Comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading.41 The RAND Reading Study Group defined comprehension in a way that has informed the thinking of many educators in this field. This definition was written about child learners, but it applies equally well to adult literacy learners.
We define reading comprehension as the process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language. We use the words extracting and constructing to emphasize both the importance and the insufficiency of the text as a determinant of reading comprehension.
Comprehension entails three elements:
The reader who is doing the comprehending
The text that is to be comprehended
The activity in which comprehension is a part.
… These three dimensions define a phenomenon that occurs within a larger sociocultural context … that shapes and is shaped by the reader and that interacts with each of the three elements.
Snow, 2002, page 11
Knowledge for comprehension
In order to comprehend written texts, the reader needs to have some basic knowledge, strategies and awareness. These include:
- the ability to decode print accurately and fluently
- knowledge about language, including vocabulary and syntax, and strategies for applying that knowledge
- knowledge and experiences of the world, including life experiences, content knowledge, background knowledge and knowledge about texts
- an awareness of their own processes and strategies as they approach reading. Relevant processes and strategies include motivation and engagement, comprehension strategies, monitoring strategies and “fix-up” strategies.
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Schema theory and comprehension
An important source of understanding about the nature of the knowledge that informs comprehension is schema theory.42 Schema theory is concerned with how knowledge is represented and organised in long-term memory (as sets of information, or schemas) and then brought to mind as new information comes in. The theory suggests that individuals relate all new information to what they already know or have experienced. In the context of reading, schema theory emphasises the critical role of the reader’s prior knowledge in comprehension.
Researchers have identified different kinds of schema that are particularly significant for reading.43 Content schemas concern knowledge about the world, ranging from the very personal and everyday to broad and specialised knowledge. Textual schemas concern knowledge that readers (and writers) have about the forms and organisation of written texts, from word-level information to complex information about structure and register.
Schemas are activated when a reader sees and starts to read a text. The textual schema will enable the reader to recall and interpret the text in the light of what they already know about texts, for example, about text types or genres, vocabulary, different kinds of sentences, tone and register. These schemas may also enable the reader to make predictions about the kind of text this will be by referring to their stored knowledge of text types. Content schemas will be activated as the reader engages with the words and any pictures in the text, from the title onwards. For example, as a reader starts an article about rugby, they will bring to mind everything they already know about rugby. If the reader knows very little about rugby, the article may be difficult to comprehend. The more relevant prior knowledge the reader has, the more they will comprehend when they read a text that connects with their existing content schema.
Readers from diverse cultural and language backgrounds will have diverse schemas, but for all learners, the more knowledge that is stored, the more that can be interpreted, understood and added to the store.44The implication for ESOL learning is that accessing the learner’s textual schema and building new language knowledge is the key to increasing expertise in English. Likewise, accessing the learner’s content knowledge and helping them to relate it to new contexts will help them to comprehend texts in English.
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Comprehension strategies are specific, learned procedures that foster active, competent, self-regulated and intentional reading.
Trabassco and Bouchard, 2002, page 177
A large amount of research45 has shown that good readers use a range of comprehension strategies. Good readers also monitor their comprehension46 and apply fix-up strategies when they experience a breakdown in comprehension.47 There is sound evidence that readers can be taught to use comprehension strategies and to monitor their use.48There is some experimental evidence that indicates that this is also true for adult literacy learners, even though many adults may be relatively unaware of their own comprehension strategies.49 The learning progression for comprehension reflects what we know from research and describes points along the continuum from beginner to expert reader. It includes suggestions for ways in which tutors may assist the development of adult learners’ awareness of how to engage actively in the process of comprehending written texts.
Researchers may describe comprehension strategies in different ways and their lists of strategies may vary somewhat, but there is general agreement about the kinds of strategies that readers employ as they use their knowledge to comprehend texts. Strategies are not discrete behaviours; they are used in a great many different ways by different readers who are able to combine and integrate them as they encounter new problems or ideas in texts.
The reading progressions in this book are based on the following set of reading comprehension strategies. Vocabulary knowledge and the reading context are of central importance to all of them.
- Activating prior knowledge or making connections. Readers bring to mind the knowledge (schemas) they already have about the world, words and texts, and they apply that prior knowledge to help them understand the new knowledge in a text.50
- Forming and testing hypotheses or making predictions. Readers form expectations about texts before and during reading. Their expectations lead them to make predictions, which good readers will check as they read, to confirm or revise them against the new information they are gaining from the text. Hypotheses may be based on any aspect of the text, such as the text structure, the subject matter, the size and shape of book, or the context or task within which the reading is required.51
- Identifying the main ideas. Readers determine what the most important or central ideas in texts are. To do this, they draw on their prior knowledge and experience of the ways in which texts are structured (for example, knowing that newspaper articles often state the main idea in the first sentence), they infer meaning and determine relative importance. Readers may also hypothesise and synthesise different aspects of the text in order to identify the main ideas.52
- Making use of text structure knowledge. The way in which text is structured plays an important role in comprehension. Readers use what they already know or are learning about text structure to help navigate and comprehend new texts.53
- Summarising. Readers make rapid summaries (rather like making mental notes) of what they are reading as they work through a text, checking for connections and clarification and using their knowledge of topics, vocabulary and text structure to find and connect important points.54
- Drawing inferences or reading between the lines. Readers make educated guesses to fill in gaps as they read, inferring the information that the writer has not made explicit. To do this, readers draw on their background knowledge as well as the words on the page, making and testing hypotheses about what the writer probably intended.55
- Creating mental images or visualising. Readers construct mental images as they read in order to represent the information or ideas in ways that help them connect with their own background knowledge. Readers also use mental images to help them see patterns, for example, in ideas or text structure, which will lead them to a deeper understanding of the text.56
- Asking questions of the text and seeking for answers. Most readers are constantly posing and answering questions while they read, as a strategy for understanding the text they are engaged with. Questions may relate to the meanings of words or sentences; to the structure of the text as a whole; to the plot or character development (in a story); or to any other aspect of the text and its context. Through asking questions, readers are able to form and test hypotheses, make inferences, summarise and co-ordinate the use of other comprehension strategies.57
Selecting and combining comprehension strategies
Readers draw on a vast range of information and use it strategically through an interplay of these comprehension strategies. For example, a key source of information for adults is their knowledge of text structure. Readers approaching a text will have some prior knowledge of text structure (the ways in which texts are organised at sentence, paragraph and whole-text level in order to convey information or ideas in particular ways). They will have gained this knowledge from their experiences of seeing, reading and listening to written texts. As they approach the new text, they will use this text structure knowledge to help them identify and understand the structures used in the text. This in turn will help them to form hypotheses about the content and how it might be organised. The text structure will also assist them as they use the strategies of identifying the main ideas and summarising the content of the text.
Metacognitive thinking and reading comprehension
Most readers use comprehension strategies without consciously thinking about their own complex processing and accessing of knowledge, but expert readers have the ability to bring the strategies to mind. They also have an awareness of what to do and how to do it (that is, they think metacognitively) as they read.58
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