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Defining Reading Comprehension
What is reading comprehension? Experts have a variety of answers for this question. The basic answer is that students understand what they read, and they can make meaning from the words on the page.
To find a more in-depth answer to this question, there are many experts who have answers. The following is a compilation of a few.
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The National Reading Panel (NRP) on its website National Reading Panel reported comprehension is key to improving reading skills. There are three main themes to reading comprehension skills:
- The role of vocabulary development and instruction play an important role in helping students to understand the complex cognitive process of reading.
- The reader must be actively involved with the text by intentionally thinking about what he or she is reading.
- Teacher preparation of comprehension strategies to improve understanding is connected to reading achievement.
Keith Lenz, Ph.D., University of Kansas, writes in the article "An Introduction to Reading Comprehension" at the Special Connections website that "the process of comprehending involves decoding the writer's words and then using background knowledge to construct an approximate understanding of the writer's message." How the student interprets the words to make meaning of the words can be different for different students. Knowledge of the topic, language structures, text structures, genres, cognitive and metacognitive strategies, reasoning abilities, and motivation can all affect comprehension.
Steve Peha reports in the article "Comprehending Comprehension" at the Teaching That Makes Sense website that comprehending is a process of reading rather than a product of reading. He likes to use the strategy called Say-Think-Feel-Mean to illustrate what successful students do when they read difficult text. Even when strong readers not know every word, they can still make some meaning of the passage if they are actively involved and trying to comprehend it.
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Beyond Sounding out Words
Sheldon H. Horowitz, Ed.D. writes in his article "Reading Comprehension: Reading for Meaning" at the National Center for Learning Disabilities website that to become a good reader, children need to understand phonemic awareness and phonic skills when they begin to learn to read. Weaknesses in phonemic awareness can lead to trouble reading later. Students can improve by learning how to identify phonemes.
However, knowing phonemes and phonics is not enough to understand or make meaning from a text. Students need to be able to do the following:
- Fluently read with accuracy, speed and expression
- Understand the words and build their vocabulary
- Relate the reading to their own lives
- Read aloud and receive feedback from good readers
- Comprehend what they read by monitoring what they are understand and do not understand while they are reading
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Handing a book to a student is not enough to help improve his or her reading ability, especially for struggling readers. To improve reading comprehension, teachers need to try a variety of strategies to improve a student’s vocabulary level and his or her understanding.
To build vocabulary, teachers can try the following strategies:
- Use programs on the computer or software designed to improve comprehension
- Read aloud story books to students to help with difficult vocabulary. They first need to listen to the story and then read it themselves
- For low readers, use easier vocabulary in place of more difficult words
- Create lists of difficult words from the text that students learn before reading the text
- Discuss challenging words in small groups before, during and after the reading
To build comprehension and fluency, teachers can try the following strategies:
- Direct students to complete pre-reading strategies to preview and predict what will happen in the passage
- Ask students to predict, question and summarize sections as students read
- Teach students plot structure so that students can follow a story better
- Allow students to listen to the book on tape while they read
- Ask students to monitor their comprehension through mental notes, reading journals, book markers with areas to write important events, etc.
- Pair students or place them in small groups so that they can read together and practice reading strategies together
- Require students to use reading graphic organizers to take notes or to organize information they learned while reading
- Discuss reading selection with students through question and answer sessions
- Require students to summarize reading passage in writing
- Tell students to write questions about things they did not understand after they finish a reading assignment
Building reading comprehension takes a great deal of planning and effort by the teacher. Activities need to happen before, during and after a student is assigned to read a passage, short story or novel. However, reading is so important in all the other subject areas that it is well worth the effort.