Addressing barriers in Early Reading: Language and Reading Comprehension
Take a moment to think about the children in your class or school. Which children still do not have good word recognition? Which of the barriers that I have outlined so far do you think might be holding them back?
You should also question:
Or perhaps you feel that your children do not have sufficient opportunity to read and re-read texts so that they can develop their reading fluency?
Now, let’s move on to language comprehension. If we return to the expected standard at Key Stage 1. The Teacher Assessment Framework says that as well as the word reading aspect, children should, in a book that they already know how to read fluently, check that it makes sense to them, correct any incorrect reading, answer questions and make inferences, and explain what has happened so far in what they have read. There is a clear link between these expectations and the discussions that you will be having with children in Guided Reading lessons. These skills are essential to support further development of reading through Key Stage 2.
The National Curriculum from Year 3 to Year 6 has much less word reading and a greater focus on reading comprehension. So how do schools develop good comprehension skills in their pupils through KS2?
A key finding from a number of research projects is the teacher as a reader themselves. Where teachers have good subject knowledge of children’s authors and access to a wide range of books and other reading materials, they are able to provide a reading curriculum to ensure that children are provided with ‘the best that has been thought and said’.
Ofsted’s report, entitled ‘Reading by six’ (2010) reported that the schools involved in the study had a consistent approach to teaching English, including spoken language; high-quality, expert phonics teaching which follows a systematic structure; opportunities to talk and become familiar with books and the meanings of words; early identification and intervention for those that need it. Although this report is more than ten years old, we can see that it echoes many of the things that are written in the 2021 DfE Reading Framework. So, these aspects are still important in how the best schools teach reading today.
The National Curriculum also emphasises the importance of talk in developing reading comprehension. It tells us that good comprehension draws from good linguistic knowledge (in particular vocabulary and grammar) and on background knowledge (or knowledge of the world). It goes on to state that competence in comprehension is developed through pupils’ experience of high-quality discussion with the teacher, as well as from discussing a range of stories, poems and non-fiction. It is therefore important that all pupils are encouraged to read widely across both fiction and non-fiction to develop their knowledge of themselves and the world in which they live, to establish an appreciation and love of reading, and to gain knowledge to access the curriculum.
Talk plays an effective role in the development of reading comprehension. Through effective questioning that engages children in speculation, dialogue and the sharing of ideas, we support children in deepening their understanding of the texts they encounter. This type of book-related talk might also include drama, improvisation and role-play.
The National Curriculum also emphasises the importance of reading for pleasure and how reading increases pupils’ vocabulary. In turn, having an extended vocabulary helps reading comprehension. It says: “Reading widely often increases pupils’ vocabulary.” This is because they encounter words they rarely hear or use in everyday speech. The National Curriculum also goes on to say that reading also feeds pupils’ imaginations and opens up a treasure-house of wonder and joy for curious minds. I think that’s a really important sentence for us to keep hold of.
In order to understand what we read, we need a good vocabulary; in order to get a good vocabulary, we need to read. “If the development of vocabulary knowledge substantially facilitates reading comprehension, and if reading itself is a major mechanism leading to vocabulary growth – which in turn will enable more efficient reading – then we truly have to have a reciprocal relationship that should continue to drive further growth in reading throughout a person’s development.” (Stanovich). When the DfE Reading Framework makes reference to the Matthew Effect, it talks about the effect of this accumulated advantage and it is sometimes summarised by the phrase, “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.” In other words, those children who can read, have book-related talk in the home, own lots of books and enjoy reading are more likely to do well in reading. This then leads to increased amounts of reading, and the reading of more complex material. This in turn leads to the development of a wide vocabulary, which supports further reading. Children who have a smaller vocabulary, inevitably find reading comprehension more difficult; because they find reading more difficult, they may tend to do less of it, and in doing so they limit their own ability to develop and expand their vocabulary.
One way we can overcome this barrier is through reading aloud. Through reading aloud, we move the need for children to engage in word reading which frees them up to concentrate on language comprehension alone. The DfE Reading Framework points out the benefits of reading aloud and makes it clear that this should be a priority.
I am sure that like me, Reading Aloud is your favourite part of the school day. The Reading Framework also goes on to say that books should be re-read, so that children become familiar with them. We should also think about how we can use reading aloud to introduce new texts and perhaps texts that are more challenging, than those that children are able to read independently. Reading aloud also helps children to develop reading fluency when linked to re-reading and echo reading; but the simple act of listening to a text being read enables children to extend their vocabulary, understand that text carries meaning and develop their understanding
of story structure and plot which help with reading skills such as summarising and predicting. Reading texts aloud offers children the opportunity to encounter new words that are not used during day-to-day activities. The DfE Reading Framework refers to these as Tier 2 vocabulary, offering the examples of: bellowed, startled, sneaked, dreadful and stomped. The meanings of these words could be discussed during reading aloud sessions in ways that support children to understand and use the vocabulary; yet I would caution against too much stopping and starting which sometimes spoils the nature of the reading experience. The DfE also recommends reading aloud non-fiction as well as stories. Similarly, we need to ensure that poetry is regularly read aloud as poetry is key to developing children’s vocabulary. We should also extend this range of texts in our communication about reading at home, ensuring that we value all reading aloud that children experience is important. This may include parents reading aloud from the newspaper, listening to audio and digital texts and documentaries, having CDs in the car, as well as more traditional bedtime stories. If we engage parents in recognising the role that diverse reading aloud in the home and how this continues to support reading, this will help to support the creation of a wide, diverse and supportive reading community.
Let’s now think about the teaching of reading comprehension in our English lessons. I think that it’s fair to say that some children find understanding texts difficult. This may be due to their limited vocabulary, limited experience of texts and a lack of motivation to read; however, often we accidentally put constraints on children’s developing comprehension by assuming that there is one right answer. Sometimes children, who appear not to understand what they have read, may well understand; however, the way we have asked them to articulate their understanding, or the responses we give to their understanding may well unwittingly communicate to them that their ideas are wrong. This quote helps to summarise the point: “Instructional activities that too often expect readers to focus on text-based meanings may risk producing readers who passively interact with text in a surface level, literal manner.” (Kucer, 2015)
Comprehension then is an active and dynamic process; we develop, define, rethink and build on our understanding all of the time through thinking, talking and re-reading. Sometimes we ask children to complete reading comprehension questions that support only passive meaning-making, because they focus on the surface/literal meaning of the text. Sometimes we do not give children sufficient re-reading opportunities, or opportunities to talk and think through their ideas, listen to the ideas of others and build upon them. Whilst literal simpler, surface level questions might prove to be a useful warm-up, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that these are evidence that a child does or does not understand texts. What I have found is that children are very good at answering simple, surface level questions. It is very easy to get these questions correct without having any understanding of what the text is about. When we ask children to write down answers to comprehension questions, particularly if we get children to answer in full sentences, we potentially create many more barriers.
A child who is finding learning to read more challenging, probably does not read as frequently or such lengthy texts as their peers; therefore, this may also may well have an impact on their understanding of sentence, because they haven’t had such a wide experience of a wide range of sentences in the books that they read. So, combining reading comprehension with the need to write a sentence, now poses two potential barriers, adding the need to form letters, spell and possibly join those letters. We have now potentially created several more barriers for that child to overcome in order to answer what on the surface appears
to be a very simple comprehension question. In fact, often children’s ability to comprehend texts can be exacerbated by the need to write answers and for those answers to be correct when, with most high-quality texts, there may be more than one possible interpretation. In this type of reading comprehension question, getting the right answer is no indication of comprehension at all. It’s only really an indication of very good copying.
As it states in the National Curriculum, reading comprehension is developed through pupils’ experience of high-quality discussion with the teacher. So, lessons that are designed to develop comprehension, should focus on developing and sharing ideas through talk. This means that the texts we choose should be interesting enough to talk about, and the questions we ask should be interesting enough to encourage thinking, and to sustain a discussion. This obviously has implications for how we assess reading comprehension. Understanding that reading comprehension is a discussion-based activity helps us to see that assessment should also be done through pupil talk, rather than writing, until those readers are also very confident writers. There is increasing research to show that writing about a text in a critical mode can strengthen pupils’ comprehension, providing pupils with the necessary prior knowledge.
Then, when their writing is sufficiently skilled, they can fully demonstrate their thinking. We should also consider alternative forms of recording thinking, and demonstrating understanding; for example, by asking a child to draw a diagram to show the relationship between different characters in the text would require a high level of understanding, and an excellent understanding of what had been read; however, drawing is often seen as a low-level activity, and is often overlooked in reading activities. It is important to remember that being able to visualise, or to ‘turn the TV on in our heads’ as we read, is a key reading strategy.
Reflect for a moment on the last reading comprehension lesson that you taught:
All of the lessons that you teach to develop reading comprehension and word reading should be set within the wider school context of reading for pleasure. Theresa Cremin, in her research in building communities of readers, says that a reading for pleasure pedagogy encompasses planned time for reading aloud, independent reading and book talk, inside text talk and recommendations; all in the context of a social reading environment. Such practice is dependent upon teachers’ knowledge of text, and knowledge of their children as readers. At the heart of a reading for pleasure pedagogy are texts that tempt.
I hope that you have found these blogs useful in considering some of the potential barriers to reading and how we might overcome them. I hope that you have thought again about how word reading and language comprehension are intertwined to create good readers, and the role that reading for pleasure and reading frequently play in learning to read.
Director of Training and Research