A high level of reading comprehension -the process of making meaning from text - is not just one of the goals of language arts education: it is the major goal. This would be the consensus choice of a survey of educators and perhaps the unanimous choice. The only real competitor would be the ability to express oneself effectively.
But achieving proficiency in reading comprehension for most readers remains a huge challenge across the educational spectrum. The reason is that reading comprehension requires proficiency across a range of disparate skills. These skills can be expressed as the Reading Skills Pyramid, Scarborough’s Reading Rope, or the Bush's (younger) NCLB Five Steps to Learning to Read. In all of these cases, the message is start with a strong base in sounds prior to learning phonics, systematic phonics, adequate vocabulary, some sight words and lots of automaticity across phonics to achieve fluency, and some techniques for monitoring and ensuring comprehension rather than just reading.
This article explores the limits of what is actually understood about meaning. You can go deep in the literature and you will find that there is not much understanding of these questions.
Reading endurance versus reading skills. Obviously, a short story is easier to understand than a long one. Students must learn to comprehend longer and tougher passages as they progress. But what is the value of focusing on extracting meaning from very short passages, does it build invaluable skills to build on? For example:
My Dad told me early last night to get my homework done first before logging on but instead, I got immersed in playing online games with my friends and played until very late. I tried to do my homework after we finished playing but I was too exhausted. At school today, I was again unprepared and humiliated by the teacher in front of the class. I wish I had done what my Dad said. I wonder if I will ever learn?
These fifty words enable a complete set of reading comprehension questions such as:
- What is the main idea of this story?
- Who is telling the story?
- What is the sequence of events?
- Arrange the following into cause and effect?
- What do we know about the main character? Who are the other characters?
Is practicing extracting and interpreting meaning from short passages an invaluable step in building reading skills? Can core reading comprehension skills can be meaningfully honed using shorter passages and having built these skills, will students have the skills to build endurance and navigate longer passages? If so, why aren't there any major reading curriculum which provide this sort of practice? Today, all the major reading programs focus on hefty thousand word passages which must be read prior to answering reading comprehension questions. This greatly limits the practice than a student can have. I strongly feel (but would like to research) that a key to increased success in reading comprehension is recognizing that the core comprehension concepts are a form of academic thinking (or vocabulary) that should be heavily taught in a number of forms prior to dealing with hefty reading passages. These forms including listening to stories, watching videos, looking at visuals, and reading short-passage stories.
Reading comprehension skills are the ultimate form of academic vocabulary. It should be taught but without it being a reading endurance test. That's the key point.
Hierarchy of Understanding. This seems so obvious but it is not built into most reading programs. A sentence has meaning. If a student can't comprehend a sentence, no reason to keep reading. The same is true of each paragraph, each section (if passages are broken into sections), and an overall piece. Making sure a student monitors and maintains understanding both of each piece and how the pieces come together is a s huge and interesting challenge.