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Thoughts About Teaching Reading

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SharpReading and The Science of Reading

"How does SharpReading align with the Science of Reading Comprehension?"

'The Science of Reading' is often used to describe the recent research in neurological and cognitive science, studies that show how the brain processes written words. Based on these findings, the models that have been created provide useful information to guide our instructional practice.

Please appreciate that I am not attempting to justify SharpReading as 'Science of Reading'.  Rather this is an attempt to show how our instructional processes align with the theory.

KEY SHARPREADING CONCEPTS

1. A Developmental Continuum
Firstly, we have looked carefully at the many different factors which have been shown to contribute to skilled comprehension and have created a developmental progression - a manageable pathway.  Stages 1&2 deal primarily with developing decoding fluency, a prerequisite to the heavy lifting that we want to do with comprehension instruction in Stages 3-6.

Stages 3&4 look at developing literal, sentence level comprehension. Stages 5&6 promote big picture, text level critical literacy skills. While this is not the only way to tackle comprehension instruction, we do think it makes a huge contribution to managing the cognitive loading of students and teachers. Our Scope and Sequence shows how these six stages can be addressed within Year 1-6 classrooms.

2. Skills vs Strategies
Nowadays, everything to do with comprehension instruction is usually referred to as a comprehension strategy. In her initial model, Scarborough (see below) talks only about a set of skills which are used increasingly strategically to construct meaning.

I think this is an interesting distinction. Skills can be seen as actions that have become automatic, that no longer require conscious thought. Strategies are conscious metacognitive plans of action that the reader engages in to help solve comprehension problems. 

With this in mind, our introduction to comprehension instruction (Stage 3) is to see Language Comprehension as a set of skills that are engaged somewhat unconsciously. By alerting the reader to them and encouraging their use as such, we have seen big shifts in comprehension ability and reader motivation. We talk about this as 'training our brain to think quickly and accurately WHILE we are reading'.

3. Scarborough's Rope (2001) - a starting point for Comprehension Instruction

Our rationale for SharpReading Stage 3 leans heavily on Scarborough’s Rope. More recent models ('The Active View of Reading') have added other significant factors (for example Executive Functioning) and these are also catered for within the SharpReading stages. But for now let us stick with Scarborough's Reading Rope to provide a manageable launching pad.  

If we look at Language Comprehension in the model, we see that there are five strands (or different skill sets) that the reader apparently uses to construct meaning. 

The point must be made that when we talk about comprehension instruction we are never talking about starting at ground zero with our students. They arrive at school with varying degrees of these ‘Language Comprehension’ skills and they apply them to construct meaning as they are learning to lift the words off the page (decoding).

What does each strand offer?

VOCABULARY

Orally, the child learns to recgnise sounds then words and attaches meaning to them. They begin to recognise these words in text and learn when to apply the multiple meanings of some words appropriately. By the age of 10 most children will have up to 10,000 words in their mental dictionary. 

LANGUAGE STRUCTURE

Children learn to respond to combinations of words long before they can talk in sentences or read them.  They learn that sentences contain ideas and these ideas are linked by connecting words which may have consequences. “I have an ice cream for you BUT I want you to eat your dinner first."

VERBAL REASONING

Local inferencing is a key to constructing meaning from a sentence. It becomes an automatic response to interaction with people and the world around.  For example, Dad comes inside dripping wet…it must be raining outside. Similarly, the child learns to distinguish between literal and figurative meaning. "The supermarket was a zoo." 

LITERACY KNOWLEDGE

The reader learns how books work from exposure to them and through developing an understanding of the difference between oral language and book language.

BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE

And then we get to general and domain knowledge. This of course is the soil in which all of the above grow. The child develops an understanding of the world around them and the way it works through immersion in it. Limitations in general and domain knowledge create the biggest obstacles to the comprehension of language.  

As such, this background knowledge is a difficult skill to 'practice', you either have it or you don't. I know very little about quantum physics so the sentence "The current logic of correspondence principle between classical and quantum mechanics is that all objects obey laws of quantum mechanics, and classical mechanics is just a quantum mechanics of large systems" means nothing to me. 

4. The Reality of Stage 3 Comprehension Instruction

Then what is it that we try to do to improve the reader's ability to construct meaning?

Within the constraints of their current language ability, we provide the reader with the opportunity to unpack sentences and show us whether they know what is going on in that sentence. We have an open window into the way their brain is processing the information that they are reading. Is there a collaboration of the Language Comprehension strands taking place? 

Many students will have an intuitive understanding of some aspects of constructing meaning in this way, but most will have developed a rather superficial approach to 'skating over the top' of the literal meaning of a sentence. 

Much careful practice of this process develops processing fluency. The teacher can also plan some not too invasive explicit teaching of these strands as is appropriate.  

5. Take it Easy on Explicit Instruction
I say 'not too invasive’ for a reason. Research has shown that to be too heavy handed with these skill sets can have a negligible effect. Extensive grammar instruction (lots of knowledge about phrases, predicates and clauses) has shown to have no impact on the ability to use language structure to construct meaning.

Similarly, you can do a whole lot of work on inferencing (there are many depths you can plumb here), and it can tie the reader up in knots when they try to apply that knowledge to quickly interpret an inferential jump that an author has made within a sentence.

The best skill development doesn't come from lots of skill teaching in isolation. Instead, while the reader is reading (with some skilful guidance which we call independent practice), the reader learns to identify the pieces of information and unpack them all. They recognise unfamiliar vocabulary and know how to grapple with surrounding clues to get a sense of the meaning. They learn to connect the dots and read between the lines to bridge the gaps that the writer has left. They draw on what they already know to build knowledge. Every sentence provides different challenges and this is where 'being strategic' becomes a reality.

I sometimes think of it as learning to combine all the sections of an orchestra to produce a skilled sound (skilled comprehension). The best learning for the musican will often occur when the orchestra is playing together rather than trying to master pieces in isolation.

Meanwhile, a vibrant curriculum in science and social studies will be building students' general and domain knowledge.



 

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