Reading Comprehension: Making Meaning from Words
by Debra Nassau RITES learning specialist
Reading comprehension is understanding what we read. This skill is essential if we want to gain information from the words on the written page. For many students, making meaning from the words they read is a real challenge. They can pronounce the words and put them together with the other words in a sentence; however, then they struggle with the meaning of a passage.
Reading comprehension is influenced by a person’s reading skills (including word attack and fluency skills). It is also impacted by what the reader brings to the text. In other words, what does the reader already know about the topic? How familiar is the reader with the vocabulary/terms related to the topic? While debate exists today about how important knowledge is, given our ability to “Google” any topic, there is evidence that supports the value of background knowledge when it comes to reading comprehension.
Background Knowledge is Important to Understanding While Reading
In his book The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Minds Reads, psychology professor Daniel T. Willingham describes studies that have compared the importance of reading skills and background knowledge. In reference to one of these studies, he writes: “Verbal skill didn’t matter much compared to knowledge. In other experiments reading skill does make a contribution, but it’s often relatively small, and it’s virtually always smaller than the importance of topic knowledge” (122).
According to Willingham, readers need both rules about language, as well as a broad knowledge about the world, in order to effectively interpret and understand what they read. He notes that writers often omit vital information because they assume some basic knowledge about a topic in order to put their words into context. If a reader lacks this basic knowledge, s/he may become frustrated and give up on reading early in the process. In another publication, Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do, Willingham states, “To be a good general reader, your child needs knowledge of the world that’s a million miles wide and an inch deep” (17).
Ways to Help Your Child Improve Comprehension Skills
There are many easy things parents can do at home to improve their child’s comprehension skills. Encouraging leisure reading can help children build their vocabulary and background knowledge. In our busy and technology-laden world, it takes a sincere commitment to set aside time on a consistent basis for this important activity. Willingham suggests two main ways to approach this challenge:
Make access to books easy and make reading the most attractive choice available
This means putting books in places where children are likely to get bored, including the car, near the back door, in his/her backpack for the school bus, and in his/her bag during any type of travel experience.
Create moments in which literacy makes sense
Find ways to integrate reading and writing into daily activities:
- Leave notes around the house for your child
- Ask your child to write notes to family members
- Have them read a cookbook with you as you prepare dinner
- Let your child help with sorting the mail
For older children:
- Encourage them to read to younger siblings or friends
- Ask them to read about an activity they are interested in, at school or in the community
In addition to providing opportunities for your child to read on his/her own, make reading time a family activity. As Willingham states, “Your child needs to observe that reading matters to you, that you live like a reader” (Raising Kids Who Read, 5). Other ways to broaden background knowledge include reading to your child, listening to audiobooks (this is great for readers who are ready for content that is above their current reading level), watching educational programming, discussing current events, and attending museums.
About the Author of this Blog
Debra Nassau earned a Master of Arts in Education with a Focus on Special Education: Learning Disabilities from American University. She has worked with students with learning disabilities for over 25 years and has supported many struggling readers at RITES over the past twenty years. She recently attended the Learning & the Brain Conference entitled “Learning How to Learn” where she had the opportunity to hear a presentation by Daniel T. Willingham, Ph.D.
Willingham, Daniel T. Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2015. (This is an excellent resource for parents. It provides practical strategies and advice for helping your child become a lifelong reader.)
Willingham, Daniel T. The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Minds Reads. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2017 (Rooted in cognitive research, this book is a clear and fascinating exploration of the complex skill of reading.)
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