Struggling readers do not understand why they have difficulty comprehending. In order to assist these children we need to understand why and where their difficulties are occurring. (For the purposes of this discussion I am assuming the child’s visual perceptual skills are intact.)
A breakdown in Reading Comprehension can occur at different stages in the processing of language
Vocabulary and Prior Knowledge
Learning to read written texts is not the same as learning to understand written texts. Reading comprehension involves understanding the vocabulary, seeing relationships among words and concepts, organizing ideas, recognizing the author’s purpose, evaluating the context, and making judgments
Many children who successfully learn to read in grade one or two are unable to understand books they need to read by grade three or four. One of the reasons for this is lack of adequate vocabulary.
Prior knowledge is an important aspect to successful reading and studies have shown that lack of cultural familiarity with the subject matter has a greater impact on reading comprehension of a passage than the pre-teaching of vocabulary.
The child’s ability to recall information and make inferences is enhanced when they are familiar with the subject matter.
Before children learn to read, they are dependent on oral language and pictures to understand the world around them. Once they obtain knowledge of phonemes (sounds) and graphemes (letters), they begin to use their understanding of print and sounds to read words. For children who experience decoding difficulties, word recognition is like a traffic jam on a highway. Regardless of their level of listening comprehension, they have to learn the process of word recognition, much like every car on the highway must slow down and pass through the bottleneck. Once decoding is mastered, and students become fluent readers, they are able to develop proficiency in reading comprehension.
Fluency is not an issue in listening, as the speaker controls the pace, but is needed for reading comprehension because of working memory constraints.
For children who experience difficulties with word recognition, struggle with decoding words, or read very slowly, the information in the text is often inaccessible.
Reading quickly enough so that it sounds like “natural” language contributes to a student’s comprehension; the reading flow and focus on comprehension are not disrupted by decoding
Cognitive Speed/Working Memory
The information that we read needs to be held in working memory in order to comprehend it. If reading fluency is poor, then it becomes less and less likely that the needed information is still active in working memory, making comprehension less and less likely
There are many different purposes for reading. Sometimes you read a text to learn material, sometimes you read for pure pleasure, and sometimes you need to follow a set of directions. As a student, much of your reading will be to learn assigned material. You get information from everything you read and yet you don’t read everything for the same reason or in the same way or at the same rate. Each purpose or reason for reading requires a different reading approach.
Two things that influence how fast and how well you read are the characteristics of the text and the characteristics of you, the reader.
Characteristics of the text:
- Size and style of the type (font)
- Pictures and illustrations
- Author’s writing style and personal perspectives
- Difficulty of the ideas presented
Characteristics of the reader:
- Background knowledge (how much you already know about the material or related concepts)
- Reading ability – vocabulary and comprehension
Good readers employ strategies before, during, and after reading that help them comprehend text. The following strategies have been identified:
- Begin reading with an understanding of the purpose for their exploration of the text,
- Bring to the table what they already know (their schema), and associate what they read to that basis,
- Predict before they read and then adjust as necessary their predictions as they move through the text
- Self-monitor (listen to themselves when they read) and stop to reread when they recognize that they are losing meaning
- Have a broad oral toolbox of vocabulary (words they understand the meaning of when they hear them or when they use them in speech)
- Pause to ponder and consider (think deeply, in other words, analyze, interpret and evaluate).
Reading comprehension is a complex process in itself, but it also depends upon other important and complex lower-level processes. It is a critical foundation skill for later academic learning, many employment skills, and life satisfaction. It is an important skill to target, but we should not forget about the skills on which it depends.