Whereas decoding is about sound and processing sound, comprehension in reading is about language and processing language.
It is purely language: when there are no illustrations there are no visual cues, and there are none of the body language or intonation clues of conversation. Comprehension is a linguistic skill, and children who fail to pick up the messages embedded in the text are children who struggle with language.
It is very useful to think of comprehension with Gough and Tunmer’s “Simple View of Reading” formula:
In other words:
- A child cannot make sense of text if they cannot figure out the words, or if their mental energy is unduly absorbed with figuring out the words.
- A child cannot make sense of the words they have read unless they have the language skills to do so.
The readings in the Agility With Sound programme address each of the elements of accomplished comprehension.
- They are all decodable. Every story is made up of words the child already has the skills to decode. There should be no guessing words.
- There is the barest minimum of illustrations, and most stories have none. The child must rely upon and develop language skills.
- Almost every story contains some words that few children will have encountered before, but incorporated in such a way that the context makes the meaning easy to infer.
- The child must stop frequently, after every few paragraphs in the early stories, and draw a summary of what they have read. This requires them to monitor, to build a mental image, and it requires them to think about detail the text has not explained.
Should I draw three children or ten children?
Will this be a big dog or a little dog?
Should I put trees or buildings in the background?
They may need to think closely about the meaning of the new word in order to complete the picture. This task extends to every few pages in the later stories.
- Several of the stories are unfinished or have sections for the child to complete. The child must think about the structure of the text, where the story is leading.
- Every story is scripted with leading questions, and with modelled ways of thinking to develop comprehension skills: “This makes me wonder why….” or “I am beginning to think that…” or, “I am thinking that has to be a clue!” The research clearly shows us how effective this modelling of comprehension strategies can be.
Along with fluid, effortless decoding, reading comprehension has a number of key facets.
Vocabulary is important. Too many unfamiliar words, and extracting the sense of the text will be hampered.
Beyond that, comprehension is an interactive process. Central is the ability to infer, to put two and two together, to compare what happened on page 2 with what is happening on page 4, and what is happening in the text with what the child already knows.
Using context clues to figure out the probable meaning of new words is also an inferential skill. Good readers monitor their reading: they recognise where their current understanding does not make sense, they slow down or re-read passages, they build mental images as they read, and adjust that image where necessary.
Good comprehenders recognise the structure of a text, the organisational framework the author is employing, how this fits with other stories or accounts they have read, and quickly figure out where the text is heading from where it has been.
Underlying these strategies are some linguistic skills. Many children have a very poor memory for language. There are eight year olds who cannot hold onto the information contained in a single sentence, let alone several pages of text.
Some children cannot process language: ask some eight year old children to do this and then that but first do something else, and their heads are in a whirl. I have encountered many children who have an outstanding memory for the content of text, can repeat complex sentences word for word, but cannot complete these language processing tasks at a most basic level.
Agility With Sound has been designed from the ground up to tackle these issues and bring a child to successful reading comprehension.
Further reading issues are covered in Spelling.