The Cornerstones of Reading Comprehension:
Teaching for Vocabulary and Text Understanding
central objective of reading is to comprehend what is being read. Though
often viewed as only a facet of reading, related to but also distinguished
from aspects such as fluency and phonemic awareness, most would agree
with Durkin's (1993) assessment that reading comprehension is the "essence
of reading"so crucial to future learning that lesson designs,
strategies, and assessment tools should address and reflect reading comprehension
as a part of every subject.
outset, it is clear that a child's exposure and experience with books
and reading are critical factors. However, this conventional piece of
wisdom, for all its merit, was misconstrued for many years, resulting
in calls to "just read" that echoed throughout schools in this
and other nations. The data, analyzed in multiple research meta-analyses
(Fukkink & de Glopper, 1998; Klesius & Searls, 1990; Rosenshine & Meister,
1994; Rosenshine, Meister, & Chapman, 1996; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986) and
in the extensive review Teaching Children to Read (National Research
Panel [NRP], 2000), indicates that there is much more to helping children
learn to readthere are numerous things we can do to further a reader's
arsenal of tools for full comprehension as she moves through the elementary
years and beyond.
of reading comprehension
of research findings reveal that if a reader (student) is to become very
good at comprehending (i.e., understanding and making meaning of) what
he reads he must meet two principal learning requirements. He must: (1.)
know words; and (2.) be able to reason with physical text. The former
is referred to in related literature as vocabulary, and the latter
as text comprehension. These words sound simple enough on the surface.
However, as the two cornerstone requirements of an area as complex
and elusive as reading comprehension, both harbor deep and intermingled
implications in terms of how the reader processes and learns information,
and significant challenges in terms of how we teach for this learning.
Regardless, they are the most desired objectives if we seek to help students
improve their reading comprehension. They likewise bear meaning that defines
our instructional designs and our roles as designers and teachers. We
turn first to the multitude of tiny brush marksthe words themselvesbefore
turning attention to the bigger picture.
for reading comprehension
and our approach to vocabulary instruction, plays an important role in
readers' abilities to understand the reading process and to effectively
apply the complex skills necessary to understand what is read.
of studies that dealt with reading vocabulary (i.e., vocabulary contained
in reading and related to reading comprehension) revealed a variety of
specific instructional strategies that produced effective gains in readers'
acquisition and understandings of word meaning. These strategies can be
generally classified into three categories. Instructionally, we should
approaches toward acquiring and understanding word meanings. Explicit
instructional approaches where the reader was directly given definitions
and specific characteristics and uses of words often proved effective
(Dole, Sloan, & Trathen, 1995; Rinalidi, Sells, & McLaughlin, 1997; White,
Graves, & Slater, 1990). When the purpose of understanding vocabulary
was to strengthen reading comprehension, gains were most pronounced when
vocabulary instruction was tied to the specific materials being read,
particularly when employed prior to reading (Brett, Rothlein, & Hurley,
1996; Carney, Anderson, Blackburn, & Blessings, 1984; Medo & Ryder, 1993;
Wixson, 1986). Implicit approaches, such as providing numerous opportunities
for the reader to gain exposure to the words she needed to learn, were
similarly effective (see incidental learning in recommendation
three). Likewise, research reviews have drawn distinctions between methods
that focused on practice that improved a reader's capacity by helping
to make reading automatic and those that encouraged the reader to associate
or draw connections during reading between word clues or words they know
and words they do not know. Both were effective, the former mostly evidenced
through studies dealing with very early elementary and preschool children
(see Improving Reading Comprehension:
Making the Oral Reading Connection in the Early Grades), and the latter
with students ranging in age from 8 to 15 (Levin, Levin, Glasman, & Nordwall,
1992; Margosein, Pascarella, & Pflaum, 1982; McGivern & Levin, 1983).
Significantly, "multiple" strategies used in isolation (i.e.,
stacked, sequentially, one at a time, etc.) were in large part not
effective. We must use multiple approaches that employ several or
many strategies in tandem or in support of one another for significant
learning gains to result. Computer and other multimedia methods were useful
in this sense, by increasing both the speed and the variety (see second
recommendation) of the reader's access to sources that utilized target
words in special contexts (see third recommendation).
and restructured exposure of readers to key word meanings. Instructionally,
we ensure repetition by providing the reader with opportunities to repeatedly
explore situations, texts, and contexts (see third recommendation) where
key vocabulary words have similar and/or dissimilar meanings. The positive
benefits of these types of well-planned repetitive exposures are clear
(Daniels, 1994; Dole et al., 1995; Leung, 1992; Senechal, 1997). As we
might assume, repetition is especially effective when working with vocabulary
items that are likely to appear in many contextsa large factor in
developing certain domain-specific understandings where this occurs more
often than we might imagine (see Modeling
for Learning: Addressing Student Misconceptions). Though many educators
despair of the time consumed by this sort of repetition, they should also
be aware of another key realization that stems from a synthesis of the
student learning resultsthe highest gains in readers' acquisition
and understanding of vocabulary were made through instruction that involved
multiple exposures in authentic contexts that extended beyond single
class periods. In addition to its use in arranging new conditions
for practice through repetition, effective restructuringespecially
with low-achieving or at-risk studentsoften involved direct modification
of the text materials being used (e.g., replacing hard with easy words
or phrases, etc.) (Gordon, Schumm, Coffland, & Doucette, 1992; Kameenui,
Carnine, & Freschi, 1982), for the purpose of transitioning toward understanding
the meaning of more complex vocabulary used in original texts.
through rich context. High-interest and relevant contexts contain and
bestow special meaning to the key words that a reader needs to learn,
and yield marked positive results (Dole et al., 1995; Kameenui et al.,
1982; McKeown, Beck, Omanson, & Pople, 1985). Instructionally, in addition
to directly supporting multiple instructional approaches and repetition/restructuring
efforts, using rich context can encourage incidentaleven
serendipitousvocabulary learning (e.g., learning through listening,
as to a story, or a content-centered discussion in science) (Stahl, Richek,
& Vandevier, 1991; Stewart, Gonzalez, & Page, 1997), the largest positive
effect specifically noted among (but undoubtedly not limited to) high-achieving
readers in the 8- to 10-year-old range (Nicholson & Whyte, 1992). Additionally,
interesting context is often highly motivational to the reader. It assists
teachers in connecting vocabulary tasks to active engagement in content
learning, touted in research literature from virtually every subject,
and proven no less effective in improving acquisition and understanding
of reading vocabulary (Daniels, 1994; Dickinson & Smith, 1994; Drevno,
Kimball, Possi, Howard, Gardner, & Barbetta, 1994; Senechal, 1997). For
a deeper analysis in one particular domain, read our article Reading
Comprehension and Historical Thinking: Classroom Realities in Building
a Context Connection.
Age and ability
level were a consideration in every case. Whether or not to use a strategy
at a specific grade was not the issue so much as the manner in which it
was used. An example is the appropriateness of the context or content
selected for reading.
further age-related implications at the early elementary and preschool
levels. Acquisition and understanding of word meaning begins for the very
young "reader" with oral vocabulary. Words encountered in printed
text are translated into speech by applying letter-sound correspondences.
Text understandings are improved if the oral item is a known word in the
learner's oral vocabulary. As such, the oral vocabulary provides the transition
to the written form, and the reading vocabulary then supports the text
comprehension process. Though the direct causal link is obscure, the research
does show that the two are related. Read more in the article Improving
Reading Comprehension: Making the Oral Reading Connection in the Early
Text understanding for reading comprehension
findings strongly suggest that good reading comprehension does not result
from a passive processit is not enough to simply read more. Rather,
reading comprehension is dependent on thoughtful interaction between the
text and the reader. In this, the teacher plays an essential and active
role in developing and implementing specific strategies that help the
reader maximize her understanding, and her ability to choose and use
strategies that fit her needs and the requirements of given texts.
of comprehending another person's printed thoughts is not a simplistic
undertaking. We create meaning from detailed and analytical interaction
with text. We create mental representations based on that interaction
(Kintsch & van Dijk, 1978). Both the text itself and our prior knowledge
influence those representations (Anderson & Pearson, 1984). The purpose
should be to understandto actively create this representation and
put it to use (Pressley & Afflerbach, 1995).
It is a
call for explicit instruction in cognitive strategies focused on text
comprehension. The goal? Self-awareness and self-regulation on the part
of the readerthe ability to discern his own progress in reading
a text for a particular purpose, to choose and implement comprehension
strategies that might prove effective, to determine their effectiveness,
and to modify as needed. The teacher's role? To guide students toward
achieving that level of independence. Instructionally, we should seek
to provide procedural guidance that helps students to effectively employ
cognitive strategies in order to better understand what they read. Toward
attaining that result with a given reader, the National Reading Panel
(NRP, 2000, p. 4-40) suggested that we should employ instruction in cognitive
reading strategies such as:
The development of an awareness and understanding of the reader's
own cognitive processes that are amenable to instruction and learning
A teacher guiding the reader or modeling for the reader the actions
that the reader can take to enhance the comprehension processes
used during reading
The reader practicing those strategies with the teacher assisting
until the reader achieves a gradual internalization and independent
mastery of those processes (Palinscar & Brown, 1984; Pressley,
Almasi, Schuder, Bergman, & Kurita, 1994).
review of 203 studies dealing with text comprehension, the National Reading
Panel (NRP, 2000, pp. 4-5, 4-42) identified 16 categories or varieties
of instruction in cognitive strategies such as those described above.
The team further claimed a scientific basis for concluding that 7 of these
(eight if the category "multiple strategies" is included) were
effective in improving comprehension for normal readers, as follows alphabetically:
- Comprehension monitoring
- Cooperative learning
- Graphic organizers
- Question answering
- Question generation
- Story structure
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