Article

Understanding Reading Comprehension

What it really means to comprehend text — and why reading comprehension and teaching it are more complicated than most of us think!

By Jeff Wilhelm
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

I've noticed that many books about reading, and specifically about comprehension for that matter, don't even define what "comprehension" is. Perhaps it's assumed that we all know what it is; or maybe "comprehension" is a slippery term that we have trouble grasping, or "comprehending," if you will!

Webster's Collegiate Dictionary offers this definition: "capacity of the mind to perceive and understand." Reading comprehension, then, would be the capacity to perceive and understand the meanings communicated by texts. Simple, huh? Clear. Now we comprehend comprehension!

Ah! A closer look at reading shows that this issue is much more complicated than it seems. Facile definitions coupled with the complicated nature of reading comprehension is what keeps us from understanding it fully, and from teaching it as well as we can.

Let me focus on a few issues to help explain successful reading comprehension:

Comprehension requires the reader to be an active constructor of meaning. Reading research has demonstrated that readers do not simply "perceive" the meaning that is IN a text. In fact, expert readers co-construct meaning WITH a text. The research base shows that reading is a "transaction" in which the reader brings purposes and life experiences to bear to converse with the text. This meeting of the reader and the text results in the meaning that is comprehension. Comprehension always attends to what is coded or written in the text, but it also depends upon the reader's background experiences, purposes, feelings, and needs of the moment. That's why we can read the same book or story twice and it will have very different meanings for us. We, as readers, are an equal and active partner with the text in the meaning-making process of comprehension.

What processes and strategies are required to be an active constructor of meaning as a reader? Again, the processes have been underarticulated. There is wide agreement among reading researchers that every time a reader reads anything, they make use of the following strategies:

  • Activate prior knowledge, and connect the applicable prior experiences to the reading (if students don't have the requisite background knowledge about a topic, they will be unable to comprehend)
  • Set Purposes
  • Predict
  • Decode Text — identify word and sentence meanings
  • Summarize — bring meaning forward throughout the reading, building on prior information to create new and fuller meanings
  • Visualize — see characters, settings, situations, ideas, mental models
  • Question
  • Monitor understanding — the most salient difference between good and poor readers is that good readers know when — and often why — they are not comprehending
  • Use Clarifying and Corrective strategies where needed
  • Reflect on and Apply the meaning that has been made to new situations

Three points:

  1. Since these strategies are used every time anybody reads, if your kids don't use all these strategies, then these are the ones to teach them first. They have the greatest transfer value.
  2. We need to know HOW to teach these strategies and give them over to students (this is where the featured techniques of think-alouds and action strategies come in). Simply explaining the techniques won't suffice. Students need help in the process of HOW to do it. Just as explaining how to ski won't be sufficient to get a novice down the hill, neither is explaining a text, or explaining a comprehension strategy, going to do the job in promoting comprehension.
  3. These strategies are necessary to reading comprehension in all situations, but they are usually insufficient to comprehension. Readers of any text generally go well beyond these general process strategies as they use engagement strategies to create a textual world, move around in it, evaluate it, etc. As students get older and read more sophisticated texts they must also learn how to meet the demands of making meaning with new text structures (argument, classification, satire, definition, fable, etc.) and new task-specific conventions (like those to tip off a reader to irony, symbolism, unreliable narrators, etc.). A reader who reads a satire or an ironic monologue — or even a fable, for that matter — using only general process strategies will not comprehend it. She needs text, and task, specific strategies to notice that a text is ironic, and to know what to do as a result.

Yes, comprehension and teaching it are more complicated than most of us think!

Finally — teachers of reading have another big problem. We are expert readers ourselves. That means that we literally do hundreds of things every time they read that are automatic. This automaticity means that we are unaware of what we are doing as we read. And all of the stances and strategies that we use are not made available to our struggling readers. In fact, our struggling readers don't even know they are supposed to be using all of these strategies.

The kids who most need our help are the ones who are the least like us. And the best way to help them is to take off the tops of our heads, to become aware of and share what we are doing as readers. We need to explicitly model what we do, guide and nurture them to do the same things, and then create situations that will encourage and help them to purposefully use the same strategies. I propose the teaching model of:

I DO — YOU WATCH
I DO — YOU HELP
YOU DO TOGETHER — I HELP
YOU DO INDEPENDENTLY — I WATCH

Another way of putting it is from the students' perspectives:

SHOW ME — HELP ME — LET ME

Using think-alouds and action strategies, two rich sets of teaching techniques, are ways of doing just that. See the Think-Aloud Stategies page for guidelines to implement them.

  • Subjects:
    Literacy, Reading Comprehension, Teacher Tips and Strategies
  • Skills:
    Development of Reading Comprehension, Reading Comprehension
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