Great progress has been made during the past 15 years in the area of reading, and particularly, in our understanding of the underlying skills needed to be an efficient reader. Beginning readers must master a set of phonemic awareness and phonics skills that allow for new words to be "unlocked’. Research has demonstrated that:

  • children are more likely to have trouble reading in the later grades if they lack phonemic awareness (as early as in kindergarten)
  • simple tests of children's skill at working with phonemes could predict later reading problems and failure; and
  • children's reading can be improved using simple techniques to show them how to identify the phonemes in words.

Research has also demonstrated that phonemic awareness and phonics, while necessary to learn to read, are not sufficient, especially when we think about reading as a way to extract meaning from printed text. Good readers must also be able to apply these skills quickly, understand the words they read, and to relate what they read to their own lives and experiences.

Much more than sounding out  

Even when children can break spoken words into smaller units (called phonemes) and are able to blend sounds together to form words (phonics), there are at least three other skills that are important to master to be able to extract meaning from written text. Skilled readers, in order to understand what they read, must also:

  • read with fluency  (practice reading until they can recognize words easily, read with greater speed, accuracy, and expression)
  • build vocabulary (learn the meaning of new words, both as they appear in written texts and as a way of better understanding the world in which we live)
  • have guided oral reading opportunities (reading out loud while getting guidance and feedback from skilled readers)
  • develop reading comprehension strategies (techniques for helping to understand what is being read)

Reading Comprehension is      

It’s clear that reading comprehension is a complex cognitive process that depends upon a number of ingredients all working together in a synchronous, even automatic way. Vocabulary clearly plays a critical role in understanding what has been read. The reader must also be intentional and thoughtful while reading, monitoring the words and their meaning as reading progresses. And the reader must apply reading comprehension strategies as ways to be sure that what is being read matches their expectations and builds on their growing body of knowledge that is being stored for immediate or future reference.

Some effective techniques for build vocabulary skills:

  • computer-based vocabulary instruction programs
  • storybook reading or listening to others reading aloud
  • learning new words before reading a text
  • task restructuring and repeated exposure (such as having the student encounter the same words in various contexts)
  • substituting easy words for more difficult words (this is particularly helpful with low-achieving students or students with limited English proficiency) 

Some effective techniques for building text comprehension skills: *

  • comprehension monitoring (helping readers to be aware of their understanding of the material)
  • cooperative learning (pairing students or creating small groupings where students can learn reading and practice strategies together)
  • graphic and semantic organizers (including story maps, where readers make graphic representations of the material to assist comprehension)
  • question answering (readers answer questions posed by the teachers or peers and receive immediate feedback)
  • question generation (readers ask themselves questions about various aspects of the passages being read)
  • story structure (students are taught to use the structure of the story to help them recall story content and answer questions about what they have read)
  • summarization (readers are taught to recall and integrate information gleaned from texts into abbreviated summaries of what they have read)

* Some of these types of instruction are helpful when used alone, but many have been shown to be more effective when used as part of a multiple-strategy approach.

Overcoming barriers to understanding printed text   

The key to helping students understand what they are reading is to provide them with strategies and techniques that can be used to extract and retain meaning. These strategies include teaching students how to:

  • monitor their comprehension and make adjustments as they move along
  • use graphic or semantic organizers that help students draw conclusions about what they are reading
  • ask questions of themselves and seek assistance from others to clarify the meaning of what is being read
  • summarize (orally and in writing) what is being read, both for short and long passages
  • successfully apply more than one strategy during reading

Collaborative Strategic Reading (CSR): An example of a multiple-strategy approach  

CSR is a comprehension building strategy that has been successfully used with students in grades 4 through middle school (see the Vaughn & Edmonds article for more detail).

It involves teacher modeling, student role-playing and in-class ‘think-alouds’ to help students learn when, how and why to apply different strategies. Students are then assigned to collaborative groups and students are given an assortment of roles that allow for peer support and corrective feedback. Essential components of strategic reading are practiced and students monitor their comprehension while reading and learning new words and concepts.

Additional Resources

Look here for more information about reading comprehension and strategies to help students to become more accomplished readers:

A summary of The NICHD Research Program in Reading

Development, Reading Disorders and Reading Instruction from NCLD’s 1999 National Summit on Keys to Successful Learning. 

NICHD Reading Research: From Research to Practice Vaughn, S. & Edmonds, M., (2006). Reading Comprehension for Older Students. Intervention in School and Clinic, 41, 3,131-137. PRO-ED., Austin, TX. 

Reading Strategies and Activities Resource Book for Students at Risk for Reading Difficulties, Including Dyslexia A resource that presents sets of instructional strategies for beginning reading and is specifically and carefully designed for classroom teachers to use with students who are at-risk for reading difficulties, including dyslexia. 

 ’Reading Next: A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy.’ This report, published by the Alliance for Excellent Education in 2004, offers information about instructional elements for enhancing reading comprehension in adolescents.

Text Comprehension: A Reading 101 feature from Reading Rockets.

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