Comprehension: Research Adapted from National Reading Panel Report, 2000
Comprehension occurs as a result of the interaction between the reader and the text. Before reading even begins, reader characteristics, such as word reading ability and vocabulary, impact the level of a student’s comprehension. During reading, students depend on their cognitive and linguistic processing abilities, and their knowledge and skill in the use of comprehension strategies, to construct meaning. After reading, students use other strategies and expressive skills to demonstrate their understanding of the text.
Comprehension is critically dependent upon prior knowledge, or background knowledge (Anderson & Pearson, 19984; Bransford, 1979). When children come from homes that are culturally or linguistically different from schools, comprehension problems can arise. The problems arise because children may not have sufficient prior knowledge about the norms, values and expected behaviors of the school. Further, they may not have the assumed shared knowledge expected of school cultures.
For many at-risk children, the school culture is different from their own. These children may know their home culture well, but they do not know the school culture. So, when they enter school, they often feel as though they enter a new world. The spoken, as well as unspoken rules are different. The topics of discussion are different. The language, even if it is English, is different. The books children ready may be about children very different from themselves.
Children’s comprehension abilities also depend on their knowledge about the structure of stories (Dickerson, Simmons & Kame’enui, 1998; Idol, 1987; Idol & Croll, 1987; Pearson & Fielding, 1991; Stein & Glenn, 1979). Children who have not had many early experiences with reading often do not know how stories are organized, that is, stories have characters, setting, a problem and a solution. For high poverty children, it appears to be particularly important to explicitly teach the structure of stories (Idol & Croll, 1987; Pearson & Fielding, 1991). Even kindergarten children can be taught words such as characters, setting, problem and solution. This is critically important knowledge that readers use as a framework for understanding what they read.
Nonfiction texts do not have such a clear, straightforward story structure. However, researchers believe that young children need to be exposed to a variety of kinds of nonfiction materials. It is predicted that one reason why children fall behind in reading in fourth grade is because they are required to read so much nonfiction with which they may be unfamiliar(Snow et.al.,1998). Thus, an important part of comprehension instruction is not only directly teaching story structure, but also exposing children to many different kinds of nonfiction texts and discussing with children how and why these texts are different.
An additional, critical component of comprehension instruction is the use of comprehension strategies. Comprehension strategies are procedures that active readers use to improve their comprehension of text (National Reading Panel 2000, Paris, Wasik, & Turner 1991; Pressley, Johnson, Symons, McGoldrick, & Kurita 1989; Simmons & Kame’enui, 1998).
Although most of the comprehension strategy research has been conducted on older students, there is no reason to believe why younger children cannot use comprehension strategies as well (Ivey, 2002; Pearson & Duke, 2002; Tracey & Morrow,2002). Young children can learn many comprehension strategies as kindergartners, such as predicting, asking questions, inferring and summarizing. Research suggests that comprehension strategy instruction is particularly critical for high-poverty students, and explicit instruction is most helpful of all (Pressley, 2000).