Decoding and encoding skills are essential to comprehension. Many students today are being told that they have comprehension problems, when in fact they have decoding and encoding problems. If you are teaching from a memorized word list, you are not teaching decoding and encoding. Students can never become effective readers as long as we rely on whole language or “look say” teaching methods. We have the ability to teach students to read and it’s past time that we do so (see my blog post posts from 6/5/17 and 2/5/17).
True reading comprehension means understanding the meanings of words and then being able to integrate and use those word meanings to understand a sentence, a paragraph, or an entire text. Safura and Perfetti (2017) call this process the “word-to-text integration process.”
- First, learning to recognize and pronounce the word.
- Then, learning the meaning of the word, and finally, integrating that meaning into the overall understanding of the sentence being read and its association with other sentences in the text.
- Then, and only then, do you have comprehension.
Reading and comprehension strategies taught in the classroom can never be effective unless we also teach identifying letter sounds (encoding and decoding) and word meanings (Landi et al. 2013). Neurobiological studies in reading show that comprehension is intertwined with single-word reading, comprehension of a written text, as well as listening comprehension (Landi et al., 2013). Yes, vocabulary and definitions of words are essential to effective reading and successful comprehension (see my blog post from 5/10/18). Classroom instruction should begin with:
(1) phonemic awareness, teaching letter sounds. Students must learn effective decoding and encoding skills. Memorization does not work.
(2) The second step is teaching vocabulary and word meanings. Teachers must take the meanings of single words and then
(3) teach the meaning of that word(s) in a sentence. Students learn the definitions of the word, and then how to use the word in a sentence (see my blog post of 2/14/18).
Then finally, children need to know how to put the sentences together and connect the word meanings and sentences into a total text. This is much more effective than simply reading a story and answering questions. For example, how often do you stop a student and ask if they know the meaning of a word in a story? No, students just keep on reading, ignoring the fact that they have no idea what they are reading. I worked with a group of students once who could read very well, but then, when I ask what they had read, they had no idea. How often do you ask if the student knows the meaning of a word in a test question?
A parent brought a school paper to me once, and said, “She failed this.” I turned to the student and began asking what different words meant on the page, especially from the questions. The child did not know any of the words. She could not read or pronounce the words, nor did she know the words' meanings. How can we expect students to comprehend if we have not taught them the meaning, definition and usage, of the words we are giving them? Don’t just assume that the student knows what you are talking about. Ask! Find out, what the student understands. If students do not know the meanings of words, they cannot comprehend.
Once students have moved from words and sentences to full text passages and stories, then students must be taught (4) to evaluate what they are reading while they are reading. Students should be taught to ask questions in their head as they read: What is this story about? Who is the main character? It’s like reading a mystery story and asking: Who did it? A list of questions at the end of a story will not teach this type of internal mental evaluation. Sometimes students must be encouraged to stop and look up the meaning of a word and then reread a passage instead of just continuing. Training the brain to monitor what you’re reading as you’re reading is a learned skill, and if we will follow these four simple steps in teaching reading comprehension, we can improve the way students read and comprehend.