Reading is Comprehension

During the last two years many of you have heard me talk about how reading is not a natural process for the human brain. Teachers and parents work together in order to provide their children with the resources and strategies that will serve to meet their individual needs. At Tewksbury we have introduced “cutting edge” technologies such as Fast ForWord and the Reading Assistant. We have addressed the need to improve the comprehension of text through the use of Reciprocal Reading strategies and Visualization / Verbalization strategies that are gleaned from the Lindamood-Bell program.

In my final few blogs as Interim Superintendent, I plan to focus some additional attention on the topic of learning to read and reading to learn. Let me start with a brief story… 

A number of years ago while observing a lesson in a kindergarten classroom, I witnessed a light bulb go off in a young student. The teacher was walking around the room and asking students to share their journal entrees. The entrees varied from simple pictures to various combinations of words and pictures. All of these variations represented different levels of literacy development which is very common in the elementary school classroom.

I listened closely as the teacher asked one of the students to read his journal entry to her. He paused for a moment and said, “I know that I can write, but I can’t read.” The teacher, in a very positive and encouraging tone, said it looked like that there was a great deal written in his journal and that she would really like to know what it says. After another pause the youngster began to read to the teacher what he had written. In the middle of his oral reading, he stopped, looked at the teacher and said with excitement, “I can read!”  Needless to say, that this was a very special moment in deed.

The comment that was made by the kindergarten student was significant because it represented what reading is all about. He understood what was written in his journal, even though it was not in traditional or standard form. Reading is comprehension. It is communication from one person to another through the use of written symbols.

On numerous occasions I have observed students in some of the upper elementary and middle school classrooms who sounded out words very well, but who struggled to retell what they had just read. They were unable to summarize the written passage and place events in the appropriate sequence. Simply sounding out words without appropriate meanings attached to the words, is not reading.

In order to help your child boost his reading skills it is important that we take a moment to define what effective reading looks like. Reading does look a little different for each child. This is because each child is unique. However, we can point to some specific characteristics of what can be defined as effective reading in general.

One of the first factors to reference in our definition of effective reading deals with engagement. The reader needs to be an active participant in the reading process. By this I mean the reader needs to be thinking about things relating to what is being read before, during and after the words are sounded out.

For example, effective readers do not simply begin to read when they are handed some printed material. The first thing that a good reader needs to do is make some predictions of what she is about to read. This allows the brain to look for patterns and make connections to prior experiences that the individual has had. This is very important since the human brain is a pattern seeker. To illustrate this point take a moment to read the following paragraph: 

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdgnieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid aodccrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dnsoe’t rllaey mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are squeneced, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the hmuan mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azmanig huh? Yaeh and I awlyas tghuoht slpeling was ipmorantt!

Were you able to read the paragraph? I bet most of you could, once you realized it wasn’t one large spelling error. Good readers can identify many words on sight, especially when the first and last letters of the word are in the right place. When reading texts rather than lists, proficient readers use prior knowledge and context along with letter and sound knowledge as they identify words and construct meaning (K.S. Goodman, 1973; F. Smith, 1988). Even though readers may see all the letters of a word, they identify the word before recognizing all the letters separately. Again, it is possible to actually read the above paragraph because once the patterns were detected you were not only able to sound out the words but you were able to comprehend the material.

With all of this said, here is a list of some of the important characteristics of an efficient reader: 

An efficient reader…

–          Makes predictions.

–          Asks questions in his mind about what is about to be read.

–          Detects patterns based on prior knowledge.

–          Is able to utilize context clues or hints that are include in the text, sub headings, illustrations, etc.

–          Reads the material with fluency, intonation and accuracy.

–          Is able to sequence and summarize the written material.

–          Seeks to clarify unfamiliar words, phrases, and or concepts.

–          Displays motivation and interest in the written material.

–          Is able to write accurate summaries and orally retell the main ideas and supporting details of the printed material.

As you can see, it is one thing to simply sound out words. It is more important that meaning is attached to these words and that the words together present a coherent message that is conveyed form the writer to the reader. This is certainly a tall order for the human brain and thus a challenge for both teachers and students on a daily basis.

All of these facts point to the importance of ongoing support at home and positive approaches to a very complicated task. Like anything else in life, good things take hard work and commitment. Reading is a very good thing to be able to do and do well. With that said; be on the lookout for future blog posts that will provide additional strategies and ideas that may help your child to do a better job at comprehending text.   

Jim Gamble

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