If you're a reader (like me), reading comprehension may come naturally, but start reading in a second language and you'll be lost, no matter your natural inclinations! Yet, I'm sure we can all agree that comprehension is integral to reading successfully and to enjoying reading.
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Reading comprehension is a MAJOR part of language learning. Consequently, there are many different questions regarding it. Some of the questions that will be tackled in this article are as follows: What exactly is reading comprehension? What is it comprised of? How do we build our students’ reading comprehension inside of and outside of the classroom? Finally, an equally important question, especially for readers like myself: how do we help our students enjoy reading?
What is Reading Comprehension?
At the most basic form, reading comprehension is understanding what you’re reading. Yet, there’s a little bit more involved than just understanding the letters, words, phrases, and sentences.
Reading comprehension involves the entirety of a reader: their background, experiences, and previous knowledge. All of this works together with the letters, words, phrases, and sentences of the text. Reading is a sort of harmony between the author's intentions and the reader's experiences.
If you’re familiar with language learning materials or economics, you’re probably familiar with the terms top-down and bottom-up. There are three main views when it comes to how reading comprehension works: top-down, bottom-up, and interactive.
The top-down approach says that a reader will create meaning and understanding by activating their own background knowledge. They must start with a bigger picture. For instance, if you’re reading an article about the extinction of honey bees, you should ask yourself what you already know about honey bees and how you believe their extinction would affect the environment. You should do this before you even pick up the article to read it, which allows you, as the reader, to establish your thoughts before comparing and contrasting them with the author's.
On the other side, the bottom-up approach says that a reader will build their understanding from the individual letter and word combinations in the text. They must look at the details of the reading material to figure out what the individual letters and words mean. For instance, while reading your article on the extinction of honey bees, you may find yourself confused about the author's opinion. Consequently, you should refer back to the title and topic sentences of the text and figure out what the word combinations mean.
An interactive approach to reading comprehension has the reader building their understanding by using their previous knowledge about the topic and the clues from the text together. In this scenario, you may seek understanding about the extinction of honey bees by seeking clarification about the definition of certain words used, as well as assessing what you bring to the article as a result of your previous experiences.
When a student can use everything at their disposal, their understanding of a text will be much more rich than if they solely depend upon the text. All in all, reading comprehension is a mixture of what a student brings to the text and what the text brings to the student.
How Can We Help Our Students Improve Comprehension?
So, how do you teach reading comprehension? Most of the resources for reading comprehension that I've found are worksheets and questions with one right (sometimes obscure) answer. It’s very black-and-white. Either you comprehend or you don't. While that's certainly true in some scenarios, it isn't in others.
Reading isn’t black-and-white. It’s a journey, and the real question is whether you can keep up with the journey that the author wants to lead you through. The key to reading comprehension is metacognitive awareness.
Metacognition is simply ‘thinking about thinking,’ or thinking about how you think. When your students can begin to comprehend their own comprehension, they will be able to take stock of what works for them and what doesn’t, and they’ll be able to diagnose their own comprehension issues.
As a reader, I would suggest that reading doesn’t come alive when you dissect and define the words within the text, but rather when you integrate your own experiences with the experiences of the author. Whether you’re reading non-fiction or fiction, an article or a novel, background knowledge and experiences are what will bring your reading comprehension to a new level.
Teach your readers how to integrate their knowledge by activating schemata (their prior knowledge and opinions about something). Ask them questions about their opinions and experiences before they even begin reading. Talking about the dangers of fighting fires? Ask who has personal experience with fire fighting, talk about forest fires in your area, and discuss what it means to have a dangerous job or what parts of a person’s life it affects.
Teach your readers how to set a purpose for their reading. All reading has a purpose. The purpose may be to conduct research for a paper they’re writing or a speech they’ll be giving. The purpose may be for relaxation or enjoyment. The purpose may be to understand someone else’s point of view. No matter the purpose, setting one will allow your readers to pay attention to what matters in the text.
Teach your students reading strategies that they can use. Sometimes we, as teachers, feel the need to use learning strategies subtly. We use learning strategies all througout our lesson plans, but we don't reveal to our students what those strategies are. Yet, doing so will show our learners how learning actually works, so that they can use those strategies on their own time and take stock of what works best for them.
Part of improving reading comprehension is allowing your students to find what works for them. However, you, as a teacher, can give your students tools to read well. Giving your students the choice of what they’d like to read is a great option, when possible. Even native English speakers will comprehend a text more if it is something that interests them. Look for ways to work alongside of your students and support them while they are reading.
Activities to Improve Reading Comprehension
Extensive Reading Time: One great, simple activity to improve your students’ reading comprehension is actually more of a routine. Simply set aside class in time to read for the sake of reading. This is called extensive reading, where there is no purpose for reading aside from reading. You aren’t asking your students to research for a paper or defend a point, you’re simply giving them space to read for the joy of reading.
But, why would you commit valuable class time to this? Why not just assign it as homework? Well, reading extensively in class is great for a lot of reasons. First, it shows your students the importance of reading. It also allows you to be available for their questions and struggles during the process. Finally, it’s a great way to make sure your students are reading. They can’t really fake it and there aren't any of life's normal distractions at play.
Comprehension Grid: Another way to teach reading comprehension is through using a comprehension grid. Make a grid that they can use while reading. You can include questions or prompts based on what you would like your learners to focus on, or you could allow them to fill it in themselves. Some possible prompts would be 'unknown vocabulary,' 'the author's point is...,' or 'my thoughts on the topic.'
After your students get comfortable with the grid, and taking stock of their comprehension during the reading process, have them read without the comprehension grid. It might be intimidating at first, but your students will be learning how to practice reading comprehension on their own.
Book Club: I find that teachers often have students read an article, short story, or chapter together as a class. After reading, students have to fill out a worksheet answering specific questions about the story. Try using a 'book club' type of set up along with your extensive reading time. At the end of the week, after your students have had time set aside for reading, have students get into small groups and discuss what they've read. What did they enjoy about the story? What surprised them?
To add a self-led learning spin on things, have your students discuss the difficulties they've experienced while reading. What type of reading strategies did they employ? Did they work well for them? Have your students discuss these types of questions during their 'book club' as well.
Reading comprehension is an incredibly multi-faceted journey. Many times we, as teachers, approach it as simply understanding and remembering the words on a page. 'Read the text, read the question, answer the question, done.'
Yet, reading comprehension involves the entirety of a reader meeting the words of an author. Ask your students more about their past experiences on the subject. Talk more about who wrote the book before you begin reading. Allow for more independent reading time in class. These simple changes can help revolutionize the language journey your students are on, and it can help make reading way more enjoyable!
I Want to Hear From You!
Did reading come easily to you, or did you struggle to remember what you read? What did you find most helpful in overcoming this?
How have you integrated a more positive reading environment in your classroom?