More than Words: The Cornerstone of Reading Comprehension

Learning to read is one of the most fundamental, and yet most complex, tasks for young students. Despite many national initiatives to boost reading instruction, an alarming number of children still struggle: on a test sometimes called “the Nation’s Report Card,” (the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP), almost half of fourth and eighth graders were rated as below proficient in reading in 2015. Part of the reason it’s so challenging to become proficient is that reading requires mastering and combining many different skills, from identifying and sounding out words to connecting those words with their meanings and then understanding the content of a text. Reading comprehension is often one of the missing pieces.

Pani Kendeou, Kristen McMaster, and Theodore Christ have conducted numerous studies on how students come to understand what they read, and they have summarized their and others’ research in a recent article for Policy Insights for the Behavioral and Brain Sciences (SAGE Publishing). They find that the most important skill for reading comprehension can and should be built very early – before children begin reading, and maybe even before they begin school.

Kendeou and colleagues write that “the cornerstone of reading comprehension” is the ability to make inferences. When we make inferences, we generate information that isn’t explicit in the text we read (or the story we hear or picture we see). Inferences help us understand what we read by allowing us to construct mental representations of the text that connect the meaning of the sentences to each other and to our background knowledge. Without inferences, those pieces would be disjointed and the text wouldn’t make sense.

It was once thought that children should first be taught the “code-based” skills of reading, like sounding out words with phonics and recognizing high-frequency or “sight” words, before focusing on “language-based” skills of reading for understanding. This sentiment is reflected in the often-repeated phrase that third grade marks a transition from “learning to read to reading to learn.” But studies now show that children should be doing both from the beginning. The authors are working to build knowledge about how to help them do that.

“We have made a lot of progress in understanding what are the key components for teaching code-based skills, but we have less work on language comprehension skills at different ages,” Kendeou says. Recent work that she and others have conducted on inferences is changing that, however. Studies suggest that efforts to teach reading need to encourage students to connect pieces of information and fill in missing information. That means not just drilling them on words and spelling, but posing questions about how pieces of the text are connected, directing readers’ attention to certain parts of the text, highlighting clues, and providing “scaffolded feedback,” which prompts students to use information from the text to answer thought-provoking questions. It also means building students’ background knowledge, not only as part of what they are reading, but in its own right. “The factor that carries the largest variability in reading comprehension is the reader’s knowledge,” Kendeou and colleagues write, including knowledge about the text’s subject and the world, as well as knowledge about syntax, grammar, and spelling. That should be a caution against instructional approaches focused exclusively on drilling code-based skills.

Kendeou recommends that children be encouraged to make inferences from a very early age. Children as young as two can and do make inferences in all kinds of contexts (including but not limited to events they experience). As they get older and begin to read, their ability to make inferences and connections assists them in everything from identifying words to extracting meaning from written text. That means that parents and educators can begin building reading skills in very young children by encouraging critical thinking, for example by describing how things work, pointing out how actions are linked to reactions and consequences, and asking children questions about what they think will happen next when they put a toy at the top of a ramp. In other words, building pre-reading skills doesn’t happen only through reading. Learning to read may be one of the most complex tasks of the school years, but some of the promising strategies for schools and families to support reading can be surprisingly simple.

Find more on Panayiota Kendeou, Kristen L. McMaster, and Theodore J. Christ, “Reading Comprehension” in Policy Insights for the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.