The Six Essential Skills
Research emphasises the importance of teaching strategies and techniques for analysing text, and strategies that teach the ability to break down the components of the text. It is important to focus on the process of comprehension, not just the end product of being able to answer multiple choice questions correctly or write a response.
Strategies such as visualising a scene or story while listening or reading can be extremely powerful for students who struggle with vocabulary and oral language skills.
Instruction should include concepts such as how stories are constructed from the very basic structure of beginning, middle, and end to the more complex structures found in informational and expository text.
Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia writes about the science behind reading comprehension. Willingham explains that whether or not readers understand a text depends far more on how much background knowledge and vocabulary they have relating to the topic than on how much they’ve practiced comprehension skills. That’s because writers leave out a lot of information that they assume readers will know. If they put all the information in, their writing would be tedious. But if readers can’t supply the missing information, they have a hard time making sense of the text.
Shanahan has debunked a popular approach that goes hand in hand with teaching comprehension skills: To help students practice their “skills,” teachers give them texts at their supposed individual reading levels rather than the level of the grade they’re in. According to Shanahan, no evidence backs up that practice. In fact, Shanahan said, recent research indicates that students actually learn more from reading texts that are considered too difficult for them—in other words, those with more than a handful of words and concepts a student doesn't understand. What struggling students need is guidance from a teacher in how to make sense of texts designed for kids at their respective grade levels—the kinds of texts those kids may otherwise see only on standardised tests, when they have to grapple with them on their own.
'It still makes sense to start kids out with relatively easy texts when they are in K-1, since they have to learn to decode. Beginning reading texts should have enough repetition and should provide kids lots of exposure to the most frequent and straightforward spelling patterns in our language. But, once that hurdle is overcome, it makes no sense to teach everybody as if they were 5-years-old. The studies are pretty clear that from a second-grade reading level on, kids can learn plenty when taught with more challenging texts.'
The Instructional Level Concept Revisited
A very large number of studies that have observed a close relationship between reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge. Across the age span, individuals with better vocabulary knowledge tend to show advanced reading comprehension relative to peers with less well-developed vocabulary knowledge. Reviewing this evidence, Tannenbaum, Torgesen and Wagner (2006) reported that the correlation between reading comprehension and vocabulary varied between approximately .3 to .8. The correlation strengthens as children get older (Torgesen et al., 1997) and factors such as test format and the dimension of word knowledge being assessed also impact on the magnitude of the correlation. Limitations in vocabulary knowledge have been suggested to be a putative cause of reading comprehension failure (e.g., Cromley & Azevedo, 2007) and many interventions for poor reading comprehension involve strategies designed to increase vocabulary knowledge (e.g., Beck, 1982). This aim of this chapter is to explore the links between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension, with particular reference to children identified as having specific deficits in reading comprehension. Before discussing this group of children in some detail, it is useful to review two general (and inter-related) issues. First, why might reading comprehension and vocabulary be associated and second, which aspects of the reading comprehension process might be most closely related to vocabulary knowledge?