SharpReading BLOG

Thoughts About Teaching Reading


Comprehension Skills vs Strategies?

I have spent twenty years championing the teaching of Comprehension Strategies as the be-all and end-all of comprehension instruction. Now I am not so sure. 

I still firmly embrace the use of strategies (the research still highlights the benefits for the reader), but of late, in my own research with students I have been investing my time in another aspect of instruction that I think is a necessary precursor to teaching strategies.

Here is an interesting quote from some of the latest research on comprehension (Cook and O'Brien, 2015). 

"Good evidence suggests that important aspects of reading comprehension happen automatically."

Implied here is an intuitively learned set of skills that allows us to automatically understand a significant amount of what we read. 

I have been referring to this as 'in-the-moment comprehension', or that state where a combination of a set of Language Comprehension Skills are being used productively to construct meaning without the conscious intentions of the reader.

Interestingly, unlike 'learning the code', the reader doesn't have to start from scratch with language comprehension. This has been developing orally since birth, and the reader can now apply this understanding to the written text they are reading. 

Scarborough's Rope helps me understand this skill set. 
The reader has developed background knowledge of the world, acquired a mental dictionary of words, understands how these words work together in sentences, and can use all of these available clues to construct meaning from sentences.

The ability of the reader to utilize all of these skills in the act of comprehension will depend on their inherited cognitive ability, their world experiences experiences, and their exposure to language.

Cook and O'Brien add ...

"Readers can also deploy strategies to support comprehension."

This is the bit that gives credence to comprehension strategy instruction.

It supports the long-held thesis that the reader can take those metacognitive 'stop-and-think-about-it' intentional actions to solve comprehension challenges as they arise.

But before we embark on strategy instruction (SharpReading Stages 4-6)  it makes sense to check on the accuracy and efficiency of this Language Comprehension skill set.

My experience is that for most readers this is a very poorly developed process. 
Most have developed the notion that the most valued reading trait is speed, and they skate over the sentence employing what I call 'the idea grab'; something will jump out from the sentence and they will latch on to that. 

In my experience, the greatest aid to developing this in-the-moment skill set is to provide deliberate practice of constructing meaning from a sentence WHILE the reader is reading.

Snow (2002) talks about the act of comprehension as being the ability to extract the ideas contained in a sentence and then be able to synthesise those ideas to construct the meaning that the author has intended.

How do we do that in a manageable way in the classroom?

SharpReading Stage 3 ONLINE Course "Teaching Reading Comprehension" will show you how.


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