Reading comprehension requires a child to understand two broad skills according to The Simple View of Reading, proposed in 1986.** Those skills include recognizing words (usually through organized phonics instruction) and understanding the content of language. In our last blog we talked about word recognition. Today let us discuss language comprehension.
Understanding content depends on four elements:
- Understanding vocabulary,
- Having a wide and somewhat sophisticated knowledge base,
- Understanding sentence structures, and
- Understanding figurative language.
In kindergarten, first and second grades, children focus on building phonics skills so they can code and decode words. In third grade, children’s focus shifts to understanding the content of written language. This is the time when children recognize as sight words many of the words they have worked for two or three years to code and decode. With less thought going into deciphering letter sounds and combining them into words, children have more energy to focus on understanding what those words, phrases and sentences mean.
By third and fourth grade, children have mastered the basics of phonics, including words of many syllables. They recognize letter patterns quickly if the reading is grade appropriate, though they still struggle with technical language, subject specific vocabulary, and words of foreign derivation. They rely on their understanding of prefixes, root words, and suffixes as well as context to figure out the meaning of new words. They might reread a passage when they realize they don’t understand it. They might look up words in dictionaries. They might predict, summarize and conclude. They might scan headlines, subheadings, captions and graphics to gain understanding.
Until third and fourth grade, most students’ oral language skills—using precise words, speaking in complicated sentences and using irony, for example—outstrip their reading skills. But in third and fourth grades that gap narrows. A child’s comprehension depends far less on decoding skills and more on understanding a wide vocabulary, having a sophisticated understanding of the environment and understanding how sentences, paragraphs and various genres of writing are constructed.
Sometime in late middle school, children’s oral language converges with their reading comprehension.* Students gain new vocabulary and understanding of their environment more from reading than from conversation. At this time of life, it is important for students to read widely and often to increase their vocabulary and knowledge base, to understand how ideas are structured and to appreciate how figurative language enriches comprehension.
This understanding of reading skills—a combination of word deciphering skills and comprehension skills—was proposed in 1986 by Gough and Tunmer.** They called this understanding The Simple View of Reading (SVR).
*Biemiller, A. (1999). Language and reading success. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.
**Gough PB, Tunmer PB. Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education. 1986;7:6–10. doi: 10.1177/074193258600700104.