Candy floss is amazing stuff. It is soft and easily moulded, but quickly dissolves. As I was watching a candy floss seller skilfully creating intricate sugar flowers for my children recently, it struck me that in many ways, candy floss and reading comprehension are similar. Candy floss starts as a swirling, wispy cloud that can just as easily float away as become something tangible.
Often, as I nudge children’s thinking towards tangible understanding, I am aware of the intricate balancing game I am playing – each part of the comprehension process is important, leaning on the others and working together to create an orchestrated mental model.
In Understanding and Teaching Reading Comprehension (2015), Jane Oakhill and Kate Cain suggest that there are four essential ingredients to this process: an understanding of text structure and organisation; depth of vocabulary (what you know about the words and how they are used); inference skills and the ability to monitor your understanding to make sure it makes sense and to correct it if it has gone astray. All these ingredients work together to create the big picture: the mental representation. If we maintain our focus on these four main ingredients when we work with children, we can’t go far wrong. But is essential that we focus on helping children understand how all the aspects work together.
Ingredients of reading
Of course, each of main ingredients are complex themselves, with multiple strands within them, so it is tempting to concentrate on a single aspect until we feel it is under control. For example, to make inferences, children must understand how text works at both a local cohesion level (within and across sentences) and at a global cohesion level (across a whole chapter, book or page). Children need to comprehend the links between sentences and then pick up the nuances of dialogue, tone, emotion and setting to bring the words alive and ensure a complete understanding of the text as a whole. A child’s understanding can break down at any point and it can be a challenge to recognise which part is tricky for them.
However, there are a number of questions you can ask children to help you explore what they are struggling with. These questions can be asked about even a very short text, without much preparation.
- Are there any words or phrases you don’t understand? What are they? What do you think they mean?
- Tell me what happened in this text? Retell the story.
- What would be a good title for this text?
- Was there anything that made you stop and think? Anything you were unsure of? Anything that didn’t make sense?
- What do you think about this text? (a question requiring a personal reflection and response)
When working in this way, I write down the responses of the child as completely as I can, especially when they are retelling the story. By looking closely at what they have said, we can begin to understand the types of inferences they are making, or not making. Their responses can help us to gauge the challenges for the child and to focus our teaching accordingly.
If we establish the fundamental ingredients of comprehension, we can begin to help children understand the process of spinning them all together.
Megan Dixon is director of literacy at the Aspire Educational Trust