Language as the Foundation for Reading and Writing
Language is the foundation for reading and writing. Language structure is described
as five systems, all of which interact in language and literacy development.
Phonology refers to the sound system. Becoming aware of sounds in language and
knowing how to apply the sounds to written symbols are critical to learning to read.
Early on, when children segment speech into syllable units (e.g., baby /ba/ /by/) and
later match individual speech sounds to their corresponding symbols (e.g., writing
FLOT for float), they are applying what they know about sounds to produce written
language (i.e., orthographic knowledge or spelling).
Morphology refers to the structure of words, a morpheme being the smallest unit of
meaning. For example, jumped is a word that has two morphemes, jump, the base
word, and ed, the inflectional ending that signals the past tense of the verb.
Morphological understanding plays an important role in comprehending word
Syntax refers to the sequence of words and structure of sentences. A simple change
in word order can dramatically alter meaning. Even young children, for example,
show knowledge of word order in English that allows them to appreciate that "Big
Bird is tickling Cookie Monster" means something different from "Cookie Monster is
tickling Big Bird."
Semantics refers to word meaning that stems from word choice, the combination of
words in various ways, and how language represents real-world meaning. Ice on the
road conveys a different meaning from ice in the glass. We see the importance of
semantic knowledge in reading comprehension when readers encounter unfamiliar
words or unfamiliar ways in which words are used.
Pragmatics refers to the use of language in real situations in real time. It
encompasses all linguistic aspects of culture and society. Pragmatics is evidenced in
written language, for example, through advertisements and political essays that may
strongly influence thought, emotions, and behavior.
Comprehension is the goal of reading. To achieve it, readers engage in the
intellectual work of making meaning. This involves combining prior information in the
brain (schema) with printed information to build and elaborate ideas. Children need
to learn how to do this cognitive work and teachers need to teach them how to do it.
The cognitive work of making sense of text relies on automatic word processing and
effective use of strategies. Strategic reading involves setting purposes, using prior
knowledge, predicting, asking and answering questions, making inferences,
attending to details and main ideas, recognizing text structure, summarizing,
reorganizing information, interpreting graphic information, visualizing, synthesizing
information, and responding to author's point of view.
Skilled readers are also metacognitively aware. They monitor their own
comprehension and know what to do when meaning breaks down. Skillful readers
self-question, re-read, and read aloud to maintain sense-making. They may also
adjust reading rate in response to prior knowledge of the content and its
Research in the last two decades has produced a substantial number of effective
comprehension strategies. Current approaches for teaching comprehension focus on
teacher and student talk about text. During a discussion, teachers support students'
efforts to comprehend text ideas by posing questions, responding to students'
comments, and encouraging peer discussion. Students express their ideas and listen
as the teacher and other students respond to these ideas. In this way, students build
not only an understanding of what a text means, but also of what it means to think
about text ideas.
Patterns of Classroom Talk
Discussion as a context for learning is an appealing idea, but discussion is not always
easy to start or to keep going. Dillon (1988) and Mehan (1979) observed discussions
in a number of classrooms and discovered that most teachers who said they were
having discussions were in fact just having students answer questions. The teachers
engaged in a very consistent pattern of talk called the IRE pattern. That is, teachers
would Initiate an exchange with students by asking a question, students Respond,
and then teachers Evaluate the response. For example, consider the following IRE
Teacher: Who found the footprints? (Initiating question)
Student: Nancy saw them first. (Response)
Teacher: That's right. (Evaluation)
Roby (1988) described the IRE pattern as a kind of classroom quiz show. Teachers
act as quiz show host, asking questions that have one correct answer, which can
usually be found right in the text. At the other extreme, according to Roby, are
meandering sessions in which students participate by offering their opinions.
Students have lots to say, but their comments are not connected to text or
responsive to what others are saying.
Talking to Comprehend
How can teachers move beyond rapid-fire quiz shows and avoid meandering
sessions? How can they make sure that students understand text ideas and have
opportunities to express personal interpretations of them?
Approaches that address that question involve students making sense of text
ideas by responding to teacher questions and by listening and responding to the
comments of other students. One approach, Text Talk (Beck & McKeown, 2001),
involves the teacher reading aloud to students. Another approach, Questioning the
Author (Beck, McKeown, Hamilton, & Kucan, 1998), involves the students doing
their own reading.
Questioning and responding involves scaffolding students' thinking through
questioning and responding during teacher and student discussions of the text.
This approach helps students develop an understanding of the ideas in the text as
they learn and practice ways to think about text ideas. Several approaches to
discussion described in the current comprehension literature include: Instructional
Conversations (Goldenberg, 1992/1993), Book Clubs (McMahon & Raphael, 1997),
and Grand Conversations (Peterson & Eeds, 1990).
Consider these research-based principles to guide text discussions:
Principle 1: Comprehension is an active process of making sense of text ideas
by questioning, connecting, and explaining them.
Principle 2: In a discussion, students can think and talk about sophisticated
texts even if they cannot read those texts themselves. They can also expand
their vocabulary knowledge.
Principle 3: In the context of a discussion that takes place during reading, the
questions teachers ask and the ways teachers respond to student comments
can support students' comprehension, as well as their understanding of the
process of comprehending.
Principle 4: During discussions, the social context of a group can support
student effort to comprehend text ideas.
Effective Teaching Strategies
Comprehension teaching strategies strive to engage young readers actively in the
reading process by asking them to make predictions, to check against print and
experience, and to integrate new information with their existing schema. The
protocols include teacher modeling the strategies and coaching children to use them
on their own.
There are a number of well-developed protocols for teaching comprehension. One of
the more popular and most straightforward is the K-W-L (Ogle, 1989), which consists
of three teacher-lead questions - What do you already Know (about the topic to be
read)? What do you Want to know about it? After reading, the teacher asks the
question, What did you Learn? It is a very effective teaching protocol that engages
readers in the predict-confirm-intergrate cycle of text comprehension. The KWL
strategy, and many others that embed the thinking cycle, stem from Russell
Stauffer's Directed Reading-Thinking Activity, which is commonly used with narrative
Assessing Reading Comprehension
Formal and informal assessment tools provide data from which to interpret students'
strengths and needs as they attempt to understand text and make it meaningful.
Information from formal assessment of comprehension provides baseline information
that is useful for determining comprehension level and monitoring progress. Informal
assessment is the productive, ongoing practice of analyzing data collected during
Reading comprehension assessment that is embedded in instruction involves
monitoring students' understanding of the text and their deliberate use of
comprehension strategies before, during, and after reading.
Teacher-Student Questioning: Teachers ask students convergent, divergent, and
evaluative questions to assess students' understanding of text read independently or
by the teacher.
Oral Retellings or Written Summaries: Teachers ask students to retell or summarize
the text and then evaluate students' understanding by noting their inclusion of story
elements, main ideas, and details.
Look-Backs: Teachers determine how well students understand the text, rather than
just their ability to memorize everything they read, by allowing students to look-back
in the text for answers to questions. Looking-back for answers will demonstrate their
comprehension of text and their familiarity with structure and metacognitive
awareness of how to find information efficiently.
Think-Alouds: Teachers listen to students' verbalization during the reading of a
selection to assess the students' use of strategies to comprehend and respond to the
Vocabulary Application: Teachers assess students' learning of new words and deeper
understanding of known words by observing students' proficiency in sorting words
according to meaning, using words in sentences, and identifying parts of speech.
Response Logs: Teachers assess how students synthesize information and respond to
the author's intent by reading students' written responses to text.
Focused Discussions: Teachers engage students in literary discussions to assess their
ability to form and support opinions or to recognize author's purpose, point of view,
Published Informal Reading Inventories: Teachers can use reliable and valid testing
materials designed to be administered at strategic points during the school year. The
informal reading inventory process involves using multiple indicators to interpret
students' comprehension of text and is accomplished by observing students' reading
behaviors and their success with reading.