Misunderstanding? It’s a crucial part of learning to read

To become good readers, pupils need to develop important metacognitive skills such as inferring and self-monitoring for meaning, writes Megan Dixon
5th April 2019, 12:03am
To Become Good Readers, Children Need To Develop Metacognitive Skills, Writes Megan Dixon

Megan Dixon

Megan Dixon is director of research at Holy Catholic Family Multi-Academy Trust
Find me on twitter @DamsonEd

Share

Misunderstanding? It’s a crucial part of learning to read

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/misunderstanding-its-crucial-part-learning-read

I am sitting in a lecture. The topic is new to me and I am feeling slightly anxious. After the first 10 minutes, the words start floating over my head. I'm not sure that I understand what the presenter is talking about and a familiar sense of panic creeps up on me.

But I recognise this feeling - I've been in this situation before and I know what to do. I take a deep breath, regroup, put up my hand and ask the lecturer to clarify and explain the aspects I do not understand.

Supporting pupils to have strong metacognitive skills like these is a powerful part of our teacher toolkit. As an Education Endowment Foundation guidance report on metacognitive and self-regulatory learning suggests, children as young as 3 can use a wide range of such behaviours to help themselves learn effectively. They can plan, act and evaluate the success of their learning.

The process of metacognition is particularly crucial in reading. There are three cognitive aspects of reading comprehension. The first is vocabulary, and text structure and organisation. Then there are two metacognitive processes: inferring, and self-monitoring for meaning.

When we read, we build a mental representation of the text in front of us. This mental model is informed by our background knowledge, vocabulary and understanding of how texts work. Instead of remembering each sentence and paragraph word for word, we assimilate the gist of the meaning into this model, continually refining and updating it.

The path to comprehension

If we read something that does not align with our mental model - maybe a phrase is out of place or an action does not make sense - then we have the uncomfortable experience of misunderstanding. It's crucial that we recognise and react to this if we are to become good comprehenders.

We all have what professors Jane Oakhill and Kate Cain describe in Understanding and Teaching Reading Comprehension as a "standard of coherence" - a point at which we realise that what we think we have understood does not make sense. Our standard of coherence can vary from subject to subject, and not every pupil has the same level.

For some, if the purpose of reading is simply to get all the words right, then they will have a low standard of coherence - whether they understand what they are reading doesn't hold very much importance.

So how can we help pupils to maintain a high level of coherence when they are learning to read and reading to learn?

One of the simplest ways is to make sure pupils know that the principal reasons to read are to understand and learn from a text. We can help them to recognise that familiar sense of panic, regroup and share with us what they have misunderstood. We can teach them by asking one simple question: "Tell me, what don't you understand?"

Megan Dixon is director of literacy at the Aspire Educational Trust

This article originally appeared in the 5 April 2019 issue under the headline "Learn from what doesn't make sense"

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, check if your school has a Tes subscription. If not, for just £5 per month you can subscribe personally for:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

Check if your school has a Tes subscription. If not, for just £5 per month you can subscribe personally for:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Read more