Have you ever asked a student to read something in class only to then ask them about it, and be met with a blank expression? As teachers, we might be left wondering why this is, particularly when our students sound like they’re reading. But as it turns out, there’s a lot more to reading than just sounding out the words. Reading comprehension involves students engaging in a lot of different processes at the same time: decoding, recognising vocabulary and its meaning, drawing on their understanding of how sentences are put together and interact, and linking that to their background knowledge – all in real time! As skilled readers, we probably don’t think about everything involved but when we look at all the elements, it’s easy to see how reading comprehension might break down if students struggle with one or more of these areas.
A popular myth about reading – and comprehension in particular – is that it’s a set of skills and strategies that once learned, would allow the reader to apply their skills to any text to understand it. Some of these suggested strategies included finding the main idea, making inferences, or locating information but unfortunately, these strategies are really difficult to implement if you don’t understand what you’re reading in the first place. This is because reading comprehension is a complex cognitive process.
So what is reading comprehension?
The model we use to explain reading comprehension is called the Simple View of Reading (SVR) (Gough & Tunmer in 1986).
Decoding x Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension.
D x LC = RC
If you have completed our Dyslexia Decoded course, this model will already be familiar to you. What it means is that reading comprehension relies on two factors: the individual’s ability to ‘decode’ (also sometimes referred to as ‘word recognition’) AND their language comprehension skills, or their ability to understand different elements of language.
Another model, the Reading Rope (Scarborough, 2001), shows the different components of reading in more detail. On the bottom, the three strands contributing to word recognition – phonological awareness, decoding skills, and sight recognition – must become increasingly automatic for a student to become more proficient at reading. We don’t want students to have work too hard on word recognition, because it takes away from their ability to focus on language comprehension.
Language comprehension relies on students applying their background knowledge, vocabulary, knowledge of language structures (e.g., how words are put together into sentences), verbal reasoning (which refers to inferences, metaphor etc.) and literacy knowledge (print concepts, genre and so on) to whatever they’re reading. Background knowledge and vocabulary are essential components because they help the reader to make sense of what they’re reading by linking it to their existing (background) knowledge and words they already have in their oral language vocabularies.
Students who struggle with word recognition will need intensive targeted support in decoding using a systematic, synthetic phonics approach to help them to catch up. All students benefit from instruction in systematic synthetic phonics because it is the most efficient and effective method of teaching students to encode (spell) and decode (read).
So in short, reading comprehension is described as a product of the two because if either decoding or language comprehension is compromised, reading comprehension is also compromised.
In a typical classroom setting, we can actively improve our students’ reading comprehension and our instruction by building our students’ vocabulary and background knowledge. Research shows that background knowledge should be considered a foundational element of reading comprehension, along with vocabulary, and vocabulary, with its strong links to word recognition, has the added benefit of also improving fluency and overall comprehension.
Tips to build students’ background knowledge and vocabulary for reading comprehension
Here are some helpful tips for the classroom:
Pre-teach vocabulary using explicit instruction
Teach students the words, their meaning and how to use them. You won’t be able to teach every word this way, but it may be useful to identify 1-2 words and teach them ahead of reading the text. Research has shown that using a dictionary to teach vocabulary is inefficient and unlikely to stick so instead, choose words that help students to understand the text they’re about to read but also enhance their understanding of other things they may read. Repeated exposure in the text you read will help reinforce its meaning and then give them a chance to practice using it in context of a discussion or writing.
Use non-fiction and fiction texts
This will help build students’ knowledge and vocabulary around a topic so that they can better understand what they’re reading. Teaching non-fiction texts will also help build students general, cultural and world knowledge and help prepare them to understand a wider range of topics. You might like to choose news articles and match them with news clips on the same topic, podcasts, audiobooks or even apps such as the National Geographic app to dive into different topics. Use graphic organisers, such as word webs, to show students how different words and ideas are connected. You can draw multiple connections between words and ideas – the more interconnected our webs, the richer our students’ understandings will be.
Focus on building domain knowledge
Each domain (or discipline, e.g., history or biology) will have its own body of knowledge, vocabulary and sometimes also particular ways of reading or writing. When we build up students’ domain knowledge, we also help teach them the relevant literacy knowledge for that domain, for example, how we might approach reading a historical letter or an annotated diagram, and the key things to look out for. In addition to building webs for new topics, you can teach students to annotate or use graphic organisers to help link new knowledge to ‘existing’ knowledge or show them how different words or ideas connect.
The more we can support our students’ decoding and language comprehension, the more automatic and strategic their reading comprehension will become.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to support students’ reading comprehension, keep an eye out for our course, which will be launched later this year. Register your interest below.
Written by Melanie Henry.
 (Hirsch, 2003; Kim et al., 2012; Scarborough, 2001; Smith et al., 2021)