This blog post is based on a Facebook Live broadcast hosted by Rachael Gibbon, Senior Publisher in Primary Literacy, and Derry Richardson, Head of Professional Development across UK schools, at Oxford University Press. You can watch the video here, or read on to get an overview of the questions that were answered in the session. So grab a coffee, sit back, relax and let’s get to grips with comprehension!
What do we mean when we talk about reading comprehension?
It might seem obvious, but in simple terms, the basic definition of comprehension is extracting meaning from a text when you’re reading it. However, there are lots of complex thought processes that go on when we’re doing this, and often, even we as adults don’t understand 100% of what we read. We encounter lots of different types of text in everyday life and reading itself is not just about extracting meaning, it’s also about creating meaning. When we use the skill of inference, we’re supplementing the text, drawing on our own knowledge and experiences and looking for clues in the text to create meaning. Reading is a creative process too. We often share what we’ve read with somebody else in some way, either by discussing our opinion of it, or by obtaining information from it that we can teach to, or share with, others. That means it’s a communicative activity and it’s really important that we mimic that in the classroom to give children the sense that reading is not a passive activity.
What are the common blockers to comprehension?
Reading comprehension is a complex process, and there are many pupils who don’t find it as easy as others. According to an Oxford Primary survey completed by schools shortly after the 2017 SATs results, a few things came out as common issues:
1. Learning new vocabulary: Children need exposure to a rich and colourful (but not too colourful!) vocabulary that they can apply to their ideas and thinking, so that they are able to take a text and imagine it as they are reading. We need to understand how reading can expand and enrich the quality of talk that children are exposed to, as a communicative, rather than silent process.
2. Reading at speed: When a child knows how to put their graphemes together and blend their sounds, we might be satisfied that they’re reading well, but if they’re simply focused on the reward of getting to the end of the page – reading at speed – are they really comprehending the story? When they see the word ‘dragon’, do they go straight on to the next word, or are they seeing it with green wings, a blue tail, smoke billowing out of its nostrils, flying around in their mind? Only at this point are they beginning to comprehend the story. If they’re visualising the story, they’re engaged in it and, as a consequence, are building a love of learning.
3. Reading for a purpose: A love of learning is a huge motivation to read, but one of the hardest things as a teacher is that in the classroom you are teaching children to read for a purpose, and quite often that purpose is tangible: to find out facts in history, to explore science. But outside of the classroom, where is the drive for children to grab a book and a torch and read under the duvet?
4. Anxiety and lack of self belief: Anxiety and lack of self belief originate from two things that pose big challenges to reading comprehension: having the problem-solving skills at their disposal to be able to access the text, and having working memory. Working memory is hugely important for children and they are developing this skill at the same time as learning so many other new skills. If they don’t have working memory, how do they remember that the dragon ate the knight? It’s a lot of information to carry with them as they go along and it takes a while to develop the skills and the mental organisation to be able to make links backwards. One of the things you will often say to children is ‘explain your thinking: what happened in the story?’. We want them to feed back and talk in detail, but this can be hampered by low motivation, sticking with phonics, anxiety, and lack of working memory. Sometimes a child will struggle to apply empathy, depending on what that individual child has been exposed to. They don’t have so much life experience to draw on, and it’s easy for us to forget that as adults.
How can we improve children’s comprehension?
A good starting point is the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) report that was published last year: Improving Literacy in Key Stage Two. The report looked at what successful readers already do in class and at home, or wherever they are, in order to access texts, and to understand what makes someone a successful reader. All of the research distilled down into three key points.
1. Use appropriate texts: This might sound really obvious, but that doesn’t detract from its importance! Exposure to different genres and lots of different text types is vital. In real life, we’re exposed to many different text types, and children need to be able to engage with these to obtain meaning, as well as to be prepared for them in assessments. This variety brings richness and fluency, giving children the confidence to engage with lots of different things and to be able to navigate their way around different layouts – visual literacy is important too.
Equally important is levelling. It’s fantastic when we see that children are reading voluntarily – that’s half the battle – but if they’re continuing to always choose things at more or less the same level, that are not offering them any challenge, then we can’t be sure that they’re progressing and learning new skills. It’s really important to be able to give them the right amount of stretch – nothing too scary, so they don’t feel like a failure. We don’t want anxiety and lack of self-esteem to start creeping in, but we don’t want so little challenge that they’re becoming lazy readers who will never engage beyond a certain level. To ignite a love of reading, sometimes children need to be challenged, in really careful increments of challenge followed by success. The science of levelling is there to allow you to confidently choose a text, even when you don’t have time to go through the whole bookcase. This allows you to explicitly teach the relevant skills and trust that it’s appropriate for the age group that you’re teaching. That way you know that each child is having the right level of challenge to build their own self belief that they’re a reader.
2. Be an expert figure: You as the teacher should bring all the knowledge and skills that you’ve acquired and really articulate those in class, modelling the thought processes you go through. This is something we call metacognition: talking through your own thought processes so that they’re transparent to the children and they can learn from them.
3. Take a systematic approach to focusing on key comprehension strategies: These are the things that teachers already do in class and some are quite straightforward. For example, when it’s obvious that the children haven’t quite grasped a text, you go back and read it again. Maybe they were more focused on the mechanics of reading the first time around, so they need that second read to start really engaging with the meaning. Encourage them to really draw on their own life experiences. Children can be a bit black-and-white and they think everything should be there on the page, but sometimes to understand the concept you’ve got to borrow from other parts of your brain and your experiences to piece things together. This requires slightly more sophisticated skills, like making connections with other parts of the text and is where working memory comes in. They need to look for clues within the text – being a reading detective is an exciting approach that’s really engaging for children!
There are subtle differences between teaching full comprehension and actually explicitly teaching strategies. What happens a lot in class is that we see the opportunity to mention a certain strategy so pull it in incidentally here and there, but sometimes more value can be obtained if this is done in a really systematic way. The EEF report strongly recommends teaching these strategies upfront, modelling them for the children and then handing over the responsibility to them as soon as you can. That way they can practise independently. After all, you’re not going to be there with them during their everyday lives to follow them and help them engage with texts.
You can read the full EEF report on Improving Literacy in Key Stage Two here.
Try the ‘think aloud’ comprehension strategy
Watch Derry Richardson model the ‘think aloud’ strategy for teaching reading comprehension below, using a text from Project X Comprehension Express.
This is metacognition in action! When you hold up the ‘think aloud’ cloud, the children know they’re hearing the thoughts from your head that are helping you to comprehend the text. Sometimes teachers feel a little bit self-conscious about holding the ‘think aloud’ cloud and articulating their thinking, but when you try it in class, children find it really engaging and exciting. This is a really lovely way to stop and engage with the text as you go. It’s also about training working memory. We want children to naturally pull in all these tools and strategies to help them understand the text as they go through it.
Ready to try it? You can find the book used in this example and a sample lesson with all the associated teaching materials for free on Oxford Owl. Try it out in class see if it works with your children. You’ll also find another great video of Comprehension Express in Action.