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Comprehension Read About 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 meaning. 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. Reading Comprehension 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 organization. Comprehension Instruction 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 exchange: 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 text. 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 classroom interactions. 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 text. 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, and style. 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.
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