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Teaching Reading Comprehension Skills

By Michael Maloney
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #61, 2004.

Measuring and improving reading comprehension.
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Michael Maloney

Teaching reading comprehension skills is a relatively new aspect in the process of teaching children to read. Historically, comprehension was considered just part of the general process of teaching reading. All of that changed dramatically when the Russians launched Sputnik into orbit around the planet in the 1950's. This being the height of the "Cold War," America was alarmed. Most upsetting was the presumed lack of "higher order thinking skills" in American students which allowed the Russians to surge so far ahead. What followed was a frantic search for methods to teach thinking and understanding, not only as it related to science and math, but also as it impacted the rest of the curricula.

Finding no strong research in the U.S., educators quickly adopted the cognitive psychology of the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget. Piaget's work rocketed from virtual obscurity to the forefront of child development psychology almost overnight. Thinking skills emerged as entities to be taught across the curriculum. Piaget's theory is a general descriptive theory of a child's cognitive development in four stages and did not come with ready-made procedures for teaching skills in the same way that Maria Montessori's work in early childhood development did. Research was launched on a broad array of topics, including reading

Several different aspects of reading comprehension were defined and procedures were developed to teach each of them. Reading programs began to contain exercises for literal comprehension, sequencing, summarization, following directions, drawing inferences, deductive reasoning and analogous thinking. As with most elementary curriculum, the best instructional designs for teaching comprehension skills were created by the practitioners of Direct Instruction at the University of Oregon. These are some of the dominant aspects of reading comprehension that have become part of Direct Instruction and some other programs. Let's look at each in turn.

Literal comprehension is the simplest form of reading comprehension. In a literal comprehension exercise, the answer is given directly in the text.

Comprehension Exercise

Four women went fishing. Each of three women caught a big fish. The fourth woman did not catch anything. It started to rain so they went home and had a fish dinner.

  1. (literal) Four women went:
    shopping fishing surfing

  2. (non-literal) Three women were:
    happy excited wet

Sequencing: Sequencing is the skill of getting the information in the correct order. For example, ask your child to arrange the sequence of events in the story as follows:

  • What did the four women do first? - They went fishing.
  • What did they do next? - Three women caught fish.
  • What happened next? - It rained.
  • What happened after that? - They went home.
  • What was the last thing that happened? - They ate fish for dinner.

Summarization: Summarization allows the students to learn the critical ideas in a passage by reducing the information to key facts or ideas. One summary of a story can usually be found in its title, so determining a story title is one way to summarize the information in the passage.

Pick the best title for the story:

  1. The fish dinner
  2. A successful fishing trip
  3. Fishing in the rain
  4. One unhappy woman

Answer? Title 2: "A successful fishing trip" because it most aptly describes most of the facts found in the story. "Title 3: Fishing in the rain" is completely incorrect because they stopped fishing when the rain began. Titles 1, 3, and 4 describe only one aspect of the story, not most of the facts.

Main Idea: Another method is to ask for the main idea and two or three important details from a story. The question can be asked beginning with sentences, then be used with paragraphs and finally it can be asked of entire stories. It is best to begin with shorter stories and build toward longer ones.

Following Directions: Following directions teaches the student to do a task in a specific way. Students who fail to follow the instructions will wind up with a different outcome than those who do. These exercises typically begin with one or two simple exercises and then continue with tasks that have several more complicated steps. Typically it is relatively easy to see which step the student did not do or did incorrectly so that remediation is usually not difficult. An example from the lesson is given below.

In the picture of the four women fishing;

  • Circle the woman with the biggest fish.
  • Write the word "sad" under the woman who has no fish.
  • Cross out the smallest fish.
  • Write a title for the story.

Drawing Inferences: Drawing Inferences teaches the student to name an object or event when given a description or to predict what will happen given the facts in a story.

Tell me about this item in the comprehension exercise above. It has 2 eyes. It can pull really hard. It is sometimes found in groups. It has scales. What is it?

The first three statements could refer to either the fisherman or the fish. The last statement defines the object because only the fish have scales.

Reread the comprehension exercise and answer the two questions below.

The next week there was another fishing trip. Only three women went on this trip. Which woman was probably not there? Why was she not there?

Answer - The lady who did not catch a fish was not there.
Answer - She did not think that she would catch a fish so she stayed home.

Based on the facts from the story the student can predict which woman is most likely to be absent and to give a reason for her absence.

Deductive Reasoning: Deductive reasoning teaches students to draw conclusions using facts and rules of logic. They begin with simple universal deductions and proceed to more complicated forms. There are four major forms of deductions, two of which are shown here.

All fish swim.
A trout is a fish.
A trout swims.

Some fish are good to eat
A trout is a fish
Maybe a trout is good to eat.

The first rule in teaching deductions is to understand that every deduction has three parts: a rule statement, a middle statement and a conclusion. The next step is to determine if the first statement in the deduction, known as the rule, is a universal statement or a particular statement. "All fish swim" is a universal statement. "Some fish are good to eat" is a particular statement because it does not apply to all fish. If the rule is a particular statement, the student must add the word "maybe" to the conclusion.

The next rule is that the noun that is found in the rule and the middle statement cannot be used in the conclusion. The noun "fish" appears in the rule and the middle statement of each of the deductions above, so it cannot be used in the conclusion.

Analogous Thinking: Analogous thinking teaches the student to think along parallel lines of reasoning.

A fin is to a fish
as _________ are to a bird
as ________ are to a frog.

Answer - A fin is to a fish as wings are to a bird as legs are to a frog.

The analogy compares some feature of all three animals. Like deductions, analogies are best taught by teaching the rule associated with them. In any analogy, whatever the first part of the analogy talks about, the other parts of that analogy must talk about the same kind of thing. In this analogy, the first part talks about which body part helps a fish to move, so the second part and third parts must talk about which body part helps a bird and a frog to move.

All of these forms of reading comprehension should be found in any comprehensive language arts program, with each type of comprehension task being added as the program extends to each successive grade level.

Areas of Concern

One of the principal reasons that children have reading comprehension problems is that skills like those described above are not necessarily taught in a systematic fashion within their reading program. That is the result of an instructional design flaw of their reading program. Analyze your current reading program for these skills and determine its effectiveness.

Another major consideration is that the student is not able to decode the passages quickly and easily. Children who read at less than 200 words per minute almost always suffer from comprehension problems. The more slowly they read the more serious the problem becomes. They are spending so much energy and attention just trying to figure out the words that they have little capacity left to try to understand what they have read. The first step in increasing comprehension is to develop fluent decoding skills so that the student reads passages at 200 words per minute orally with no more than 2 errors. Children who become fluent readers almost always have an immediate corresponding increase in their comprehension skills.

A third major problem is that the student does not understand the vocabulary being used in the passage. Collecting the terms that the child cannot define and teaching the meaning of these words allows the child to advance with less struggling.

A final concern is that some reading comprehension exercises do not actually test reading comprehension because all of the questions are literal questions designed as multiple-choice questions. They appear to test comprehension but because one of the items contains the answer in its exact or nearly exact words, the student can simply look for the correct phrase and ignore the rest of the options.

Poor Example:

Why did the women quit fishing?

a) They were getting tired.
b) It was getting too hot.
c) It started to rain.
d) They had enough fish.
e) All of the above.

Better example:

Why did the women quit fishing?

a) They were getting tired.
b) It was getting too hot.
c) They did not want to get wet.
d) They had enough fish.
e) All of the above.

Helping Your Student to Better Comprehension

To assist a student in gaining better reading comprehension skills:

  • Make sure that the student is decoding the passages quickly and easily.

  • Select a reading comprehension program that teaches the major components of comprehension with lots of opportunity to practice the various skills in oral and written exercises.

  • Check to see that they understand each of the words used in the passage.

  • Practice each type of comprehension task in the order outlined above.
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