A child in your class is reading aloud, pronouncing each word accurately without tripping over any words. Did they understand the text?
It would be logical to think so, but, as Professor Kate Cain explains, fluency is not the same as comprehension. In fact, children who struggle with reading comprehension may be able to read clearly and even recall facts from the text, and yet still not really understand it.
Cain is head of the psychology department at Lancaster University, and her research focuses on the cognitive skills that underpin reading and listening comprehension.
Her early career centred around exploring comprehension in adults, but she started looking at the issue in primary-age pupils during her PhD and has since moved on to early years, to “identify the foundational skills” required for successful text comprehension and the interplay between them.
She says the importance of reading and listening comprehension for all ages cannot be overstated.
“We think about reading comprehension as enjoying a good book and escaping into the world of fiction,” she continues. “But it’s actually essential across the curriculum and across your lifespan. If you want to develop your knowledge and learn about history or geography or science, you’ve got to be able to understand text. How else can you acquire new knowledge from textbooks?”
Cain cites research that has found poor reading comprehension can affect health choices.
“How can you make informed decisions about medical procedures and follow medical advice if you can’t understand the information that you’re given in written form?” she asks – and she points out that our social media-focused modern world means we are actually far more reliant on reading than previous generations.
“In today’s world, an increasing amount of social interaction requires reading comprehension,” she says. “Rather than just talking face to face, we’re using text messages and Facebook and reading blogs all the time.”
In schools, then, there is a significant issue: approximately 10 per cent of primary-aged pupils find comprehension a serious challenge, she says, with this group 12 months or more below the expected level in both reading and listening.
In this context, listening comprehension doesn’t mean being able to follow a conversation, Cain explains. Instead it’s about being able to understand a text that has been read aloud. Conversations offer a degree of negotiation between the speakers, and often focus on the here and now, while spoken texts are static and focus on a topic decided upon by the author.
“In a conversation, you can interrogate and ask questions if you don’t understand what someone is talking about,” she says. “You can’t do that with a text. Following a conversation is an aspect of comprehension, but it may not necessarily determine how good you are at reading comprehension.”
Whether they are listening or reading, for those who struggle with text comprehension, problems arise when it comes to higher-order skills, such as linking a text to the wider world and making inferences about meaning. For example, a text might state that someone read a horror story and then left the light on when they went to sleep. A student who has a low level of comprehension may not make the association between this action and the character’s fear.
It’s all to do with the mental models we create when we engage with a text, Cain explains. A mental model is a representation of the situation described by the text.
This involves many different skills and processes, starting with the meanings of individual words. But even this basic level of understanding individual words in the text can present challenges.
“Vocabulary knowledge doesn’t operate in isolation,” she explains. “We use context to retrieve the appropriate meanings of individual words. And a lot of words in English have multiple meanings.
“‘Tear’ can refer to tearing a piece of material or a tear in your eye. ‘Bank’ can mean a financial institution, or the side of a river. If we are good comprehenders, we can use context to retrieve the appropriate meaning of the word.”
But for those who find comprehension challenging, that can be a much more difficult, slow process. Similarly, Cain continues, the understanding of grammar and whole sentences form a vital part of the mental model of a text.
“There are elements of grammar that act as processing signals or guides to a reader or listener,” she says. “We have temporal connectives like ‘before’ and ‘after’ that signal the order of events. We have causal connectives like ‘because’ and ‘so’ that might explain the reasons for a character’s actions. Pronouns are also important cues; ‘he’ or ‘she’ tells you that the text is referring back to some previous entity.”
Then, beyond these basic elements, come the higher-level processing skills, which Cain refers to as “discourse level skills”, such as inference, use of context, the application of background knowledge and use of text structure, all of which are more difficult for poor comprehenders.
And another tricky aspect of comprehension is that those who struggle with it are often not good at assessing how well they have understood a text.
Memory and attention difficulties can be a contributing factor, she continues, and although the requirements for reading and listening overlap in many places, they are not identical.
“If you read a difficult paragraph and you don’t understand it, it’s there on the page and you can go back and re-read it,” she says. “If you’re listening, once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Therefore, she says, memory and attention skills may be more critical for listening comprehension – which teachers should bear in mind when reading aloud to a class. There is a growing awareness of these issues among teachers, she adds, but assessing students for comprehension difficulties is still a labour-intensive process.
“Teachers are becoming more aware of reading and listening comprehension and the skills involved,” she says. “But assessment usually involves working with children on a one-to-one basis, asking questions and looking at the responses.
“Some reading comprehension assessments can be administered to a whole group, using multiple choice responses, for example, but you then have to ensure that a low score is due to a difficulty with reading comprehension, and not word-reading.”
Where problems do exist, she continues, all the evidence says that the earlier that interventions take place, the better. Comprehension problems are not insurmountable, but if they aren’t being identified until a child is at least seven or eight years old, they will have built up a “poor-quality experience” of not understanding texts properly.
“We can probably do a lot more in the early years,” she explains. “Exposure to good-quality texts in a scaffolded way, with adults asking questions and showing children how to put ideas in a text together, is very important. We increase vocabulary knowledge by exposure to text and it’s the same way with grammar.
“There are certain grammatical structures, such as embedded clauses (part of a sentence that provides extra information), which you don’t often find in everyday speech but you have in texts. So exposure gives you that experience. Books contain much richer vocabulary than conversation: many more rare and infrequent words are found in text, so reading can be a good way to build up word knowledge.”
And in primary and secondary classrooms, there are practical steps that teachers can take to boost comprehension. Scaffolding is crucial, as is modelling how to make an inference, how to use clues from context to retrieve the correct meaning of a word and how to evaluate how well you have understood a text.
“Some of the work being done on how to create good curricula to teach reading comprehension is very much about that,” she says. “The teacher discussing and guiding and modelling those behaviours so children know how to actively interrogate a text, rather than just passively listen to it or read it.”
But for those who do develop difficulties with comprehension, time and effort are required to overcome them.
“The interventions that have worked to date are quite labour intensive,” Cain says. “You need to be with children on a regular basis, often on a one-to-one basis, to really help support their skills.”
But, she adds, the end goal is not an immediate understanding of every text a child ever comes across. Instead it’s to become equipped with a set of “compensatory strategies” that they can use when the meaning isn’t clear, such as re-reading, reading around a topic and analysing contextual clues.
“We all experience difficulties with comprehension at some time,” she says, “even as adults. When you’re reading a news story about an unfamiliar topic, or reading something that isn’t in your native language. It happens to me when I’m looking at a new area of science.”
The important thing, she says, is to recognise that it’s a part of life, and to be comfortable in challenging and overcoming it, whatever age you are.
“And if we can give children a really rich language environment that is fostering these core skills, even in pre-school, we can minimise the number who will go on to have these difficulties.”
Zofia Niemtus is a freelance writer