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Understanding reading comprehension

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Understanding reading comprehension

Sound Waves Literacy 26/5/23

Is learning to read simple? The Simple View of Reading* outlines the abilities needed for readers to understand and construct meaning from a text:

word recognition × language comprehension = reading comprehension

Let’s unpack what word recognition and language comprehension are and how the mastery of these abilities leads to successful reading comprehension.

Word recognition

Word recognition is the ability to read printed words quickly and accurately. It isn’t about recognising each word as a ‘whole’, but processing all phoneme–grapheme relationships within the word quickly so it does not consume conscious attention.

Word recognition takes a lot of practice to develop in beginning readers and requires a solid understanding of the following elements.

Element Explanation
decoding The ability to map a letter or a combination of letters to phonemes. For example, f for /f/ and igh for /i_e/. Decoding requires knowledge of patterns, position-specific constraints and morphology.
concepts about print Understanding that sentences run left to right and top to bottom, book pages are ordered left to right, spaces mark word boundaries and words on the page convey meaning. Concepts about print is acquired early in the process of learning to read.
phonemic awareness The ability to identify phonemes and blend them together to produce words (e.g. blending /s/, /i/, /t/ to produce sit). Phonemic awareness also involves segmenting a word into phonemes and manipulating phonemes to form other words.
letter knowledge Being able to differentiate each letter of the alphabet from the others (e.g. distinguishing between reversible letters such as b and d) and recognising letters in different fonts and cases.

Language comprehension

Language comprehension is the ability to understand literal and inferred meaning in spoken language. Confident readers are able to process meaning quickly as they read. They link sentences together to build the overall meaning of a text. Language comprehension encompasses the following elements.

Element Explanation
background knowledge The more you know about a topic, the easier it is to understand. For example, knowing that a flying fox is a bat (and not a fox) is going to greatly improve comprehension. In order to understand text, students need some relevant background knowledge about the topic.
inference skills Successful language comprehension isn’t just understanding what is being said, but being able to comprehend what isn’t being said. Students need to be able to interpret metaphors (e.g. Ben is a walking dictionary.) and figures of speech to understand English language fully.
vocabulary A strong vocabulary enables a reader to correctly pronounce words, while also monitoring whether those words make sense within the text. Research estimates that a reader must know the meaning of 90% of the words in a text to be able to comprehend it5.
grammatical knowledge Knowledge of language structure helps a reader comprehend the meaning that is being conveyed. It requires understanding of the rules and conventions that govern sentence structure (syntax) and parts of speech.

The multiplication sign plays an integral part in understanding the Simple View of Reading model. It indicates that reading is the product, not the sum, of identifying words and understanding texts. If you were to have zero on either side of the expression, your outcome would be zero reading comprehension.

word recognition × language comprehension = reading comprehension

To further illustrate this component of the model, consider an uncommon word like verisimilitude. As an expert reader you’re able to decode this word; however, you may have limited knowledge of what the word means. With no language comprehension of what this word means, reading comprehension is not achieved.

In contrast, most five-year-olds can tell you that a tyrannosaurus is a large dinosaur with powerful teeth and small arms. However, looking at the word tyrannosaurus, they are unlikely to be able to decode or recognise the word. Comprehending language doesn’t mean you will be able to decode words.

How do decodable readers support reading comprehension?

Word recognition and language comprehension are both vital for successful reading comprehension and neither alone is sufficient. So how do we teach and foster both of these skills?

Decodable readers are designed to be read by students to develop word recognition. They give students specific opportunities to apply their knowledge of phoneme–grapheme relationships in continuous, meaningful texts. Over time, this leads to rapid and accurate word recognition and improves reading fluency.

Literature can be read to students to help them develop language comprehension. Listening to these stories enables students to expand their vocabulary and background knowledge while they become familiar with different text types. Reading children’s literature aloud also allows you to model correct reading behaviours, such as phrasing and pace.

As a bonus, well written and illustrated decodable readers (like our Sound Waves Decodable Readers) can also help students develop vocabulary and background knowledge.

As learning to read is an extremely complex process, all educators need an understanding of the skills that underpin reading. A conceptual framework such as the Simple View of Reading, or Scarborough’s Reading Rope6, helps teachers understand the reading process, how they can teach their students to read and how to identify where students might experience difficulty.

To learn more about how the Sound Waves Decodable Readers can be used to teach and support beginning reading, contact your local Education Consultant or check out our website.

*The Simple View of Reading was purposed by Gough and Tunmer in 19861. It was further detailed and tested by Hoover and Gough in 19902 and Hoover and Tunmer in 20183. In 2019 Tunmer and Hoover4 expanded on the Simple View of Reading with their Cognitive Foundations Framework.

References and Further Reading:

  1. Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6–10.
  2. Hoover, W.A., & Gough, P. B. (1990). The simple view of reading. Reading and Writing 2, 127–160.
  3. Hoover, W.A., & Tunmer, W.E. (2018). The Simple View of Reading: Three Assessments of Its Adequacy. Remedial and Special Education, 39, 304–312.
  4. Tunmer, W.E., & Hoover, W. A. (2019). The cognitive foundations of learning to read: a framework for preventing and remediating reading difficulties. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 24:1, 75–93, DOI: 10.1080/19404158.2019.1614081
  5. Moats, L. (2020). Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers. Brookes Publishing Company.
  6. Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early literacy, 97–110. Guilford Press.
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