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Reading with understanding

SATs results and national surveys indicate that a disturbingly large number of children have very poor reading comprehension.

The current obsession with decoding skills in reading development, generated largely by the Rose Report, has diverted attention away from reading comprehension. Although it is important to ensure that all children are able to decode text fluently, we should not lose sight of the objective of reading, which is to understand text. National statistics indicate that developing effective reading comprehension remains a huge educational challenge. SATs results show that 20% of 11-year-olds have poor reading comprehension. As children get older, the problem gets worse rather than better: by 14 years of age 33% of pupils has unsatisfactory reading comprehension. Recent surveys have revealed that over 25% of adults have serious problems with reading, and in the vast majority of cases the chief difficulty is in understanding what is read. The occupational opportunities of these individuals are limited to labour-intensive unskilled jobs and they are at high risk of unemployment. Research studies also link poor literacy skills to offending and general alienation from society. Admittedly, there are many social and familial factors involved in the equation. Nevertheless, this brief overview of the national statistics leads to an inescapable conclusion: students who leave school without the ability to make sense of what they read are at serious risk of diminished opportunities in life.

Where do things go wrong?

A wide variety of research studies have shown that, provided children are taught appropriately, the acquisition of decoding skills should not be a major hurdle other than for those who have dyslexia or serious disorders of language. In line with most researchers, the Rose Report subscribes to the ‘simple view of reading’, which portrays the process as a combination of two independent abilities: word recognition and language comprehension. While the former is an explicitly taught skill, the latter is derived from the child’s general experience with oral language both inside and outside the school. In accordance with this approach, word recognition should be taught quickly and efficiently in Key Stage 1, providing a sound foundation for development of skilled reading in Key Stages 2 and 3. It is during these latter stages that children should be learning to apply their word recognition skills to reading texts fluently and – drawing upon their language comprehension – with good understanding. This process relies on children getting large amounts of practice in reading different types of text. Unfortunately if children’s only reading activities take place in school, they will not obtain sufficient practice to develop effective reading comprehension. Children in Key Stage 2 and 3 should be reading for at least half-an-hour every day, over and above the reading they do in school. So do children get enough practice? A recent study by the National Literacy Trust suggests that a significant number do not. Their survey of the reading habits of over 8,000 primary and secondary schoolchildren revealed that less than 50% read every day or almost every day, over 30% of children read outside school less than once a week, and 15% rarely read outside school at all.

Why is practice so important?

The answer is not only because reading is a skill that does not improve without practice, but also because skilled reading relies on four crucial cognitive processes that depend on practice for their development. The first of these processes is automatic word recognition, which implies that the vast majority of words in a text will be recognised speedily, directly and, on the whole, without recourse to phonological decoding. Just as a well-trodden path is easier to traverse than an overgrown one, this process needs large amounts of practice to become established. The more frequently words are accessed in the mental lexicon, the faster and more fluent their recognition becomes.

The second is vocabulary knowledge – a factor obviously critical in reading comprehension. If children do not understand the words in the text then their overall comprehension of the passage is likely to be impaired. About 30% of poor readers also have poor vocabulary knowledge. In particular, many studies have found that children with poor reading comprehension tend to have weak vocabulary knowledge. For similar reasons, children with poor reading comprehension tend to have poor listening comprehension as well. However, the relationship between reading and vocabulary is reciprocal: children with good vocabulary can read better but also the experience of reading enables children to develop their vocabulary further. The more that children read the larger their vocabularies become, which makes them even better readers, and so on.

The third factor is working memory, which is often found to be weak in poor comprehenders. Working memory is the cognitive process that enables us to store limited amounts of information for a limited time while carrying out a task. It is used in almost every human activity, including speaking, listening, reading, writing, maths and solving problems. Reading is a quintessential working memory activity because it requires us to hold words and phrases in memory whilst simultaneously decoding further words in the text until a meaning can be established. The longer the decoding process takes, the greater the strain on working memory and the consequent increased risk of loss of meaning. There is an interaction between working memory and both word recognition efficiency and vocabulary knowledge: the faster words are recognised the less constraint on working memory to access words and meanings. In a famous episode of the Peanuts cartoon strip Snoopy the dog is reading Tolstoy’s weighty novel War and Peace, but at the rate of one word a day! ‘Why?’ asks his friend Charlie Brown. ‘Because I like to think about what I read,’ replies Snoopy. Quite apart from the extreme length of time it would take Snoopy to finish the novel (in fact over 1,500 years), reading at that speed would render it virtually impossible to understand anything of the text at all. Children have to be able to decode the text fluently and at a reasonable pace before they can achieve good comprehension.

A boy reading a book The final critical factor in reading comprehension is the complex of sophisticated thought processes needed to understand language, whether written or spoken. These include the ability to relate information in the text to wider knowledge, to draw inferences and to make deductions. Research studies have shown that poor comprehenders are likely to be impaired in all these skills. For example, suppose the child read the text: ‘The teacher sat down. The chair creaked under her weight.’ Although it doesn’t actually say that the teacher sat on the chair, this is a reasonable inference from the text. Similarly, it can be deduced from the information in the text that the teacher was probably large. Both of these conclusions in turn depend on the wider knowledge that chairs sometimes creak when sat on, especially by heavy people. Developing these high-level cognitive processes not only takes time and practice, it also requires a learning framework that encourages children to think about what they read, to go beyond the text, and to apply their imagination.

More to be done

Although the development of all these components is integral to the National Literacy Strategy, the fact that so many children are failing in reading comprehension indicates that more needs to be done. Getting children to read more, especially at home, is one important strategy but this can be very difficult to achieve. The National Literacy Trust survey on reading habits found that in addition to the substantial number of children who rarely or never read outside school, almost 20% of parents never read themselves, almost 40% of pupils never talk to their parents about what they are reading, and over 20% of children said that their parents never encourage them to read. But over 50% of pupils said they would read more if they had more time. It can be hard for teachers or parents to make reading a sufficiently attractive pursuit to compete with television, social networking or computer games.

Comprehension Booster The National Literacy Trust survey revealed that over 90% of children have access to a computer at home, and about 50% of pupils said that the availability of reading games would encourage them to read more. Comprehension Booster is not a revolutionary new approach, not a magic fix that will suddenly turn poor comprehenders into good comprehenders. But the content and structure of this attractive computer activity provides an interactive, personalised learning environment that facilitates the development of children’s reading and listening comprehension, helping them to tackle a wide range of increasingly challenging texts with enjoyment and confidence.

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