Slide 1: Welcome to another webinar. This one focuses on reading comprehension. My name is Aimee Howley, professor emerita in the Educational Studies Department of Ohio University.
Slide 2: Comprehension is the ultimate goal of all reading instruction. As we discussed in earlier units, readers construct meaning by bringing their own experiences and skills to the words and other features on the page. 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. These three processes are the building blocks of reading. Teachers and paraprofessionals focus on strengthening these building blocks in order to improve students’ comprehension.
Slide 3: Because students’ experiences and skills differ, reading materials and activities to help the students move from their current reading comprehension level to a more advanced level also differ. At any grade level, “good readers” are students who are able to use their vocabulary knowledge, inferential skill, and familiarity with other features of the text to understand books 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.”
Slide 4: First, let’s consider vocabulary knowledge. Because words are the most important units of meaning in most reading selections, “good readers” typically have a vocabulary that matches well, in content and size, with the vocabulary in classroom reading selections. Once they have learned to sound out words, students who are considered “struggling readers” may be those who find many of the vocabulary words in classroom reading selections to be new and unfamiliar.
Slide 5: Understanding what words mean comes from experience. Differences in experiences are reflected in the content of our vocabularies. Where we live and what we do in our daily lives affect what we talk about. Our lives are reflected in the words we use and understand. 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.
Slide 6: Differences in experiences and, consequently, in vocabulary, affect reading comprehension in many ways. For example, knowing what most words in a reading passage mean is important for reading fluency, or how quickly and smoothly 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.
Slide 7: Sometimes, knowing the meaning of each word is not enough to understand a passage. 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 certain learning disabilities that make it hard for them to make comparisons between ideas.
Slide 8: Figures of speech, such as idioms, compare one thing with another. To understand them often requires the ability to make an inference. See if you can identify the comparisons underlying these idioms:
- Joan is a free spirit; she marches to a different drummer.
- Karen doesn’t like to study, but she’s going to have to bite the bullet and work harder.
- Jerry has to wait on that new phone; he’s strapped for cash right now.
- Until I’ve had my morning coffee, I’m just not playing with a full deck.
Slide 9: Stories, poems, and even nonfiction selections often require readers to read “between the lines” in order to reach a moderate or high level of comprehension. That is, these written materials require readers to make inferences. Some inferences are 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.
Slide 10: Some inferences may be hard for most readers to figure out. 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. Someone who didn’t know that historical fact might not make that inference.
Slide 11: Reading between the lines or going beyond the words on the page requires extensive cultural knowledge. Sometimes everyday knowledge about how people act and talk is enough, but often knowledge of history, literature, science, art, or politics is important. Because of the important role of background knowledge in making inferences, the more background knowledge someone has, the better inferences that person will be able to make. And reading books expands cultural knowledge. So people who do a lot of reading tend to make better inferences. For this reason, it is generally true that the more people read, the better readers they become.
Slide 12: Being able to make inferences can make reading more enjoyable. For example, an inexperienced reader might miss the humor in this passage from the beginning of Huckleberry Finn—a story about an orphan boy and his adventures. The story starts with Huckleberry, or Huck, talking about how hard it was to live with the “widow woman” who took care of him and made him dress in good clothes and go to church. It talks about how he finally decided to run away from the widow woman, but then, how a visit from one of his friends is causing him to re-think his decision:
I got into my old rags . . . again, and was free and satisfied. But Tom Sawyer he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable. So I went back.
Slide 13: Knowing that Huck and Tom are boys, a reader might suspect that Tom isn’t really going to start a gang of robbers, and that they will just play at being robbers. And, a person who notices contradictions would see the humor in Tom’s telling Huck he had to go back and be respectable before he could join the gang of robbers—robbing isn’t considered respectable by most people in our society.
Slide 14: Recognizing the contradiction between being a robber and being respectable is crucial to “getting” the humor in the passage. Other basic thinking skills that readers need in order to make inferences include being able to sequence events, recognize cause-and-effect relations, imagine alternative possibilities, and make predictions. As you can see, making inferences may be the most demanding of all the skills needed for reading comprehension.
Slide 15: Books and other reading materials have much more on their pages than words. In addition to words are other features of text, such as punctuation marks; how the “white space” on the page is used and how words are placed in that space; differences in print style or font; special sections such as tables of content and indexes; and many other features.
Slide 16: As students move up in grade level, knowledge of features of text becomes more important. Most young readers know the basic features of text or learn them quickly. Young readers typically understand the meanings of common punctuation marks. Even in the early grades, students are taught how to recognize dialogue by the use of quotation marks and spacing. They also learn conventions such as capitalization and paragraph indentation as well as features of major literary genres, for example, that poetry looks different from prose.
Slide 17: Reading comprehension at the intermediate and upper grade levels requires understanding 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 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 features, such as footnotes or end notes. At every level, readers use features of text to understand it more fully than if they relied on the words alone.
Slide 18: Recognizing that children must acquire vocabulary knowledge, inference skills, and knowledge of text conventions, teachers select textbooks and other reading materials designed for their students’ reading levels. The goal is to select materials that will allow students to increase their mastery of reading but not become frustrated. To make a good match, two measures are needed—a measure of the students’ reading level and a measure of the reading level (sometimes called the “readability,” “grade level” or “Lexile”) of the text.
Slide 19: Reading material for very young children has a low readability level. It makes few demands on vocabulary knowledge, inference, or knowledge of text features. Here is a passage from a picture book for young children. Notice that all the words in this passage are “easy” words. They’re words many children would be familiar with, and each word has only one syllable. Notice, too, that the sentences are short. Most of the sentences have only three words in them.
Can you climb?
Can you leap?
Can you stretch?
Can you sleep?
Can you hiss?
Can you scat?
Can you purr
like a cat?
What else can you do like a cat?
Slide 20: The last question in the passage asks the reader to go beyond the words on the page and imagine other possible activities a cat (and the reader) can do. The text feature that the reader must pay attention to is the question mark, in order to recognize that these statements are asking questions. But since the words, “can you” also signal a question, the reader might understand without knowing what the question mark means. A student, regardless of age, who could read and understand text at about this level would probably be said to read at the “first-grade level.”
Slide 21: Reading in the upper grades makes greater demands on vocabulary knowledge. Notice the differences between the previous passage and this next one, from a book written for readers in the fourth- or fifth-grade.
Using the pony was William’s idea. He thought it would be fun to ride from one base to another instead of running between the bases. It was Jack’s turn at bat. He brought his pony, Angel Face, to the batter’s place. He had her saddled up and ready to ride. He stood with the bat braced back and ready to swing. William pitched the baseball toward him. Jack swung, hitting the ball. William, Johncy, and Durwur waited while Jack climbed onto his pony. After Jack mounted, he started galloping for first base. The other boys threw acorns at the rider to try to get him out.
Slide 22: You might have noticed that this passage doesn’t repeat words nearly as much as the one about cats does. The words are easy, but they’re mostly two-syllable words rather than one-syllable words. Did you notice that the sentences in this passage are much more varied in length? The shortest one has five words, and the longest has nineteen words. The main inference a reader needs to be able to make requires knowing that, in baseball, players try to get from the batting box to first, second, third, or home base without getting tagged with the ball (or, in this case, acorns). Without having this prior knowledge about baseball, the reason for throwing acorns is unclear.
Slide 23: This passage doesn’t require much more knowledge about text features than the other passage does—just knowledge of the use of commas to set off an explanatory point, the use of apostrophes to show possession, and the use of capital letters to indicate names.
Slide 24: In comparing these two passages, you may see why good reading instruction needs to match the difficulty level of the reading selection with the student’s 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 being considered.
Slide 25: Usually, the student is asked to read aloud so the teacher or paraprofessional can see whether the student can read the passage fluently. As the student reads, the adult may mark words that are mispronounced, omitted, or self-corrected on the copy of the selection that he or she looks at as the student reads. If the student reads most of the words correctly and reads the sentences “with expression,” he or she almost certainly has some understanding of the passage.
Slide 26: The teacher or paraprofessional may also ask the student to answer comprehension questions about important points. For example, questions about the passage we read about the boys playing baseball might include the following:
- What did the boys throw at Jack when he galloped for first base?
- What else was unusual about their baseball game?
- Did this game probably take place in the city or in the country? Give a reason for your answer.
Slide 27: If the student reads the passage fluently and seems to understand the passage, the reading material from which the passage was taken is probably a good match with the student’s reading level. If not, the teacher may choose an easier reading selection for the student. If an easier selection isn’t available or isn’t compatible with the students’ best interests, the teacher may offer extra support to help the student comprehend the selection. Either way, the teacher will provide scaffolding activities to help the student progress in reading comprehension skills.
Slide 28: The ultimate goal of reading instruction is to help students comprehend more advanced reading material as they progress through school. Achieving that goal requires taking into account students’ current vocabulary knowledge, inference skills, and ability to use features of text and helping them to increase their skills in each of these three areas.