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What is reading comprehension?
Reading comprehension is the process of constructing meaning from text. The goal of all reading instruction is ultimately targeted at helping a reader comprehend text. Reading comprehension involves at least two people: the reader and the writer. The process of comprehending involves decoding the writer's words and then using background knowledge to construct an approximate understanding of the writer's message.
What factors affect reading comprehension?
While word identification is a process that results in a fairly exact outcome (i.e., a student either reads the word "automobile" or not) the process of comprehending text is not so exact. Different readers will interpret an author's message in different ways. Comprehension is affected by the reader's knowledge of the topic, knowledge of language structures, knowledge of text structures and genres, knowledge of cognitive and metacognitive strategies, their reasoning abilities, their motivation, and their level of engagement.
Reading comprehension is also affected by the quality of the reading material. Some writers are better writers than others, and some writers produce more complex reading material than others. Text that is well organized and clear is called "considerate text," and text that is poorly organized and difficult to understand can be called "inconsiderate text." The more inconsiderate the text, the more work will be required of a reader to comprehend the text. Readers who do not have the background, abilities, or motivation to overcome the barriers presented in inconsiderate text will have more difficulty comprehending these types of texts.
Students who had trouble learning to decode and recognize words often will have difficulty with reading comprehension. Students who struggle with decoding rarely have a chance to interact with more difficult text and often learn to dislike reading. As a result, these students do not have sufficient opportunities to develop the language skills and strategies necessary for becoming proficient readers.
Readers with poorly developed language skills and strategies will not have the tools to take advantage of the obvious structures and comprehension cues that are part of considerate text nor will they have the extra tools needed to overcome the barriers of inconsiderate text.
The type of instruction that a student receives will also affect reading comprehension. Strategies for improving reading comprehension must be taught directly by teachers. Simply providing opportunities or requiring for children to read will not teach many students the comprehension strategies they need to be proficient readers. These need to be taught directly as students learn to read simple sentences and this direct instruction needs to continue in different forms throughout a student's elementary and secondary school experience.
What are the different components of teaching reading comprehension?
There are many ways to think about reading comprehension and many factors that affect reading comprehension. Teachers should keep in mind two overriding questions about how to organize how to teach reading comprehension. These questions are, "What strategies should I teach?" and "How should I teach strategies?"
What strategies should I teach? The most practical way of thinking about teaching reading comprehension is to organize instruction according to how you want students to think about strategies. For this reason, the most straightforward way of organizing comprehension strategies is to think about strategies that one might use before reading, duringreading, and after reading.
Before Reading Strategies consist of those strategies that a student learns to use to get ready to read a text selection. These strategies help the student get an idea of what the author might be trying to say, how the information might be useful, and to create a mental set that might be useful for taking in and storing information. These strategies could include previewing headings, surveying pictures, reading introductions and summaries, creating a pre-reading outline, creating questions that might need to be answered, making predictions that need to be confirmed, etc. The primary question for a teacher here is: "What steps (observable as well as unobservable) should I teach students to do regularly and automatically that will prepare them in advance to get the most out of a reading selection that needs to be read more thoroughly?"
When a teacher introduces a reading selection to students, walks students through the text, helps the students get ready to read through the use of advance organizers, or creates pre-reading outlines, he/she is ensuring content learning by compensating for the fact that students have not developed good Before-Reading Strategies. Teachers will need to continue to lead students in these types of before-reading activities to ensure content area learning occurs until students have been taught to fluently use Before-Reading Strategies. Teacher use of before-reading prompts and activities does not necessarily lead students to develop and use Before-Reading Strategies independently without direct and explicit instruction. This is why it is important to directly teach and provide practice that gradually requires students to use Before-Reading strategies.
During Reading Strategies consist of those strategies that students learn to use while they are reading a text selection. These strategies help the student focus on how to determine what the author is actually trying to say and to match the information with what the student already knows. These strategies should be influenced by the Before Reading Strategies because students should be using or keeping in mind the previews, outlines, questions, predictions, etc. that were generated before reading and then using this information to digest what they are reading. The During Reading Strategies that help a student understand during reading include questioning, predicting, visualizing, paraphrasing, elaborating (i.e., comparing what is read to what is known), changing reading rate, rereading, etc. The primary question for a teacher is: "What steps (observable and unobservable) should I teach students to do so that they will regularly and automatically figure out the intended meaning of the text and how it connects to what they already know?"
When a teacher develops reading guides and outlines that need to be completed during reading, requires students to ask and answer questions, creates summaries as they read, etc., they are compensating for the fact that students have not developed good During-Reading Strategies. Teachers will need to continue to lead students in these types of during-reading activities to ensure content area learning occurs until students are taught to fluently use Before-Reading Strategies. Teacher use of during-reading prompts and activities does not necessarily lead students to develop and use During-Reading Strategies independently without direct and explicit instruction. This is why it is important to directly teach and provide practice that gradually requires students to use During-Reading strategies.
After-Reading Strategies consist of those strategies that students learn to use when they have completed reading a text selection. These strategies are used to help the student "look back" and think about the message of the text and determine the intended or possible meanings that might be important. These strategies are used to follow up and confirm what was learned (e.g., answer questions or confirm predictions) from the use of before and during reading strategies. However, After-Reading Strategies also help the reader to focus on determining what the big, critical, or overall idea of the author's message was and how it might be used before moving on to performance tasks or other learning tasks. The primary question for a teacher is: "What steps (observable and unobservable) should I teach students to do so that they will regularly and automatically stop when they are finished reading a text selection and try to figure out the intended meaning of the text to determine what is most important and how they will use it?"
When a teacher reviews a reading selection, leads a discussion on what was important about the author's message, helps students summarize or "look back" at what was read, provides a post-organizer, or asks students to complete a study guide over what was learned from reading text, the teacher is compensating for the fact that students have not developed good After-Reading Strategies. Teachers will need to continue to lead students in these types of before reading-activities to ensure content area learning occurs until students have been taught to fluently use After-Reading Strategies. Teacher use of after-reading prompts and activities does not necessarily lead students to develop and use After-Reading Strategies independently without direct and explicit instruction. This is why it is important to directly teach and provide practice that gradually requires students to use After-Reading strategies.
What are some examples of specific strategies?Some examples of strategies are listed below. Some of these strategies could be used in all three categories. For example, questioning could be listed in the before, during, and after reading categories. Summarization could be listed as both during and after reading strategies. These are grouped based on where the greatest amount of instruction needs to take place.
Before Reading Self-questioning
During Reading Self-questioning
After Reading Self-questioning
After Reading Summarization
How do you teach comprehension strategies?
A majority of the research indicates that the most successful way to teach comprehension strategies to students with limited reading proficiency is to use very direct and explicit instruction. The stages of instruction that are most often cited as being effective in helping a student learn a strategy are: (1) orient students to key concepts, assess, and ask students to make a commitment to learn, (2) describe the purpose of the strategy, the potential benefits, and the steps of the strategy, (3) model (thinking aloud) the behavioral and cognitive steps/actions involved in using the strategy, (4) lead verbal practice and elaboration of the key information and steps related to the strategy, (5) provide for guided and controlled practice of the strategy with detailed feedback from the teacher and/or knowledgeable peers, (6) gradually move to more independent and advanced practice of the strategy with feedback from the teacher and/or knowledgeable peers, and (7) posttest application of the strategy, and help students make commitments to generalize its use. Once the strategy is learned, the teacher must then ensure that students begin to transfer or generalize the strategy to new and different situations. The eighth stage, generalization, includes four distinct phases: (1) orientation and awareness of situations in which the strategy can be used, (2) activation by preparing for and practicing strategies in content-area classes, (3) adaptation of the strategy steps for use in other tasks, and (4) maintenance of the strategy for continued application in a variety of real-life learning and work place settings.
What are the key principles of reading instruction?
- Teach reading comprehension skills and strategies at all levels of reading development. Teachers at every grade level and every subject area should always be planning how reading assignments will help students develop and practice skills and strategies. Students need teachers to teach and draw attention to appropriate strategy use in textbooks, especially in content areas where there are many reading demands (e.g., language, social studies, and often science). A reading comprehension skill is a developed ability to construct meaning effectively, immediately, and effortlessly with little conscious attention. A reading comprehension strategy is defined as an overt process consciously selected and used by a reader to aid the process of constructing meaning more effectively and efficiently. Once a student uses a strategy effectively, immediately and effortlessly with little conscious attention to construct meaning, it becomes a reading skill. Most planning for comprehension instruction is targeted at teaching comprehension strategies and then developing practice activities that help the student become skilled in the use of the strategy so that it is unconsciously selected and used in a variety of situations.
- Reading comprehension instruction must be responsive. Continually assess progress in learning, make specific instructional accommodations to meet individual student's needs, and provided individualized and elaborated feedback.
- Reading comprehension instruction must be systematic. Systematic reading instruction is structured, connected, scaffolded, and informative. Structured instruction is characterized by lessons that organize and group new knowledge and skills into segments that can be sequentially presented in a clear manner. Connected instruction is characterized by lessons that show the learner connections between the segments and what is already known. Scaffolded lessons are characterized by instruction in which the teacher provides to students, early in the learning process, a significant amount of support in the form of modeling, prompts, direct explanations, and targeted questions. Then as students begin to acquire the targeted objective, direct teacher supports are reduced, and the major responsibilities for learning is transferred to the student. Informative instruction is characterized by lessons in which the teacher explains the purposes and expected outcomes and requirements for learning and when and how that newly learned information will be useful.
- Reading comprehension instruction must be intensive. Intensive reading instruction means that sufficient time, used wisely and with high student engagement, is provided direct instruction for students to master the reading skills and strategies they need.
- Reading comprehension instruction should involve authentic reading at all stages. Authentic reading involves incorporating a variety of "real" reading materials, such as books, magazines, and newspapers into the instructional process.
- Reading comprehension instruction involves providing opportunities to read for pleasure. Struggling readers don't read as often or as much as their peers. Reading for enjoyment should be modeled and encouraged at all grade levels. This requires providing ample materials to read at their independent reading level.
- Reading comprehension instruction requires collaboration with other professionals and shared responsibility for student success. All teachers play either a primary or secondary role in teaching students to read. All classroom teachers who expect students to learn the content of specific subjects need to be teaching reading. Studies have shown that one of the most damaging practices affecting struggling readers is the lack of coordination among educators that are responsible for literacy development. Building staff must work together to plan and implement effective instruction in reading comprehension.
Developed by: Keith Lenz, Ph.D., University of Kansas
When I asked students to share their experiences of mental health at university, I had no idea of the reaction it would receive. Over five days we received over 200 stories. Many entries we weren't able to include, for legal reasons or because the experiences described were too harrowing to publish.
Originally planned to stay open for two weeks, we decided to close the project early because there wasn't the capacity to moderate the influx of entries. Each morning we were met with more stories – from students who opened up about their anxieties and struggles.
If you are reading this and are dealing with a mental health issue yourself – you are not alone.
Students shared stories of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts. Some spoke of diagnosed conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder, and the distructive effect these conditions sometimes have on their education.
When it came to lesser-known issues such as borderline personality disorder, students spoke of a lack of understanding about what they were going through.
Others talked about the embarrassment they felt about asking for help. Some were as yet undiagnosed but clearly struggling: "I stay up all night crying" was a common phrase.
No one tells you that university might be difficult, said students. You were sold on stories from your older friends and the glossy prospectus – there are no footnotes about loneliness and disillusionment.
One anonymous student said: "As a fresher you are constantly reminded that this is supposed to be the 'time of your life'. When it feels like the worst time of your life you feel both a sense of guilt and a pressure to keep these negative thoughts to yourself."
Another said: "I spent the first few weeks of uni hiding in my dorm room crying my eyes out. I was homesick and wasn't sure if I wanted to be there at all."
Mental health issues can start in childhood, and many students spoke about a history of depression or self-harming that they carried to university. But a new life can add pressures.
"My depression and anxiety started some time before I came to university, but leaving home, being in an extremely taxing social environment and being under large academic pressure all took their toll on me," said one student.
Another said: "Getting tubes or being anywhere I didn't know felt uncertain. I always had a burning, itching, tormenting anxiety bubbling in my chest. At the time, my boyfriend had no comprehension of mental illness and would regularly tell me panic attacks didn't exist, that I was stupid and that I had no friends."
Managing your studies alongside a mental health issue can be a daily struggle. "Panic attacks followed by depression meant things rapidly spiralled out of control," said one student.
"I found I simply couldn't think straight and my short term memory became terrible. The best description I could muster was that it felt as though the entire world had been rotated very slightly and nothing was the same anymore."
Another student said: "I'm absolutely terrified of being in social situations in which I don't know the people I'm speaking to – seminars are a nightmare. I've often missed my contact hours because I've been up all night crying and stressing and can't face going in.
"I don't feel like I can tell my tutors why I'm missing their classes, because I feel like they won't believe me as I haven't been officially diagnosed."
Others said the stress of deadlines and feedback from tutors contributed. One student said: "I had a burn-out from the pressure of juggling nine modules. One of the triggers was some negative feedback I recieved in writing from a lecturer which included the word terrible. It was hard to get family support as they live far away."
Students expressed a general feeling that university support services were helpful – when they could access them. After suffering from a severe anxiety attack, one student took the step to contact their university counselling service.
They said: "I'd put it off for so long, but finally I defined myself as 'mentally ill'. It did take a few weeks for them to back to me, but nothing can describe the relief I felt when a therapist for the first time said to me, 'that must be really hard'. Yeah, it was hard! Finally, someone who understood, who didn't tell me to snap out of it."
But others are still struggling. "When I started my undergraduate degree I did the responsible thing and informed my supervisor that I had depression," said one anonymous student, who has since been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
"He informed me that in his opinion depression was a girls issue and he didn't know what to do with girls issues and sent me on my way."
Another student said: "My university supported me in my decision to suspend my studies and have helped me get back on track to resume my studies in September, yet I can't help feel more could have been done to help me, before I reached breaking point."
What do students think needs to be done? Education needs to start early. An anonymous student said: "People need to know what signs to look for in their friends. They need to understand that depression, anxiety, eating disorders, OCD and bipolar are illnesses, not character flaws.
"The support and education about them need to be on par with the education we get about other medical issues. If we learn about it in school, we will be more prepared when we get to university."
At this year's National Union of Students (NUS) conference, a motion will be discussed that urges student unions to move "away from awareness, towards action". It calls for training for staff, integrating mental health into the widening participation agenda, better advertising for support services, and an ensurance that academic policies do not cause additional mental distress to students who experience mental health issues.
Now is the time for action. But the response to our call to share stories shows that there are still many young people who want to talk.
What you said
"I thought everything was my fault and I was just defective and bad and that this was what I deserved from life. I missed out on social life and extra-curricular activities because I struggled with acute feelings of social anxiety, self-hatred and fear. Now I have access to support, I can support others, too, and that's the best feeling I could ask for."
"I hope my words might help some of you to see that you really aren't the only one. In my opinion, searching out for help in whatever small way you can manage, really is the best thing."
"Mental health issues are nothing to be ashamed of and affect almost everybody and it's about time everyone realised this and stopped skirting round the subject and faced it head-on. "
"One thing I've found is that so many more people than you realise suffer from mental illnesses. As I've talked to friends, more and more of them have been telling me that they too suffer from the same things I do, or they have in the past."
"No matter how bad it gets and how much you think there is no hope and let your depression take over, you can always dig yourself out of that hole and find a way to manage your depression and you are not alone."
"Get help, be heard, let yourself be supported. You're important."
Read the rest of the contributions to the GuardianWitness assignment here.
If you are struggling with your mental health, read our advice on where to find help.
• If you have been affected by any issues in this story, contact Samaritans or Nightline.