Through reading aloud, we remove the need for children to engage in word reading and this 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 onto 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 aloud texts 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 recommend 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 with parents 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:
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 have an impact on their understanding of sentences, 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, possibly join those letters. The child now has to overcome several more barriers to answer what on the surface appears to be a simple comprehension question.
In fact, often children’s ability to comprehend texts can be exacerbated by the need to write accurate answers when in reality there is more than one possible interpretation for most high-quality texts. 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 sustain a discussion. This obviously has implications for how we assess reading comprehension.
Assessing Reading Comprehension
Assessment of reading is often achieved through the setting of comprehension questions; however, I think we should consider alternative forms of recording thinking, and demonstrating understanding instead. For example, 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. 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:
The teaching of both word reading and reading comprehension should be set within the wider school context of reading for pleasure. Theresa Cremin in her research on building communities of readers, says that 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 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 word reading and language comprehension and how they are intertwined to create good readers.
Director of Training and Research
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