What is reading comprehension and what are the factors that affect comprehension? Based on the book Comprehension First written by Claudia Cornett.
Reading comprehension involves a complex set of acts and abilities demanded from the reader. Many factors get into action when we talk about achieving reading comprehension success. We cannot understand comprehension as a matter of all or nothing. There are many degrees and levels of comprehension. For a certain purpose to locate and information could be considered comprehension. In other occasions being critical about the ideas that someone presents in a text can be what we consider comprehension.
What Cornett argues in her text is that emphasizing and practicing only phonics aspects of the reading process as well as some other abilities required on standard tests will not make the students became good readers because it would not involve having them comprehend what they are reading.
In order to really understand what they are reading, students need ‘to connect textual information to their lives and feelings’ (Cornett, 2010, p.4). They also need to become ‘mindful` learners, by knowing how to use reading strategies flexibly, and being able to create their own understandings of what they read.
One important concept defined by Cornett (2010) is literacy. According to her literacy “is the ability to communicate thoughts, ideas, feelings, and emotions effectively through comprehension (understanding) and composition (expression)”. In Brazil there is a widely accepted concept of literacy that can be added to the one Cornett uses. Literacy as proposed by Soares (2003) is “the state or condition of those who not only know how to read and write, but also cultivate the social practices that require writing and reading”. Also according to her, not being alphabetized has deep consequences: an illiterate person is the one that cannot fully exercise his rights as a citizen, is the one that the society marginalize, it is the one that do not have access to the cultural goods of literate societies” (SOARES, 1999, p. 19-20).
When we think of all the cultural goods available in your society, we go back to other two important concepts mentioned by Cornett: reading and text. We need to think about reading and ‘making meaning’ from different kinds of word-based and non-word-based texts. Nowadays we have multimedia hypertexts available and waiting to be read.
Although the idea of `big ideas’ might be tricky, because we can ask what exactly is a big idea? Why, when and to whom is that big or important? Cornett’s considerations on the relevance of making questions seems to be doubtless. According to her “the ability to ask such [important] questions is an essential skill all teachers need in order to provide effective comprehension instruction. More important, students need to be taught to self-question before, during, and after encountering any text if they are to become independent and continue to develop comprehension abilities” (Cornett, 2010, p.8). We need to motivate our students to make questions, to present their doubts and be proud of them. Curiosity and some ‘estrangement’ are fundamental to learning and life. If there is no questions, there is no search for answers. The more we search, more questions we get. As Cornett mentions, quoting Gambrell, Malloy, Mazzoni (2007), “the result of inquiry is that, when readers tale this stance from the beginning, they comprehend more and better” (p. 9). Making questions will improve text comprehension because it will make it personally meaningful. Since it is important to be personally meaningful that I think there is no big or small questions. For the reader, all his (genuinely his) questions are big.
In a section of this first chapter, Cornett discusses about evaluations, testing and scores. One question raised by a teacher might summarize it well: “My hogs won’t get any fatter if I weight them more often” (Cornett, 2010, p.10). There is an increasing demand for testing, but now we need to prepare our students for a “workplace that often requires employees to comprehend and navigate complex texts, including Internet multimedia hypertext. It is no longer enough to be able to read words from left to right and follow literal direction” (Cornett, 2010, p.10). Besides dealing with multimodal hypertexts, we need also to help the students to understand the texts they need to read in life. They need to learn how to really comprehend the texts they read. In order to do that, they need to learn phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, syntax, fluency and, mainly, how to build the comprehension of the text, so that the text becomes meaningful for them.
To succeed in this task of teaching reading for comprehension the teacher needs to pay attention to the learners needs and try to work on conditions that might help them to be successful. Some common needs of the students are usually related to:
Ø Contexts and learning spaces: the classroom must be a place that welcome diverse texts and respect different cultures.
Ø Text and engagement: the students should be engaged in reading, listening and viewing a variety of diverse texts.
Ø Task / comprehension: teachers need to focus on active meaning making by students (more than literal meaning).
Ø Teachers and teaching:
§ Literacy models – demonstrate how to comprehend well
§ Motivation – activate students’ intrinsic motivation
§ Strategy instruction – help students learn a set of thinking tools
§ Discussion – encourage students to generate questions (and fell like finding the answers)
§ Assessment – teacher needs information about students’ strengths and needs to plane instruction.
§ Instructional routines – e.g. provoke diverse responses
§ Response options – enable students to create verbal and nonverbal texts that show their understanding.
Cornett, C. E. (2010). Comprehension first: Inquiry into big ideas using important questions. Holcomb Hathaway.
Gambrell, L. B., Malloy, J. A., & Mazzoni, S. A. (2007). Evidence-based best practices for comprehensive literacy instruction. Best practices in literacy instruction, 3, 11-29.
Soares, M. B. (1999). Letramento: um tema em três gêneros. São Paulo: Autêntica.