The two receptive language strands are both about understanding language, and comprehension involves using comprehension strategies to understand language at more than just surface level. The strategies listeners and readers use are similar in many (but not all) ways. Adult learners can often transfer skills in comprehending oral language to their written language and vice versa.
Listen with Understanding: Comprehension progression
Listening shares many characteristics with reading, particularly in relation to comprehension. However, listening does differ from reading and may be considered more demanding, partly because the majority of adults’ listening is done “in the moment”. This means that listeners may not be able to review what they hear, although they may ask the speaker (where present) for help when meaning breaks down. (An obvious exception is recorded speech that allows for replaying.)
Active listeners attend to oral information, clarify a purpose for listening and use listening strategies appropriate to that purpose. For example, they may listen to a speaker in order to get the gist of what they are saying (the overall general meaning), they may listen for a particular item of relevant information, or they may need to understand everything the speaker says. The comprehension strategies listeners use are similar to those used by readers. They include making connections with the speaker and between ideas, identifying and responding to the main ideas, summarising information and inferring information that has not been made explicit. Active listeners monitor their comprehension, using and adjusting strategies to overcome barriers or obstacles. The variability of social, cultural and emotional contexts adds to the complexity of any listening task, particularly for adults who are not fluent in English. The listening strand includes the idea that these strategies are flexible and can be adapted for different purposes.
Listeners develop strategies for negotiating meaning with speakers. Initially, these may simply involve using well-known expressions (for example, “I don’t get it” or “What do you mean?”). Later they extend to more sophisticated ways of communicating what the listener has understood and what further clarification or information they require (for example, “You said …, but I’m not clear if you meant … or …”).
Read with Understanding: Comprehension progression
Prerequisites for comprehension
In order to comprehend written texts, the reader needs to have some basic knowledge, strategies and awareness.
- the ability to decode print accurately and fluently
- prior knowledge about language, including vocabulary and sentence structures, and an awareness of when and how to use this knowledge
- prior 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.
The prior knowledge readers bring to any reading task will vary enormously: as well as differing amounts of knowledge about reading, learners will all have different prior knowledge ranging from very personal and everyday knowledge to broad and specialised knowledge. Schema theory (see Learning Progressions for Adult Literacy and Numeracy: Background Information) seeks to explain how prior knowledge is used in learning. The theory suggests that individuals relate all new information to what they already know or have experienced. For readers (and writers) this includes prior knowledge about written texts, ranging from information about how words are spelled to information about the structure of a formal essay or the right format and language for a job application.
Reading comprehension strategies
Good readers use a range of comprehension strategies. They monitor their comprehension as they read and apply fix-up strategies (such as rereading) when they realise they have lost the meaning. There is general agreement about the kinds of strategies readers employ to help them comprehend texts. Readers use the comprehension strategies singly or together in many different ways as they encounter new problems or ideas in texts.
The reading comprehension progression is based on the following set of reading comprehension strategies.
- Activating prior knowledge or making connections. Readers bring to mind the knowledge 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.
- 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 a book, or the context or task within which the reading is required.
- 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 decide on the relative importance of different parts of the text. Readers may also hypothesise about the ideas and synthesise different aspects of the text in order to identify the main ideas.
- Using knowledge of text structure. 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 them find their way through a text and comprehend new texts.
- 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.
- 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.
- Creating mental images or visualising. Readers construct mental images as they read in order to picture 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, that will lead them to a deeper understanding of the text.
- Asking questions of the text and searching for answers. Most readers are constantly posing and answering questions in their heads while they read, as a strategy for understanding the text they are engaged with. Questions may relate to the meanings of words or sentences, the structure of the text as a whole, 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.