Like most first grade classrooms, the one I was observing had students with multiple reading levels. Accordingly, the head teacher had divided the students into different groups so that they could practice skills that were relevant to all members of the small group. First, I sat in the “high level” group. The students, even though they were only in first grade, were beginning to read Richard and Florence Atwater’s whimsical novel Mr. Popper’s Penguins.
Shmuel, a freckled redhead, began to read aloud to his classmates as they looked on in their own copies of the book,
“It was an afternoon in late September. In the pleasant little city of Stillwater, Mr. Popper, the house painter, was going home from work. He was carrying his buckets, his ladders, and his boards so that he had a rather hard time moving along. He was spattered here and there with paint and calcimine, and there were bits of wallpaper clinging to his hair and whiskers, for he was a rather untidy man.”
Shmuel read the piece flawlessly, even pronouncing “calcimine” with ease. However, his voice was monotonous, he barely paused at the periods, and his intonations reflected no understanding of the text he was reading. His groupmates followed along silently, but they too seemed unaffected by the humorous portrayal of the messy Mr. Popper. What was going on with these “high level readers?” They seem to have mastered reading the words off of the page, but have little appreciation or understanding of the literature they are reading.
In my last article, I explored the merits of phonics and sight-reading in fostering reading skills. Regardless of the method used, the goal of both phonics and sight-reading is to allow readers to progress to the next level. After they have learned how to decode words, children can move on to comprehension and fluency. Shmuel and his groupmates seem to be adept at decoding the words on the page, but have little or no understanding of the text they are reading. Are these truly high level readers?
Reading Without Comprehension – An Exercise in Frustration
Many children who learn to read the words before they understand the meaning behind them will lack comprehension even as they mature as readers. Scholastic Press, an expert teaching source, explains that comprehension is not simply in the text, but rather that “reading is a ‘transaction’ in which the reader brings purposes and life experiences to bear to converse with the text. This meeting of the reader and the text results in the meaning that is comprehension. Comprehension always attends to what is coded or written in the text, but it also depends upon the reader’s background experiences, purposes, feelings, and needs of the moment. That’s why we can read the same book or story twice and it will have very different meanings for us.” Therefore, students need to actively engage in comprehension strategies in order to understand and ultimately enjoy what they read.
Research has shown that very early readers who have little or no comprehension of what they are reading derive trivial pleasure from reading. As they develop, if comprehension does not improve, these “advanced” readers will grow to dislike reading, as it is simply a repetition of hollow and meaningless words.
What are some strategies that aid comprehension?
Making connections: Children can make connections with the text by using their own background information. Creating these connections helps the student understand where this book falls in the knowledge that they have already mastered. There are three main types of connections that children can make:
Text to self: connections between the text and the reader’s personal experience.
Text to text: connections between the text and another text the reader has read.
Text to world: connections made between the text and something that occurs in the world.
Questioning: Questions help students clarify and deepen their understanding of the text they are reading. There are many different types of questions: vocabulary words, predictions (what will happen next), compare and contrast, and cause and effect.
Visualizing: Visualizing occurs when readers create mental pictures of the text they are reading. Visualization helps students engage in the text in a personal and memorable manner. As they continue to read, the pictures continue to change with the changing personality traits of the different characters.
Remember, expert readers automatically employ these reading strategies without even realizing it. Once students are taught to use these strategies, they will become second nature.
Fluency: When Speed Matters
Once students begin to master the skill of comprehension, fluency becomes the next key indicator of a child’s reading ability. Fluency is the ability to read aloud expressively and with understanding. When fluent readers read aloud, the text flows in a regular and clear manner, rather than sounding choppy and halting. Without fluency, the world of imagination, humor, and drama contained in the finest books is no more than a tangle of words.