We often hear from parents that their child struggles with reading comprehension. Their child can “read” a text, but then can’t remember what they read or answer questions or do anything with the information from the text. The school may say that their child can read but they lack comprehension. So, parents ask: Is reading without comprehension really reading?
What does it mean to read something?
Let’s consider a few examples. You read a newspaper article and you can tell someone pertinent facts about what you read. Or perhaps you read a short story and can explain the relationships among the characters or why they acted as they did. Or maybe you’re reading a Help Wanted Ad and are deciding whether it’s a job you want to apply for.
If you “read” but don’t understand what you read, you won’t be able to discuss the news or compare the short story to another or decide if you want to apply for that job. If you “read” but don’t understand what you read, you’re like many students in classrooms and homes who read” a passage out loud, but have no idea, when they’re done, what it was they read.
Educators typically consider decoding, fluency and comprehension as the basic skills of reading. Decoding, of course, refers to sounding out words or recognizing sight words – turning the symbols on the page into sounds with meaning.
But what if the sounds, even if correctly produced, don’t have meaning or are interpreted as having a meaning that’s different from what the writer intended?
This is when we need to look below the surface of “basic reading skills” to appreciate that there are skills even more basic than decoding and fluency and comprehension that are required to learn to read.
Decoding seems pretty easy, right? Just say the sound that corresponds to the letter you see and you’re good to go. Except that there are some even more basic mental processes that allow us to decode. Attention, for one. If our attention goes wandering off in the middle of a word and we have to start over, that will impair decoding.
But let’s say we know how to sound a word out (or we recognize it as a sight word). Now we need to build up fluency. Here again, there are some underlying mental processes that we need to do that. We need to be able shift our attention from word to word (flexible attention), for example. And we need to be able to process the information we are reading at an appropriate pace (processing speed). Flexible attention and processing speed are necessary to build reading fluence, but they aren’t skills that are explicitly taught.
Finally, comprehension is the ultimate purpose of reading. While educators measure decoding and fluency separately, unless students can understand what they read, there is no point to it. And there can be a lot of angst when 3rd grade “learning to read” turns into 4th grade “reading to learn” if comprehension issues are not addressed.
The Cognitive Skills Needed for Reading Comprehension
Reading puts demands on many cognitive skills and there are some that are especially important for comprehension. We would highlight the following:
- Working Memory
- Verbal Reasoning
- Abstract Reasoning
- Flexible Thinking
Think about what you are doing when you read. You decode words. You hold words in mind while you put them together to create meaning. You retrieve information from long-term memory to compare the new information to. This conscious processing of information to create meaning (understanding or comprehension) is called working memory. Working memory capacity is limited. We can only hold so much information in mind at a time. So, when children struggle with reading comprehension (but not with other aspects of reading), working memory may be an important reason.
Visualization is another vital reading comprehension skill. Visualization is the ability to see something that isn’t physically present. Reading is like watching a movie but without the visual content. Our minds supply that content based on our experiences and imagination. That’s why we can be so disappointed when we see a movie that is based on a book; it doesn’t match up with the way we imagined it. We don’t need actual visual input to “see” what we read but we may often need to visualize to comprehend.
Consider the beginning of a favorite middle childhood book, Mary Poppins.
If you want to find Cherry-Tree Lane, all you have to do is ask the policeman at the cross-roads. He will push his helmet slightly to one side, scratch his head thoughtfully, and then he will point his huge white-gloved finger and say: “First to your right, second to your left, sharp right again, and you’re there. Good morning.”
Can you remember those directions? Would you be able to find Cherry Tree Lane? If so, you’re holding the information in working memory. Do you have a picture in your mind of the policeman? What color is his uniform? The process of visualization helps with reading comprehension and the ability to recall what we’ve read, like replaying a movie in our mind.
Difficulty visualizing or creating that mental image of what we read can be another barrier to comprehension.
Verbal reasoning refers to the process of thinking with language-based information. It starts with basic vocabulary and life experiences. If you have never seen or heard of a cherry tree, you may not be able to create a visual image. If you don’t know what a policeman is, you may be missing important information to fully understand the story.
Verbal reasoning extends beyond literal language to how we interpret figurative language or draw inferences from what we read. When someone says, “that was a piece of cake,” verbal reasoning prevents us from looking around for a physical piece of cake. We know that the expression signifies that something was very easy. We also know that someone who gives us “a piece of their mind,” isn’t undergoing surgery in order to hand over a chunk of grey matter. And we know that “peace of mind” and “piece of mind” are two very different concepts, although they sound exactly the same.
Difficulty with verbal reasoning can significantly hamper reading comprehension.
Abstract reasoning involves seeing patterns, thinking conceptually, and understanding relationships such as cause and effect or parts and wholes. Let’s read the following sentence.
As soon as the mailman left, Jenny flipped through the pile of envelopes, then threw them on the table and ran up to her room, sobbing as she ran.
What inference do you draw from that sentence? Do you think any of the envelopes were addressed to Jenny? Do you think Jenny was expecting something in the mail and it didn’t come? Those would be reasonable inferences to draw. In this case, it’s not about understanding the figurative meaning of the words, but about interpreting behavior. Abstract reasoning helps us fill in gaps – coming up with a cause that would explain the relationship between the mail and Jenny’s tears. Weaker abstract reasoning may leave the reader puzzled by Jenny’s behavior even if they precisely understand every word in the sentence.
Flexible thinking is the cognitive skill that enables us to shift gears when something changes in the world around us. It is what enables us to see things from multiple perspectives or points of view.
What career or job would you have if you couldn’t fail?
I encountered that question once and came up with an answer. I interpreted the question as asking what I would become if failure was to be avoided at any cost. In other words, I thought I was being asked what job or career I would choose as the safest, to avoid risk, to be certain of success.
But that’s not what the questioner meant. They meant for me to tell them what I would do if I was assured of success, no matter what, that is, if I literally couldn’t fail. The answer to that question was very different.
As another example, consider the following brain teaser.
A father and son have a car accident and both are seriously injured. They are taken to separate hospitals for treatment. When the boy is taken into the operating room, the surgeon says, “I can’t do this surgery. This boy is my son!” How is this possible?
It is possible if the surgeon is the boy’s mother. Coming up with the explanation requires us to think beyond our mental models and assumptions. We have to shift our thinking. Difficulty adapting to changes or coming up with alternative explanations can also be the cause of gaps in reading comprehension.
Cognitive Skills Can Be Developed in Order to Boost Reading Comprehension
The five cognitive skills described above are all vital to good reading comprehension, but what can we do if a child has weaknesses in any of these areas? The good news is that today we know that these skills, like other cognitive skills, can be strengthened with the right kind of cognitive training.
Cognitive training is not a substitute for reading instruction. Reading is not a natural process; the human species evolved for language but not for reading and writing. Reading and writing almost always requires explicit instruction. But reading instruction for children whose cognitive skills are not well developed can result in frustration and an inability to comprehend what they read. And if we can’t comprehend what we read, then, in our opinion, we’re not really reading.
About the authors
Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management where she received a Contribution to Learning Excellence Award. She received a Nepris Trailblazer Award for sharing her knowledge, skills and passion for the neuroscience of learning in classrooms around the country. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University.
Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of the BrainWare Learning Company. Over the past decade, he championed efforts to bring comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment within reach of every person, and it all started with one very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, Roger Stark pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool, based on over 50 years of trial and error through clinical collaboration. He also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive, integrated cognitive literacy training tool delivered online anywhere in the world. For more, follow BrainWare Learning on Twitter @BrainWareSafari