Improve Comprehension: The Goal to Reading

There is a difference between comprehending and decoding.

Remember when you were younger and you came to a word you didn’t know? You were told to sound out the word. This skill of sounding out a word is called decoding. It happens by knowing the letters and the sounds each letter represents. Then, put them together and speak the word. That is decoding. It is only a part of reading. It is not the main goal of reading. The reason we read is to comprehend someone else’s thoughts, stories, or ideas. Comprehension means the reader understands what was read.

Many of my students tell me they can already read. Partially that is true. I know that well over ninety percent of my students can decode grade level vocabulary words. Students are confusing decoding with comprehension. Many middle school students believe, incorrectly, that reading means to look at an arrangement of letters and then pronounce what the letters sound like. They may not know the meaning of the word, but they believe they are “reading” the word. They are not. They are decoding the word. They are using phonemic awareness and phonics to correctly sound out new words. Don’t get me wrong, decoding is a vitally important part of reading. However, it is only the beginning of the battle. And it is a battle that mostly occurs in preschool and lower elementary grades. By the time a student arrives in middle school, that student is expected to be able to not only decode words, but also to create meaning of the words on a page. That is the part my students are missing.

Comprehension is the goal to reading.

My goal every year is to help students better comprehend the text. Frequently kids say to me “I read it but I don’t get it.” This tells me the student can decode the words, but can NOT determine the meaning of the text. So, it is necessary for me to give them tools to help them check their understanding. My first tool is paraphrasing. Paraphrasing is the ability of a reader to restate in original words what was read. This can be used to check the understanding of the reader. If a student can read a paragraph, and then explain in his/her own words the meaning of the paragraph, the student has achieved a level of comprehension. To improve comprehension, ask the reader “What does it mean?” If the reader says “I don’t know” or some such response, it is necessary to discover the obstacle. Sometimes, it is simply that the child is unsure or afraid of answering incorrectly. So, ask again in a more gentle way maybe using specific information from the text. Instead of “What does it mean?” maybe “what happened?” or “what is this about?” are more helpful questions. And remind the student that mistakes are how we learn, so making a mistake is a good thing. They are so unsure of themselves at this age that it is important to be sensitive to their insecurities and attempt to assuage them by reminding children that all of them can learn.

Chunking the text.

Another great skill to help students better comprehend is chunking. Chunking is simply breaking the text into small pieces. Ask the student to explain a smaller portion of the text. If that is successful, then make a note of the meaning of that part of the text, and move on to the next chunk. Repeat this procedure until the student has several chunks explained, put it all together, and hopefully, the student will see the process and begin working through their reading, checking for comprehension as they go.

Often I encourage students to write paraphrases in the margins of the article for each chunk. Then they can simply read down the margin to determine their own understanding of the entire text. This is especially helpful with long articles.

Vocabulary and comprehension.

If a student doesn’t know the meaning of a word, then the student may have problems comprehending the text. This is especially true with nouns (people, places, things, and ideas). Sometimes students are able to determine meaning through context clues – hints surrounding the unknown word which helps determine meaning. But, if a student is confused by a word or two, and can’t determine meaning by the text, it is time to look the word up in the good old fashion dictionary (online resources are fine). Of course, word meaning creates a whole new series of problems. Most words have more than one meaning or definition. It is important for the student to determine which definition correctly fits into the text.