Several of our recent articles have focused on the interplay of language with reading skills. We have discussed how decoding (the process of using rules to read words) is affected by underlying language processes such as syntax (grammatical word order) and semantics (word meaning). For older students, even when these systems are intact individually, the expectation for higher-level reading skills can complicate reading performance.
In the early elementary years, students focus on phonics, decoding, and fluency in school. According to Ohio’s New Learning Standards and the Common Core State Standards, once students reach second and third grade, they are expected to read not just to decipher words but in order to learn new information. As they get older, students must not only understand the information in text but also be able to do something with that information: analyze it, explain it, compare/contrast it, and use it to make inferences and draw conclusions, for example. This applies not only to language arts material, but also to social studies text, science literature, and other subject areas. A struggling reader may have made great strides in improving her decoding skills, fluency, and vocabulary. But once the bar is raised and she has to analyze and manipulate the material she reads, these skills alone may not be quite enough for her keep up with the curriculum.
How can we help these students utilize their skills to be successful at higher-level reading? One highly effective tool is using graphic organizers. These are visual charts or layouts that help a student to keep track of information as she reads, so that the information is readily available when she needs to go back and use it. Graphic organizers can be made for keeping track of characters and storyline in a book, highlighting main ideas and important details in informational text, charting similarities or differences for a compare/contrast task, or tracking and organizing other information in a visual representation. Without such a tool, the student must read the text, comprehend the information, store it in her working memory, and then recall and use the information for the task (e.g. comparing or making a prediction). Graphic organizers can take the mental burden off of short-term and working memory in order to free up mental energy for the task itself. By breaking down the task in this way, the student does not need to focus on all of these components at the same time.
Another useful strategy is pre-reading. Particularly for non-fiction material, pre-reading can involve scanning the material before actually reading it and looking for clues that will aid in comprehension. For example, the student can learn to read section headings, look at the meanings of any bolded words, and give some attention to pictures, graphs, and charts that help illustrate the text, before reading. He will familiarize himself with what to expect and what information to look out for once he starts looking at the text. This comprehension “boost” ahead of time may help improve understanding as the student reads, so that he has more mental reserves available for analyzing the information.
A third technique to help improve higher-level reading comprehension skills is teaching students to do frequent comprehension checks of literal information. Higher-level comprehension tasks require the student to have a solid understanding of the facts from the text. (For instance, in order to answer questions like, “What do you think will happen next?” in a book, or “Why was this discovery important?” in a nonfiction text, the student needs to know the previous storyline or the facts of the discovery.) If students can check themselves frequently when reading before they need to perform a higher-level task, they will be better equipped to answer such questions. We can train students to ask, “What are the important points I just read?” or “What just happened in this story?” at the end of each section. If they cannot answer these questions, they know to go back and re-read or ask for help. In this way, students will be better prepared when confronted with higher-level tasks.
These strategies – using graphic organizers, pre-reading, and self-checking for comprehension of literal information – are examples of tools a student can learn to use, in order to successfully approach higher-level reading comprehension.
Anna Fredman, M.S., CCC-SLP
Certified Speech Language Pathologist
Anna Fredman is a licensed, certified Speech Language Pathologist. She received her Master of Science in speech language pathology from the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA and previously worked at the Monarch Center for Autism. She currently sees school-aged children and has also worked with toddlers through students 21 years old. Anna has specialized in therapy for individuals on the autism spectrum, with a special interest in high-functioning students focusing on social pragmatics and young children learning basic communication and social skills. She also addresses reading, expressive language skills, written expression, and articulation with her students.