Pupils who can read well but understand very little

6th June 2008 at 01:00
New programme helps children who have mastered phonics but struggle to comprehend

New programme helps children who have mastered phonics but struggle to comprehend

Teachers may be overlooking pupils who can read words out loud but do not understand their meaning. The increasing use of phonics in schools has helped children to decode how to say words, helping them to recognise the letters c-a-t and say "cat".

But academics at York University are concerned that pupils' ease at reading words out loud may mask those who have difficulties with comprehension.

Charles Hulme, professor of psychology, said: "These children are largely unrecognised in typical classrooms because what most people, including most teachers, understand by reading is being able to translate print into sound, to decode. Plenty of poor comprehenders are fine at reading something out loud, so teachers think they have adequate reading skills. But if you ask the child, `Why was John upset?' they will look at you blankly or give you a fairly bizarre answer.

"They are doing their best but they have a poor understanding of what is in the text."

Professor Hulme, together with colleagues Paula Clarke, Emma Truelove and Maggie Snowling, have been testing different approaches to help eight- year-olds who struggle to understand words.

Their trial screened 1,000 children in 20 primary schools. In each class, eight pupils were chosen who showed the biggest discrepancy between reading aloud and reading with understanding.

The children were then assigned to one of four groups: they would either get help with spoken language; reading; both oral and reading; or were in the control group.

Every group had three 30-minute sessions a week with a teaching assistant for 20 weeks.

The oral language group were taught the meaning of words by having passages read to them; they would then discuss them and make up their own stories.

The text comprehension group were given help in reading texts and were shown how to make inferences from them and write stories. The combined group had elements from both programmes.

Professor Hume said all the programmes worked better than the control; the text intervention had the least impact; the oral group was slightly better, and the combined approach had most effect. He stressed that the statistical difference between the three interventions was not reliable but, he said it was encouraging that research had shown it was possible to help pupils who could decode words but not understand them.

Brayton Junior School in Selby, North Yorkshire, was among those which took part in the pilot, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Gloria Beecroft, its headteacher, said: "I noticed the difference within a term, particularly in children's writing and their participation in class dicussions."

- Details on Read Me, the York Reading for Meaning Project, are at: www.york.ac.ukrescrlreadme.html


- Children's oral language skills, which they develop before starting school, are the foundation on which their reading skills are built.

- Teachers should be aware there are two forms of reading problems: decoding (word recognition) problems are different from problems understanding the meaning of what is written.

- To help children who are struggling to decode, programmes that teach children both about letters and phoneme awareness (awareness that cat consists of the sounds c-a-t and so has three phonemes) are highly effective. These include synthetic phonics schemes.

- To help children struggling to comprehend words, a new scheme that promotes oral and reading skills is effective (see main story).

- Interventions should not be seen as a "quick fix". Children will require continuous support.

Source: Prof Charles Hulme, York University. The Nata Goulandris Memorial Lecture: Reading Intervention, Linking Theory and Practice.

Teachers should encourage pupils to ask themselves questions as they read, in order to help them make sense of the text. Anne Kispal, of the National Foundation for Education Research, examined how pupils learn to make inferences from reading-comprehension texts.

This involves using the text's explicit meaning to draw out more implicit information. For example, in the sentence, "Peter begged his mother to let him go to the party," the reader would have to infer that "his" and "him" refer to Peter. Similarly, the sentences, "Kelly dropped the vase. She ran to sweep up the pieces," requires the reader to surmise that the vase shattered on impact.

The NFER research suggests that teachers can help pupils to draw their own inferences by "thinking aloud their thoughts as they read aloud to pupils".

In this way, they can make explicit the thinking processes involved in understanding a piece of text.

In their discussions with pupils, teachers should repeatedly ask them to explain their own thinking processes, asking them about characters, their goals and their motivations.

And they should train pupils to ask questions of themselves as they read, questioning why characters act in certain ways, and bringing their own general knowledge to the text.

The report states: "Inference can be seen in children of all ages, and can even be practised with pre-readers using picture books.

"One way of cultivating these skills in young readers and reluctant readers is to do it in discussion, orally."


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