Comprehension: A Definition


Comprehension means to understand what is being communicated. While this seems straight-forward to us as literate adults, it’s actually an incredibly complicated process for young children to master.

Most researchers distinguish between listening comprehension and reading comprehension. The two are related, and both draw upon similar areas in the brain to process incoming information, but there are some important differences.

Listening Comprehension

Listening comprehension is the ability to follow, process, and understand spoken language. When someone tells you a story about their trip to the doctor, you are using your listening comprehension to follow along. If, in the midst of their story, they suddenly add, “Red-eyed tree frogs make good pets,” it is your listening comprehension skills that catch the discrepancy.

Children use their listening comprehension skills when talking to their friends, getting directions from a teacher, watching their favorite cartoons, and – most importantly for this discussion – when listening to a story book being read aloud. Indeed, one of the best ways to help children build their listening comprehension skills is to read and discuss stories with them from a very young age. These experiences – listening to narratives, discussing story plots and character motives, making up stories, sharing dialog – provide children with valuable exposure to decontextualized language.

Contextualized and decontextualized language represent two important, but very different language experiences. Both are crucial to children’s language development, but only decontextualized experiences contribute significantly to literacy.

Contextualized language is worded communication that includes the use of non-verbal elements, including body language and facial expressions. Such language almost always involves conversation between familiar parties who share a certain amount of unspoken background knowledge. Our normal, everyday conversations with friends and family are contextual language experiences.

Decontextualized language, on the other hand, is grounded only in the language – the words and syntax – used. Background knowledge is not always assumed and non-language cues are not as readily employed. Decontextualized language includes experiences like: giving directions, explaining a process, retelling a story, and describing a place or object. Since these closely mirror the language experienced in books, exposure to decontextualized language plays a big role in preparing students for understanding what they read. In fact, research has shown that decontextualized language experiences during pre-school (ages 3-5) are the number one predictor of reading comprehension success once students reach third and fourth grade (Snow, 1994).

Although it may appear unrelated, such listening comprehension practice sets a solid base for the reading comprehension students will build once they are reading on their own.

Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension is the degree to which we understand what we read. When we pick up the newspaper and read about the latest election results, call up a web site and read directions on installing a new light switch, or grab a novel off the shelf of the local bookstore, we are using our reading comprehension skills to gather information from text.

Reading comprehension is a tricky topic, and century old debates about what it entails, how it happens, and how to best facilitate it still rage in academic circles. However, everyone agrees that reading comprehension is the ultimate end-goal of reading. If we do not read to understand, then we read for nothing.

Reading comprehension is tied to listening comprehension in a basic and intuitive way. Most people perceive reading as a process of taking coded, written language and tranforming it into decoded, spoken language. Although the details of this remain unresolved, and many experts question that the process involves so simple a translation, it is fair to say that for young children up to second grade, this is precisely what happens. For primary grade students, reading really is a direct decoding of written text into spoken words, which are then processed as spoken language via the same mechanisms that make listening comprehension possible. (See Gough’s “Simple View of Reading”).

What Should Parents Be Doing

For very young children (aged 3 – 7), listening comprehension is where parents should focus. Students won’t be ready to do the work of true reading comprehension until they have become Instructional Readers, which happens for most students somewhere between second and third grades. Until then, students will rely on listening comprehension to understand material that is read to them and to draw meaning from texts that they read themselves in an oral fashion.

Read a Book

Parents can make a huge contribution during this time by spending time reading and talking about books with their children. This cannot be overstressed. There is no point in a child’s elementary school career where they cannot benefit from being read to. The read aloud is the number one thing any parent can do to help their child build literacy skills. It provides a model for smooth, accurate, expressive reading, builds listening comprehension skills, fosters an interest in and love of books, establishes a bond between adult and child, focuses attention on written words and the roles they play in our language … if I could enact one law in this country, it would be to require every parent to read at least one book their child every day. It’s that important.

Talk About It

Reading books with children is a good start, but comprehension is really only fostered when we take a moment to talk about the book with the child. These discussions can range from talking about our favorite parts to making predictions about what will happen next, to retelling the whole story, to making up new endings. Parents can ask specific questions about the story, share their own thoughts, or ask for kids’ opinions. The important thing is the act of thinking and sharing, not the details of what is shared.

What Should Teachers Be Doing

For parents reading with their children, it is the act of reading and talking that helps build comprehension. The story is different for teachers. Our job in the classroom is not just to expose and model, but to explicitly and directly teach children how to become skilled and strategic readers. Every time we sit down to read with our students, we should be asking ourselves: how will this lesson empower my students to become stronger independent readers.

When it comes to reading comprehension, there are seven strategies we should be routinely, explicitly, and systematically teaching our students to use independently while they read. They are: predicting, connecting, questioning, visualizing, summarizing, clarifying, and inferring. For a detailed discussion of each, see Seven Comprehension Strategies for Making Independent Readers.

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