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Going to bat for the neglected art of comprehension

The reading wars have thus far all been about how we get children to read words, with the battle over phonics taking centre stage in schools and in academic research. But Jessie Ricketts and Megan Dixon argue that this has come at the cost of comprehension. Stuck in the shadows, this essential part of the reading process has been neglected and pupils are suffering as a result. So, what do we do about it?

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The class were reading a short story about a small child called Billy. The story described Billy playing on the beach, making sand castles while his mother read her book.

After they had read the story, the teacher began to ask the questions she had prepared.

“How old is Billy?” she asked.

Anna’s hand flew up and she squirmed with excitement. Her wriggling fingers caught the teacher’s attention.

“OK. Anna, what do you think? How old is Billy?”

The child grinned, confident in her response. “He’s 84!” she replied, triumphantly.

The teacher smiled sadly, shook her head and turned to another child for an answer.

It was always the same, she thought to herself. Why did Anna never seem to understand the simplest of questions about the text? Her reading was fine, she was ploughing through the longer chapter books like the rest of the class and could read aloud without too much difficulty, but she didn’t seem to remember anything from the text.

Does this sound familiar? The research indicates that it probably does. Studies show that in every class of 30 children or young people, at least two or three will have difficulty understanding text. To be more precise, most recent research suggests that about 7 per cent of children will struggle with reading comprehension alone; 5-10 per cent will have problems with word reading that will result in difficulty in understanding text; and 7-10 per cent will have language issues that make it hard for them to understand both the text, as well as the dialogue that is built around the text in the classroom.

This is not something that schools can afford to ignore. Yet, amid the fervour and focus on the earliest stages of learning to read, have we neglected – in policy, in research and in schools – the importance of teaching children how to read to understand?

The ultimate goal of learning to read is to comprehend the message that the author intended, with all the nuance and subtlety that this entails. But for the past 50 years or so, research, practice and policy have focused almost exclusively on learning to read words.

What science has to tell us about reading words has come together with policy and practice to work towards improving standards (for more on this, see “Ceasefire in the reading wars”, Tes, 15 June). The self-congratulation is warranted – we have come a long way in our understanding and practice of how we teach children to learn words. Yet, there is an unsettling sense of “job done”.

The truth is: we are far from done.

There is a difference between reading words and reading text. It is possible to be able to read the words on a page, even in a longer piece of text, and fail to construct any meaning from them at all.

Effective reading comprehension involves a reader constructing a representation of the text, which develops and evolves, as the reader continues. This mental model is built from a wide range of knowledge, skills and understanding. Effective readers flexibly use their vocabulary knowledge and other background knowledge to understand texts. They also read between the lines and generate inferences to build their mental model. As they are reading, they are continually monitoring their understanding and repairing any misunderstandings.

Effective readers do not read to remember every word; they read to gather the gist of the text and understand the messages, both explicit and implicit, that the author intended to explain. Reading to understand is an active process. It is hard work. And we simply aren’t focusing enough on how to support students to do this well.

What we do now

One theoretical approach to understanding individual differences in reading – one that the current national curriculum for the teaching of reading is based upon and that most schools put into practice – is the “simple view of reading” proposed by Philip Gough and William Tunmer in the 1980s. This theoretical perspective suggests that the ability to read relies on the interaction of two processes: word reading and language comprehension. In this model, word-reading skills and spoken-language comprehension work together to help children become effective, comprehending readers.

This model assumes, as does the national curriculum, that both strands should be taught. When children come to the task of learning to read, an inability to decipher the words on the page is a barrier to successful reading. So teaching the skills of word reading (including phonics) is a vital part of the process. But this should be done in tandem with, and supported by, a rich language curriculum to foster spoken communication.

However, we need to recognise that the language of text differs from spoken language. Spoken-language abilities are clearly important, and research has shown that children who struggle with reading comprehension can often struggle with spoken-language comprehension more widely. But reading text and speaking are different in many ways.

So, from the earliest stages of learning to read, we should not just be looking to create classrooms rich with spoken language, but also taking the time to develop a rich understanding of texts and the ways in which they work.

The research has identified a number of pressure points that can make the comprehension of text a challenge in itself.

1. ‘Book’ language

The vocabulary and syntax of spoken language are typically much simpler than those found in written language. People normally do not “talk like a book”. While authors will tend to leave clues across the text to aid comprehension, unless a reader understands how to find and use those clues, the task of understanding a text is a different challenge to understanding a conversation.

If you don’t understand someone when they are talking to you, you can watch their face for clues, follow their body language and ask questions to ensure you understand.

A written text relies on the sequences of words and the blunt tool of punctuation to help the reader understand the nuance.

2. Text structure

Another pressure point can be the structure of text itself. Writers leave clues in their words, phrases and sentences.

Each genre of text has its own structure and framework, as well as specific language and grammatical constructions. Understanding these is absolutely integral to understanding the cultural and social purposes of the text. The more familiar we are with the text type, the easier it is to understand; authors consciously select the writing conventions that they use to influence, persuade, explain and explore. This becomes particularly relevant when children move into secondary school and are presented with subject-specific texts situated within each subject or discipline.

Take the opening paragraph from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”

In this text, there are many words and grammatical constructions that we wouldn’t use in everyday conversation; there are also archaic and idiomatic phrases. The structure leaves clues to meaning, but many inferences need to be made to understand anything more than the gist.

3. Global comprehension

There are also more global comprehension processes, such as making inferences and integrating across sentences, that, though common to both spoken and written language, carry particular challenges while reading.

Writers often expect readers to make a variety of inferences using background knowledge or by piecing together information from different parts of the text – indeed, this requirement to make inferences underpins many popular styles of writing, including crime fiction and classic Victorian novels.

Even within and across sentences, inference is essential; a good comprehender understands that a writer will try to avoid the repetition of words and phrases. Instead, they will use pronouns (he, she, it, they) instead of nouns and often replace words entirely with synonyms. Understanding these tricks helps us follow a complex causal chain of events within a text and to follow a narrative or argument.

“Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.”

Piecing this together with the opening paragraph above, there are many complex causal chains. For example, Scrooge and Marley didn’t get on, Marley died, Scrooge is then his only mourner and executor.

Even for children who aren’t reading complex Victoriana, the same challenges apply:

“Billy was happy with his castle, until a wave knocked it down.”

If we begin to unpick this unsophisticated sentence, as a comprehender, it starts to get complex.

Let’s think about the inferences we can draw. Billy is a child. He is on the beach, building a castle out of sand. We know this because the sea knocked it over. A number of cohesive, authorial tricks are used to help us understand.

Firstly, we link the name Billy with a castle and wave – this leads us to decide that a little boy is building sandcastles on the beach. But at many points, that simple sentence could be misinterpreted. Billy could be your 84-year-old grandfather. The castle could be made of stone like the medieval castles pictured in a history textbook. And “wave” could refer to the act of waving.

Two types of instruction

So, poor language and use of comprehension processes will hamper reading comprehension, but beyond that, myriad other potential barriers exist: paying attention, remembering parts of the text, motivation to read, understanding of the characters and their intentions, and so on.

Is the way that we currently teach comprehension addressing these areas? Do we even know enough about them?

Unfortunately, very few strategies for the teaching of reading comprehension have been researched and found to be effective. Broadly, evidence-based reading-comprehension instruction falls into the two following categories.

1. Reading comprehension strategies

Perhaps the most well-known method of teaching reading comprehension is “reciprocal teaching”, developed by Annemarie Palincsar and Ann Brown in the 1980s and 90s. Reciprocal teaching emphasises the importance of modelling and scaffolding strategies for learners. This is a subtle and nuanced approach that, when effective, emphasises the gradual release of responsibility for the strategies over to the child. Reciprocal teaching emphasises the importance of predicting what might happen next, generating questions, clarifying tricky parts of the text and summarising texts. Other strategies, such as inference training, have also been investigated.

2. Language comprehension training

In 2010, Paula Clarke, Margaret Snowling, Charles Hulme and colleagues conducted the first randomised controlled trial of a reading-comprehension intervention, comparing a reading-comprehension-strategy approach with language-comprehension training that taught vocabulary, listening comprehension, figurative language and spoken narrative. Both approaches showed an impact, with some suggestion that language-comprehension training led to greater long-term gains.

Elements of both approaches can be, and are, used effectively in the classroom. For example, reciprocal teaching is widely used in the US and many teachers draw out strategies, such as summarising texts and building language knowledge. But only limited research evidence exists for the use of these approaches in a naturalistic classroom setting – and still less that indicates what will be most effective. Likewise, there is research to show that simply asking children lists of questions will not foster reading comprehension, though it is a useful assessment tool. Despite this, some children do become good comprehenders, but some don’t. So what happens to those who slip through the net? It’s difficult to spot them, let alone catch them.

Just as there is complexity in the challenges that children with reading-comprehension difficulties face, there can be great difficulty in recognising these children, and unpicking how and what might be contributing to the challenges each child has.

There is no gold-standard assessment for identifying reading-comprehension difficulties; in fact, even for researchers, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact nature of the difficulties a reader may have. These rarely exist in isolation, such is the complexity of the challenge.

Research shows us that many children with reading-comprehension difficulties stay below the radar or are inaccurately identified as having word-reading or other difficulties. This is evident in primary school, but research also shows that in secondary school the lowest achieving 14-year-olds are comprehending at the level that we would expect of an average six- to nine-year-old. Some of these children will have had special educational needs identified, but not all. Few, if any, of these secondary school poor comprehenders will be receiving any reading-comprehension input.

So, what should we be doing?

Research in the past 20 years by experts in the field of reading-comprehension research, including Kate Nation, Jane Oakhill and Kate Cain, has helped to identify the elements that contribute to effective reading comprehension:

• A broad and deep vocabulary and the ability to use it flexibly.

• Knowledge of grammar and the social purpose of language (pragmatics).

• A rich understanding of how texts work.

• The ability to make inferences.

• The metacognitive skill of monitoring their understanding.

However, there is less understanding of what might help to develop reading comprehension in the classroom.

It is clear that developing vocabulary is important. It is less clear how we might do this effectively. It is understood that helping children to understand author intention and how texts work is important, but which genres and types of texts are important to teach is less understood.

How do we help children develop inferential understanding and ensure they are continually monitoring their own understanding? As yet, we are not entirely sure.

Kate Nation has called for an incremental reading-comprehension curriculum to be developed and implemented across all schools. In our view, this needs to start with simple strategies and language knowledge (eg, vocabulary knowledge, self-monitoring), and build up to more complex strategies and learning how to combine strategies flexibly. Integration across curriculum subjects is also crucial. Actively making links between subjects will provide background knowledge for reading comprehension (eg, learning about the Victorian period in history while reading A Christmas Carol).

Teaching the comprehension of reading across subjects will also ensure that pupils can and do translate what they have learned in one context to other types of text and more complex texts. For example, learning that many words have more than one meaning, such as wave (the noun) and wave (the action), and translating this to understanding that “nature” can be used to describe a character’s personality in a play, but in science might be contrasted with “nurture”.

Meanwhile, we also need to get better at identifying those who struggle the most.

Firstly, we can trust our intuition. We can all recognise children who do not seem to understand; the challenge is to work out what the difficulty might be. A child might be reluctant to answer questions or may answer questions incorrectly, as with the anecdote at the start of this article. Applying a label, such as “low ability”, can be unhelpful in these circumstances – we must dig deeper into the possible challenges the child might face.

A careful conversation about a text with children, either individually or in a small group, can be very revealing. Even for young children who might be considered pre-readers, knowing who does not seem to be getting the point of a story that is read to them might well alert you to the warning sign of later reading-comprehension problems.

In research, children with reading-comprehension difficulties are identified using standardised tests. These tests typically involve reading passages of text and then answering questions. Different tests are designed to measure different aspects of the reading-comprehension process and vary in their dependency on being able to read the words, so we should not be surprised if we get different outcomes from different tests.

Notably, questions on a longer text will explore how children can build meaning cohesively across sentences and paragraphs to build a mental model. In contrast, a test that uses single sentences may simply reflect the extent of the vocabulary knowledge that a child possesses. Some questions rely on information stated in the text, and others require inferencing and integration. Finally, question formats can vary. While multiple choice might allow a test to be administered on a computer or in a group, open-ended questioning may provide more detailed insight about comprehension for a teacher.

Once a potential difficulty has been identified, further assessments can be really useful for pinpointing underlying challenges so that support and interventions can be targeted appropriately.

The evaluation of intervention research is not straightforward. A detailed checklist can be found in an article written by Fiona Duff and Paula Clarke (see further reading, below left), but here are four key questions to ask yourself:

• Does the intervention make sense given the research evidence to date and your teaching experience?

• Does the research include a control group? If not, it is difficult to know how much progress children would have made anyway during that period. Interventions need to show greater progress than would be expected from children just getting older and experiencing mainstream schooling.

• Is the intervention described in enough detail to know what has been done?

• Have appropriate measures of reading comprehension been used to assess progress?

Overall, it is clear that what we are doing now is not working for all pupils. It is important to recognise that some comprehension difficulties will be evident before children learn to read. But others will emerge as children move through school.

This is not simply an issue for primary schools, but for secondary teachers, too. And it is not just an issue for the English curriculum, but for every subject. Furthermore, it is not solely a matter for teachers, but for all who engage with pupils and with education.

If we are to better provide for our young people, the research evidence can help point us in the right direction. Working together to develop and robustly test approaches to the teaching of reading comprehension would be a powerful way forward. Here, we need to work towards developing a system that supports reciprocal collaboration between educational practitioners, the research community and policymakers.

Jessie Ricketts is director of the Language and Reading Acquisition lab at Royal Holloway University and Megan Dixon is director of literacy at the Aspire Educational Trust

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