Helping children understand what they read

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Some children appear to be very fluent word readers but struggle to understand what they are reading.

Reading comprehension is much more than just recognising words.

It involves (among other skills) the ability to make inferences to connect up the text and to appreciate text and story structures.
Professor Jane Oakhill of the University of Sussex had noticed this discrepancy between word reading and reading comprehension whilst working as a primary school teacher and, with Professor Kate Cain, now at Lancaster University, set out to unpick the skills and abilities that are fundamental to successful comprehension.
They found four skills that are fundamental to children’s reading comprehension:
• Vocabulary – depth, richness and links between word meanings and concepts.
• Inference making – connecting ideas in a text and bringing in relevant background knowledge.
• Comprehension monitoring – recognising if you are understanding and knowing what to do about it if you’re not.
• Understanding how text is structured and using that structure as a framework for understanding.

The researchers showed that successful teaching of reading comprehension is about knowing how to engage children in any text to support their understanding.

When the National Curriculum started mandating the teaching of reading comprehension, it was clear that something was needed to help teachers teach comprehension. Professors Oakhill and Cain then developed activities for teachers to help them gain insights into what’s involved in their own comprehension and so understand better how to teach reading comprehension.
Their findings have directly influenced England’s National Curriculum, English Programmes of Study, Key stages 1 and 2. They have also influenced the standardised assessment of reading comprehension used in the UK and South America, helping to better identify children in need of additional help.The work has also informed the training of teachers in the UK, North America and Argentina.

The research has had a positive effect on children beyond reading. In Argentina, where many schools are using a programme based on the findings, children said, ‘This is so useful, why don’t we use it in all our lessons?’ and, ‘It’s not just for our reading, it can help in our whole life.’

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