How comprehension strategies can assist learners with reading
In 2006, the Simple View of Reading advocated by the Rose Review led to an explosion in the market of resources to support the teaching of phonics. This was supported by the DCSF (and later the DfE) endorsement checklist insisting that all reputable providers demonstrate that their resources met the necessary standards. Shortly to follow suit were a number of strategies to support the development of comprehension. In this article, five key ideas are presented on how to develop comprehension (a star-based approach) and how to combine this with learning in phonics.
The learning of reading is not a precise science and it is important for practitioners to remember that we learn to read so that we can read to learn. Therefore, a key element of the process is the motivational jump from “I need to know this” (curiosity) to “I can use this to find out more” (confidence and application). This aspect of learning cannot be underplayed and forms a significant part of the emphasis on the revised Ofsted Framework (September 2012).
The Rose Review’s final report acknowledged that “…it is an obvious truth that the goal of reading is comprehension and that skilled reading involves understanding as well as decoding text. In short, learning to read progresses to reading, effortlessly, to learn. The teaching of beginner readers requires an understanding of the processes that underpin this progression”.
Star-based approach to enhancing comprehension
All five methods listed below assume a basic level of vocabulary knowledge. Therefore, if you are unsure of whether this is the barrier, it is better to start by introducing vocabulary through pre-teaching. Exposure to vocabulary using a methodological approach will enable learners to make cognitive connections between segments of knowledge, therefore building up not just their speed of processing but also the wider foundation from which they operate to further their learning.
In this model, the five main strategies that can be used to improve comprehension of text are:
- visual representation of the situation/text
- emotional appreciation of the text
- relevancy of information
- organisation of information
- working to expand existing knowledge base through creativity.
Visual representation of the situation/text
This strategy will help the learner visualise either the overall picture/punch line and/or sequential steps in a story. This is sometimes referred to as “gist reading” or “skim reading” and involves a rapid read to gain the overview. Either a structured or unstructured framework is provided for the learner to draw a representation of what s/he thinks is happening/has happened. The drawings can be very basic (such as stick men or simple shapes). The main focus is the order and/or associated links in the text. Differentiated activities can be developed to include thought/speech bubbles, as well as the expressions of the characters. Other variations include a whole class map of the activities – a collaborative comprehension approach. This technique can also help to clarify the contextual setting of a text by encouraging learners to elicit key environmental descriptors. Puppets and more concrete objects of reference are helpful for children who struggle with the coordination of drawing. It is important to stress that there is no right or wrong as this is an interpretative exercise.
In the context of non-fiction texts, bubble diagrams (single and double) can be used to record initial thoughts and compare concepts. The size and type of the framework provided can be a help or hindrance to encourage pupils to jot down their views. Some children prefer whiteboards so they can rub out and try again; others like post-it notes. Some children work best with large pieces of paper and others like materials such as a sand tray. Ask the children what they would prefer and observe how this helps them express their understanding.
Emotional appreciation of the text
This approach helps to develop emotional intelligence. The learner focuses on what the characters are feeling and what s/he feels as the reader. Again, various visual representations can be used to illustrate this or an emotions chart can be presented to the learner for her/him to use to select the appropriate emotion.
The choice of emotion should be followed by a discussion about what actions in the text link to that specific emotion. For example, “anger” – he stomped off. “Joy” – she started singing.
Relevancy of information
This strategy involves three steps and the targeted use of highlighter pens.
Step 1: initially, the learner is encouraged simply to highlight important information and then organise this information.
Step 2: using a different colour highlighter, the reader marks text which implies something more than its basic meaning. For example, the text may say: “He was just about to have his dinner when …” Although not explicitly stated, the word “dinner” implies evening time. The time of day is inferred from other information. Again, inferred information should be organised appropriately.
Step 3: A third colour could be used to identify deductive text. Simply put, this would involve highlighting text which states what it is not. For example, “The scientist insisted the footprint did not belong to an animal or human”. From this, the reader can deduce that the story will develop to include some form of alien creature, although this is not explicitly stated. This approach helps to develop scanning skills.
Organisation of information
This is a key skill and pulls together the other strategies. Various visual representations can be used here, such as mind maps, flow diagrams, bubble charts and sticky-notes. The essential ingredients for any visual representation are consistency, personalisation and a systematic approach.
Consistency requires the learner to over-learn the visual representations and connections until they are embedded. Personalisation involves developing individualised symbols and representations, which have meaning to the learner. For example, a triangle shape may be used to represent “change”. Finally, a systematic approach will encourage the learner to ask the six key questions: what, who, where, when, why and how? A die representation or spinner can be used to turn this activity into a game.
Working to expand existing knowledge base
Begin with what the learner already knows. Encourage the learner to express this is in a visual format. Visual memory tends to be stronger than linguistic memory and more useful in developing associative links for comprehension.
Again, using different colours, this method could be used to clearly demonstrate what the learner has learnt at different stages of the journey.
In using any of these strategies, it is important to consider the level of independence of the learner and to encourage the learner always to move to a more independent and self-reliant approach. Peer assisted learning can, in the first instance, be used to support this. Through dialogue about how to learn, students become better skilled at using their own learning strategies.
In this article, I have sought to share five practical strategies for developing comprehension skills in students. None of the strategies are age-dependent, though necessary adaptations will need to be made depending on the age, interest, ability, background and motivation of the learner. Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive.
Anita Devi is on the advisory panel for nasen and Epilepsy Action, and is a founder member of the British Association of Assistive Technology. She has experience in school leadership, policy development, academia, consultancy and training: