Many years ago, I wrote a three-part article detailing the various stages of reading: phonological awareness, phonics, sight reading, comprehension, fluency, vocabulary, and spelling. While all seven of those categories contribute to successful reading, in this article I would like to focus on comprehension. More specifically, what reading comprehension looks like in a world in which many people read their news on the computer or when books come on tablets.
What is comprehension?
Comprehension or “understanding” is perhaps the trickiest part of teaching students to read. Below, I have outlined what comprehension is according to several decades of literacy research. There are multiple levels of comprehension:
1) Literal: Literal comprehension is what is actually stated such as facts and details and rote memorization. Common questions that illicit this type of thinking are who, what, when, and where.
2) Inferential: Inferential comprehension is what is implied rather than explicitly stated such as drawing inferences, tapping into prior knowledge, making educated guesses, and reading between the lines. Common questions that illicit inferential comprehension are open-ended, thought-provoking questions. For example, why, what if, and how.
3) Evaluative: Evaluative comprehension includes taking what is said (literal) and what is meant (inferential) and applying it to concepts or ideas beyond the situation. Key skills for evaluative comprehension include analyzing, synthesizing, and applying to new situations.
Comprehension and Computers
It’s important for children to develop all three levels of comprehension in order to truly understand what they are reading. However, researchers have noted that our brains are changing to adapt to the digital information we receive on a daily basis.
Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University, explains that the brain was not built for reading, but adapted after the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphics, Chinese paper, and of course the printing press. The reading that is done on paper is called “linear” reading. It is sequential and moves from sentence to sentence and page to page. This type of reading will sometimes have pictures interspersed with the text, but does not generally have many distractions. Reading in print also gives us the ability to remember information based on its placement in the book. For example, if you read about a character dying on a page with several lines of dialogue right after a long paragraph, you can visually spot that passage.
When reading off a digital device, our brain reads in a “non-linear” fashion. That is, instead of reading from line to line and page to page, our brain skims, picks out key words, and moves on to the next thing. This would not be bad – but what researchers have concluded is that this “non-linear” reading is less productive across all levels of comprehension.
A 2012 study done on Israeli engineering students, students who had grown up in a digital world, asked participants to read the same text on screens and on paper in a specific amount of time. While the students believed that they had better comprehended the material presented on the screen, later tests revealed that their comprehension of the paper text was significantly better.
While is it possible to be a “bi-literate” reader (someone who reads well both linearly and non-linearly), many literature lovers and scientists are calling for a “slow reading” movement, indicating that people need to take time away from their non-linear reading in order to engage in more linear reading.
Creating a “Slow Reading” Home
Because reading is such an integral part of our education and our lives, it is essential that we get our kids reading. Karen Powers, a writer, teacher, and librarian, provides parents with foolproof rules that she guarantees will get children to love reading on their own.