By Teachers, For Teachers
Reading comprehension is one of the five pillars of reading instruction. Reading comprehension is the ultimate goal in reading. When a student has a high, strong reading comprehension level, he or she is able to successfully interpret, analyze, and understand any text. Reading comprehension involves the strategies and skills that are essential when it comes to thinking about a text. Once a child can decode or easily read words on a page, he or she is able to focus more on the meaning of the text, which is the definition of reading comprehension or, rather, the understanding of the text.
Comprehension strategies and skills vary in genre from fiction to nonfiction to poetry. They also vary among grade levels and reading levels. While the same basic comprehension strategies are used throughout a reader’s journey, the complexity of the strategies increases as the rigor of the text and the developmental reading level of the student increase.
Reading comprehension practice is often a multifaceted process that includes many elements. In any given text, in addition to reading accurately and smoothly, students should be able to make predictions, activate prior knowledge, make connections, ask and answer questions, clarify meaning, visualize, infer, and summarize. Additional comprehension skills include sequencing events, determining importance, understanding theme or author’s purpose, and identifying cause and effect relationships.
It is also important to recognize that listening comprehension, oral reading comprehension, and silent reading comprehension will often differ for the same student at the same reading level. Most often, students are better at listening comprehension, even if it is at a higher reading level. Oral reading comprehension at a child’s instructional or independent reading level comes next. Silent reading comprehension at a child’s instructional or independent reading level usually results in the lowest comprehension score. Oral comprehension skills outperform written comprehension skills in student readers as well. All of this information is pertinent when understanding the value and purpose of reading comprehension.
Some older students struggle with high school reading comprehension. This occurs because of several reasons. One reason is the fact that their word attack skills are weak. When students have not developed proficient phonics skills, their reading focus is primarily on decoding words. When this happens, the words on the page have no meaning to the reader, which significantly impacts their lack of comprehension.
The other factor is that their reading fluency is weak. Fluency is another pillar of reading that research suggests directly affects comprehension. Fluency includes accuracy, rate, and phrasing during oral reading; the better the fluency, the better the reading comprehension. Despite these key points, it is important to know that older students may not struggle in phonics or fluency, but they do struggle with reading comprehension.
One reason could be that the students have not developed the advanced comprehension strategies that are essential to fully understand a more complex text. Older student readers must be able to go beyond the basic comprehension strategies of predicting and questioning. They need to be able to analyze the author’s purpose and interpret the meaning behind the text structure. When students do not have background knowledge of the information in a text, their reading comprehension automatically decreases.
A student’s vocabulary also affects comprehension; if a child lacks the word knowledge of structure or meaning, their comprehension will also decrease. Therefore, we need to arm students with the specific strategies to comprehend each type of text our students will be expected to read. We need to not only teacher children how to read, but how to think about reading, often referred to as metacognition. The process of teaching, modeling, reading, and rereading will help older students improve their reading comprehension levels.
Reading comprehension strategies, which include activating prior knowledge, predicting, clarifying, questioning, determining importance, inferring, or summarizing, are used in upper grades as they are in primary grades. Therefore, we need to discuss the exact intervention strategies that will help the children understand the text.
One suggested strategy is to incorporate graphic organizers. When we teach and model each skill and strategy using a graphic organizer, it becomes a helpful intervention to clearly show children how to think about a text. Close reading, note taking, or annotating text are also intervention strategies that are used to teach older children. Each intervention strategy teaches students how to examine a text and interpret the meaning of specific quotations, genres, structures, or conventions used by the author.
Once students have learned a variety of reading comprehension intervention strategies, they should be encouraged and empowered to use the strategy that best works for them. Teachers must model these interventions and strategies on grade-level text so that students can see how to successfully comprehend what may be considered difficult text for some readers.
We know that vocabulary affects reading comprehension, and teachers will not always know what vocabulary words are challenging for their students. Defining the unknown word in a dictionary is not an effective strategy to learn new terms. Instead, teachers can teach students how to use context clues, synonyms, and antonyms in every text to expand vocabulary and build meaning.
Finally, visuals, mnemonic devices, and manipulatives can be used to explain new and advanced reading concepts. It is most helpful when teachers implement these same intervention strategies in math, science, and social studies so students are understanding content while increasing their reading comprehension. When students are provided with multiple opportunities to share their thinking in various modes of learning, reading comprehension increases.
Kathryn is a professional development expert and holds an M.A. in Literacy and Culture.