences. Students who have to stop and puzzle over the meaning of words in a passage may lose track of the meaning of the passage.
Sometimes, knowing the meaning of each word is not enough to understand a passage. In these cases, you have to know the meaning of a phrase. Idioms are phrases or even single words that are used in an unusual way in a culture. For example, the idiom, “at the drop of a hat,” doesn’t really have anything to do with hats or dropping them, at least not when it’s used today. It expresses the idea that someone is ready to do something at the slightest opportunity. This idiom may come from a time when the drop of a hat was used to signal the start of a fight. Such idioms, or figures of speech, can be especially challenging for English language learners. They can also be hard for students with the types of learning disabilities that make it hard to understand figures of speech. Figures of speech, such as idioms, compare one thing with another. To understand them often requires the ability to make an inference.
Inference and Comprehension
To comprehend a text fully, students’ must understand what is implied by the text but not said “outright” or stated directly. They must fill in missing information accurately, based on the information provided. Good readers read “between the lines.” They recognize verbal clues that less able readers may miss. Inferences may be easy. For example, if a character in a story puts candles on a cake, you know the cake is for someone’s birthday. The author doesn’t have to say it. Inferences may also be hard because they require more specialized knowledge. For example, if a story about the Civil War mentions “the boys in gray,” and you know that Confederate soldiers’ uniforms were gray and Union soldiers’ uniforms were blue, you would infer that the author was talking about Confederate soldiers. Being able to infer, or “go beyond,” the text depends on vocabulary knowledge, but vocabulary knowledge is not enough. Going beyond the words on the page requires more extensive cultural knowledge, including everyday knowledge about how people act and talk. Thinking skills are crucial, too. To make inferences, students must be able to sequence events, recognize cause-and-effect relationships, recognize contradictions, imagine possibilities, and make predictions. Making inferences may be the most demanding of all the skills needed for reading comprehension.
Using Features of Text
Books and other reading materials have much more on their pages than words. In addition to words are other features of text, such as how the “white space” on the page is used and how words are placed in that space. There are punctuation marks, differences in font or style of the print, and many other features. As students move up in grade level, their knowledge of features of written text becomes more important. Most young readers know the basic features of text, or they learn them quickly. Such features include differences in spacing between letters in a word and between words themselves. Young readers also learn the meanings of common punctuation marks, such as periods and question marks. Even in the early grades, students learn how to recognize dialogue by the use of quotation marks and spacing. They learn that stanzas are used in poems and paragraphs in prose. Reading comprehension at the intermediate and upper grade levels entails understanding of many different features of text, such as the use of italics for emphasis and the use of different fonts for different types of headings. Knowledge of more specialized features of text, such as indexes and glossaries, becomes important as students advance in school. Textbooks in high school and college often include additional textual features, such as footnotes or end notes. Readers use features of text to understand it meaning more fully than if they relied on the words alone.
How Comprehension is Measured
Recognizing that children must acquire experience and skills in vocabulary, inference, and text conventions, teachers select textbooks and other reading materials designed for their students’ grade levels. Reading material for very young children makes few demands on vocabulary knowledge. At that level, instruction is focused on helping students learn how to “sound out” words and recognize some common words by sight. Reading in the upper grades makes greater demands on vocabulary knowledge.
Good reading instruction matches the difficulty level of the assignment with students’ level of reading skill. To find out whether a certain reading selection is at the proper level for an individual student, the teacher, or a paraprofessional working with the teacher, may have the student read a passage from the selection and answer questions about the passage. Usually, the student is asked to read aloud so the teacher or paraprofessional can see whether the student can pronounce the words in the passage fluently. If the student recognizes most of the words and reads the passage “with expression,” he or she has some understanding of the passage. If a student reads fluently and can answer comprehension questions about important points, the material is probably a good match with the student’s reading level. If not, the teacher will use other materials or will provide more scaffolding activities to help the student understand the book, chapter, or article. Often teachers do both.
As this overview indicates, the ultimate goal of reading instruction is to help students expand their reading skills and comprehend more advanced reading material. To reach this goal, teachers and paraprofessionals need to be attentive to students’ vocabulary knowledge, inference skills, and ability to use features of text.