One counterargument to the practice of teaching vocabulary is that children learn the meanings of many words by experiencing those words in the actual world and in text without explicit instruction. Unfortunately, such incidental learning is filled with possible problems. The definitions learned range from richly contextualized and more than sufficient, to incomplete to wrong. Children do develop knowledge of vocabulary through incidental contact with new words they read. This is one of the many reasons to challenge students to read incessantly.
There is considerable evidence that readers who possess prior knowledge about the topic of a reading often comprehend the reading better than classmates with no, or lower prior knowledge. Nevertheless, even when students have knowledge relevant to the information they are reading they do not always relate their world knowledge to the content of a text. Unless inferences are absolutely necessary to make sense of the content they are reading, students frequently don't make inferences based on prior knowledge. All the same, reading comprehension can be improved by developing students' prior knowledge. This is another reason to challenge students to read high-quality, information-rich texts.
When students read text containing new factual information, they do not necessarily relate that information to their prior knowledge even if they have a large reserve of knowledge that might be related at their disposal. Research shows that questioning techniques, such as asking students to explain something they read, or why something happened in the text, prompts them to access their prior knowledge and make sense of the content. These techniques produce a huge effect on retention of the information acquired in the texts.
Active Comprehension Strategies
Students who read well are extremely active as they read. Cordon and Day (1996) describe this phenomenon thusly, "Good readers are aware of why they are reading a text, gain an overview of the text before reading, make predictions about the upcoming text, read selectively based on their overview, associate ideas in text to what they already know, note whether their predictions and expectations about text content are being met, revise their prior knowledge when compelling new ideas conflicting with prior knowledge are encountered, figure out the meanings of unfamiliar vocabulary based on context clues, underline and reread and make notes and paraphrase to remember important points, interpret the text, evaluate its quality, review important points as they conclude reading, and think about how ideas encountered in the text might be used in the future. Young and less skilled readers, in contrast, exhibit a lack of such activity."
Another trait of good readers is that they often form mental pictures, or images, as they read. There is value in guiding students to learn to form visual images of what they are reading, such as urging them to picture a setting, a character, or an event described in the text. Readers, especially younger readers, who visualize during reading understand and remember what they read better than readers who do not visualize.
Active reading can be stimulated by teaching students to use comprehension strategies. The following strategies are known to produce improved memory and comprehension of text in children: 1) generating questions about ideas in text while reading, 2) constructing mental images representing ideas in text, 3) summarizing, and 4) analyzing setting, characters, conflict, attempts at solution, successful resolution, and ending. Excellent readers do not employ these strategies one at a time, nor do they require the influence of strong instructional control. Teachers need to teach students to use these individual strategies simultaneously, employing them in a self-regulated fashion. These skills can be taught beginning with reciprocal teaching of the first strategy and continuing through more flexible approaches reinforced with extensive teacher explanation and modeling of individual strategies, followed by teacher-scaffold use of the strategies, and concluding with students employing self-regulated use of the strategies during regular reading.
Students who are successful readers are conscience of the times they need to exert more effort to make sense of a text. For instance, they know when to expend more effort decoding. These students are aware when they have sounded out a word but that word does not really make sense in the context. When that feeling occurs good readers will try rereading the word in question. It is sensible to teach young readers this skill. Current approaches to reading instruction incorporate a monitoring element, with readers taught to pay attention to whether the decoding makes sense and to try decoding again when the word as decoded fails to make sense in the given context.
Metacognition can be defined as thinking about thinking. Good readers use metacognitive strategies to think about and have control over their reading. Before reading, they might clarify their purpose for reading and preview the text. During reading, they might monitor their understanding, adjusting their reading speed to fit the difficulty of the text and "fixing up" any comprehension problems they have. After reading, they check their understanding of what they read.
Similarly, students who read well are also aware of the occasions when they are confused, when the text does not make sense. Students who do not understand a text need to seek clarification, often through rereading. To improve children's reading and comprehension, it is good practice to encourage them to monitor as they read. Students need to be taught to constantly be asking themselves if what they are reading is making sense. Children also need to be given the strategies and the confidence to do something about it when text seems not to make sense.
Interventions aimed at improving comprehension that is, interventions beyond word-recognition instruction do, in fact, make an impact during the primary years. The starting point for the development of many comprehension skills is teacher modeling of those skills. There are promising indications that expanding comprehension instruction in the early elementary grades, will affect 5- to 8-year-olds dramatically in the short-term and perhaps lead to development of better comprehension skills over the long-term.
Teachers in the primary grades should begin to build the foundation for reading comprehension. Reading is a complex process that develops over time. Although the basics of reading, word recognition and fluency, can be learned in a few years, reading to learn subject matter does not occur automatically once students have learned to read. Teachers should stress text comprehension from the beginning, rather than waiting until students have mastered the basics of reading. Instruction at all grade levels can benefit from showing students how reading is a process of making sense out of text, or constructing meaning. Beginning readers, as well as more advanced readers, must understand that the ultimate goal of reading is comprehension.
The starting point for the development of many comprehension skills is teacher modeling of those skills. Researchers have found that when primary level students are taught to use comprehension strategies and monitoring, the children have benefited greatly. There is definitely interest in expanding comprehension instruction in the early elementary grades, with the expectation that such instruction will affect 5- to 8-year-olds dramatically in the short-term and perhaps lead to development of better comprehension skills over the long-term.
The case is very strong that teaching elementary, middle school, and high school students to use a collection of comprehension strategies increases their comprehension of text. Teachers should model and explain comprehension strategies, have their students practice using such strategies with teacher support, and let students know they are expected to continue using the strategies when reading on their own. For this instruction to be successful it should occur across the school every day for as long as it is necessary to get all readers using the strategies independently. This means the teaching staff must be committed to including this training as a piece of the regular curriculum and instruction.
Armbruster, B.B. & Osborn, J., (2001) Put reading first: The building blocks for teaching chilren to read. National Institute or Literacy, Retrieved May 20, 2010, from: www.nifl.gov
Beck, I.L., Perfetti, C.A., & McKeown, M.G., (1982) Effects of long-term vocabulary instruction on lexical access and reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 74, 506-521.
Cordon, L.A., & Day, J.D. (1996) Stategy use on standardized reading comprehension tests. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 288-521.
Nation, K. & Snowling, M.J., (1998) Individual differences in contextual facilitation: Evedence from dyslexia and poor reading comprehension. Child Development, V. 69 No. 4, p.996- 1011. Retrieved May 20, 2010, from: http://C:UsersOwnerDesktop
Pressley, M., (2001, September) Reading instruction: What makes sense now, what might make sense soon. Reading Online, 5(2). Retrieved May 20, 2010, from: http://www.readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF=/articles/handbook/pressley/index.html
Reutzel, D.R. & Cooter, R.B., (2005) the essentials of teaching…