BLOG > Learning To Read Is An Unnatural Act

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As funders of literacy initiatives, we believe it is important that donors know as much as they can about what they fund, and since reading comprehension is vital to literacy and achieving grade proficiency, we studied the topic in depth. In addition to other sources, we learned the most about reading comprehension instruction from a book written by Jane Oakhill, Kate Cain, and Carston Elbro, called Understanding and Teaching Reading Comprehension. We are not educators, and much of what follows is quoted or paraphrased from that special book.

Sixty-six percent (66%) of fourth grade readers fail to reach grade proficiency because the education system fails to prepare teachers.  But if a student begins his reading journey with a teacher trained in explicit, multi-sensory literacy instruction, he has a better chance of becoming a strong comprehender. Research has proven that the highest quality reading instruction includes explicit teaching in reading comprehension. 


Readers Start to Learn by Decoding…

If young students are taught the fundamentals of language and literacy, they are set up to become grade proficient readers and comprehenders. A child will begin to grasp and discover the orthographic (written system of language) and the phonological connections between letters and sounds. A young reader will learn about morphemes (the components of words, such a roots and prefixes) and semantics (the meaning of words). Finally, the student will learn about syntax—the grammatical arrangement of words in sentences. As the authors state, “the more a student understands those elements, the more efficiently the word is decoded, retrieved, and comprehended.” The effective comprehender is a fluent reader, recognizing words and reading sentences quickly and accurately. When teachers are trained to teach these developmental steps, their students enjoy the extraordinary benefits of good reading comprehension. To read effectively and understand and remember an author's meaning are skills that lead to academic and career success, and for many readers bring hours of enjoyment. 

“Children who have early, intensive training in phonics tend not only to be better at word reading later, but also to have superior comprehension skills.” (National Reading Panel, 2000) This is why the explicit, multi-sensory literacy instruction methods offered by Wilson nonprofit partners, IMSLEC, AOGPE, and ALTA are a launching pad to effective reading comprehension. “When taught only whole language methods, children don’t become independent readers unless they extract the letter-sound rules themselves.” Brady, 2011; Seymour & Elber In addition to the four training organizations that have mastered all aspects of reading instruction, we admire ReadWorks that offers teachers complimentary online teaching materials that are effective at improving reading comprehension.

What is incredible is that eventually readers who are guided by well-trained teachers in explicit, multi-sensory literacy instruction can grow their vocabulary and comprehension skills through supervised independent reading, but this process takes deliberation and explicit instruction. During a school year a student might read 100,000 to 1,000,000 words, while increasing their word knowledge and improving their reading comprehension skills.

Key Features About What We Learned About Reading Comprehension…

As each of us reads, it is easy to be unaware that as readers we need to successfully juggle a range of skills that include word reading ability, vocabulary knowledge, and syntactic skills. We must exercise our long-term and working memory strengths and find the subtle inferences between the words. As readers we must have knowledge about structure of text, and then we must use our metacognitive skills to appreciate in a general way what is going on as we read. To read effectively with lasting comprehension, a student must master the interplay between those strands of thought, and a well-prepared teacher must master the complexity of teaching them.

Understanding and Teaching Reading Comprehension iterates that while children come to school with spoken language skills, they must learn written language skills, or the “ability to understand texts that were designed to be read.”  A student’s earliest experience interpreting printed text in a book depends on their first-hand experience.  As their reading skills develop, their first-hand knowledge is the stepping stone to understanding new text and reapplying it to gain more comprehension as they read along. Even books read aloud are far more formal and structured than spoken language. As children advance through school they grow from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”

Placeholder imageOakhill, Cain, and Elbro provide an overview of the component parts of reading, dividing it into two general categories:

1.) Word reading, which includes letter and sound knowledge, accurate word decoding, and automatic word decoding. In word reading, the student needs letter and sound knowledge, accurate decoding skills, and a level of word decoding automaticity.
2.) Language comprehension, which includes accurate word meanings; understanding sentences; making inferences; monitoring reading comprehension, and understanding text structure. In language comprehension, the student must be able to activate word meanings, understand sentences, make inferences, and monitor their reading comprehension as they read. (Scarlborough, 2011)

Comprehension requires that words be recognized and understood and that meanings and associations be triggered in a fraction of a second. Developing a good vocabulary is a baseline strength to reading fluently, but growing a vocabulary is a combination of learning specific word meanings and learning new words through independent reading. Readers do need to know about 90% of the words they read, but they don’t need to understand every word and have a deep knowledge of their meaning. (Nagey  & Scott) This is because the words in the context of the text can inform the reader as well. A reader needs to know the relationships between familiar and unfamiliar words, and they should also become word-meaning “detectives”. Further, an effective comprehender can connect the words into understandable and coherent sentences, with each sentence in sequence joining the next to create a meaningful whole. Oakhill, Cain, and Elbro explain that this leads to the successful construction of a clear, complete, and integrated representation and mental model of the the text. A trained teacher can improve a student’s vocabulary by explaining key words and linking those words to the topic before students read a passage.

Why Is Reading Comprehension Instruction so Important…

To comprehend text, a reader does more than connect words and sentences. Written language doesn't explicitly give a reader everything he needs to make sense of the text; it doesn't communicate everything the text means to communicate. There are gaps and leaps the reader must take by using inferences that are seen and understood through  background knowledge. Inferences play such a prominent role in reading comprehension that a well-trained teacher must teach their students to develop their own strategies to find them. Local inferences hold the words and phrases together like train cars, and global coherence inferences provide the overview by connecting different parts of the text together.

Students read for different purposes, and the structure and the nature of the text has impact on how they read and comprehend. Reading a story for pleasure and reading factual, informational text to prepare for an examination at school have different goals. Oakhill, Cain, and Elbro say that successful readers must be outcome-oriented. Comprehension monitoring is vital. A successful reader and comprehender is aware of what she is reading and whether she can make sense of the text.

“Why does comprehension fail?” Rereading the text can be remedial. Maybe the reader lacked sufficient background knowledge, failed to understand the vocabulary, or couldn't remember the preceding text. Prepared teachers can coach a student to develop his or her own problem solving strategies. Their students can learn to identify specific errors or look for inferences. A student might try to retell the story or summarize the meaning of informational text.   Oakhill, Cain, and Elbro suggest a student try to form a mental image of the passage to improve his recall and understanding.

Today the great majority of our kids fail to reach current standards for average grade proficiency, when the 21st century workplace needs even higher levels of comprehension ability. We can't wait for our education system to prepare teachers. Supporting learning centers and nonprofits that can independently train teachers was never more important than it is now.

Henry Sinclair Sherrill
Boon Philanthropy