The Critical Components of Reading Comprehension

The Critical Components of Reading Comprehension
By Kenneth U. Campbell
Author of Great Leaps Reading

As we work to build and enhance comprehension skills with emergent readers and those with reading difficulties, we must define comprehension.  From my behavioral perspective, I see three essential elements: the rate of reading must approach the rate of human conversation with a low number of errors (errors should be in the range of one percent); the reading must be done with proper inflection; and the student must have adequate word/world knowledge. For this well thought out idea, I am grateful to the work of professor, Bill Wolking and psychologist, Henry Tenenbaum, early University of Florida leaders in the precision teaching movement.

Rate: Rate remains an ignored and even controversial element as essential for reading comprehension. When rate, even with inflection is lower than 75 words per minute, it is very difficult for anyone  to follow the train of thought. Comprehending a passage of five thousand words or more becomes virtually impossible when reading is at such low rates. The slower the rate of reading, the more difficult it is to have reading endurance or stamina. The brain must process inordinately slow reading with an intensity that is exhausting. This fatigue kills the endurance necessary for most practical reading. 

Assessments that do not consider reading rate are seriously incomplete. Rate measurement being seen as critical  sets precision teaching apart from the herd. In my opinion, reading rate is the most essential measure involved in the teaching of reading to prosody.  It is also important that rate be measured and charted with regularity in reading instruction, preferably daily, minimally three times a week. I prefer the use of equal ratio charts that show percentage rather than incremental growth. Fifteen minutes a day as an effective amount of time is in stark contrast to the present therapeutic one hour a week of reading therapy or tutoring. Note, in a school setting you must often schedule reading instruction five times a week so that you get the necessary three times. The sessions need not take up more than ten to fifteen minutes. To quote one of my mentors,  Dr. Ogden Lindsley, “A minute a day is more powerful than an hour a week.”

Inflection: Inflection is reading with proper expression. This also includes the expression necessitated by punctuation. The Spanish have something on us by placing the question mark or exclamation mark not only at the end of a sentence but at the beginning. Thus, reading with expression in English inherently implies the ability to use contextual clues to accurately guess upcoming punctuation, a skill rarely mentioned in remediation.

Early readers are virtually all word callers which makes perfect sense. It is our job in instruction to regularly teach inflection (another reason for oral reading work). The only effective method I can see for developing and enhancing this is through regular modeling. Whenever a young word caller or robot reader moves along one word at a time – it is proper to read a sentence that has just been read back to the student with proper or even slightly exaggerated inflection. When doing this, think of how a librarian reads stories to young children. After modeling a sentence or two, have the student read it back to you exactly as modeled.

A book could be written on teaching inflection and its many nuances. Ignoring the teaching and measurement of proper inflection in working with students as you teach reading is untenable. Show the student what a sentence or two should sound like and have them repeat it to you with that proper infection. 

Ignoring instruction in rate-building with proper inflection in all populations of children with reading problems is not acceptable. Measuring without time as an element makes little sense. If student anxiety has been induced by the idea of them being timed, I would state that this is a teacher-induced anxiety. We have many options on how to time readings without the student even being aware that a timed exercise is occurring. We have options in instruction. 

These two tenets of proper reading instruction have often been criticized and lumped with the term reading fluency. Incessant attacks on those who carefully measure and record rate must be answered. A child may have been taught to figure out any word in existence through training in phonics and rules - but if that child is not reading with a rate approaching the speed of conversation with proper inflection, there can only be scant comprehension. 

On YouTube there is a video showing  the growth of a 4th grade boy from 25 words per minute on a 2nd grade passage to 195 words per minute on a grade appropriate passage. This movement and reading growth came in approximately one year through long distance digital tutoring. This was phenomenal growth that has since shown itself to be substantive and meaningful in the boy’s life. Yet, the tutor has been constantly criticized.

This criticism has often come under the mantra “reading is more than speed.” I have urged those with such a critique to once more watch the video. The speed is just about as fast as the boy’s mouth can move, yes, he is flying. He is flying so fast that listening is even difficult. However, careful analysis shows that this reading occurs with inflection, an observation of punctuation and most importantly, full prosody. The student was reading about football, relevant to him and his world. Equally important, are his smiles and self-confidence, all evident in comparison to the incredible frustration shown in the initial video. This is a success story showing far more than rate growth in a particular student. Not shown in the video is the subsequent impact of the intervention in this student’s life. The intervention generalized. When we can get a child reading independently at approximately the 4.5 grade level - there is little chance of recidivism. 

Reading obviously involves more than speed – reading fluency is more than speed reading. Fluency involves rate, inflection and complete understanding. Ignoring speed and inflection are critical errors. Perhaps those in our field when told that “reading is more than speed” should respond with equal intensity, “Reading is more than pronouncing a word correctly.”

Word/World Knowledge: Our third critical element in reading comprehension is word/world knowledge. We must know what a word is in the context of what we are reading. As our reading becomes more and more refined, we often need associated background knowledge for a given reading selection for it to make sense to us. 

An example:  my granddaughter was having problems that really frightened us. Her wonderful and skilled pediatrician had picked up a slight growth in head size. We had seen other symptoms that had us concerned. There was an immediate MRI done. I had the results faxed to me from the hospital in Jacksonville to my home in Gainesville. 

When I got the fax, even though I could read every word of the summary, even with proper intonation, I had no idea of what I had just read, even when the information was critical for me. When I took the time to define words, I still did not comprehend what was being reported. You see, I am not a brain scientist nor a medical doctor. I did not have the training in vocabulary nor the experience to make sense of the report. That is the importance of world and word knowledge in comprehension.

Luckily for me and my understanding of what was going on with my granddaughter, a member of my little church in Micanopy, Dr. Floyd Thompson, was a brain scientist with the Brain Institute of the University of Florida. I read the report to him over the phone and he completely understood what I was reading – I guess my knowledge and proper pronunciation of scientific words came from experience with Greek and Latin roots. Floyd explained that this was hydrocephalus, yes, what we call “water on the brain” and that without medical intervention it would prove devastating. From the observation by the pediatrician to actual brain surgery seemed less than a week. I was more than impressed. As for my granddaughter, the surgery was successful with no ramifications. She is now a wonderful, intelligent adult. 

World knowledge, a necessity in education, is what we impart to our students daily – through language, conversations, shared articles and more. Imparting world knowledge is one of the most satisfying aspects of being a teacher. When I can take  a group of young students to the Black Hills of the Dakotas in 1870 and in the next story the following week to the steppes of Tsarist Russia and then to searching for the Loch Ness Monster – that is teaching, I must keep it relevant, I must ensure full understanding as I work with the group to build comprehension skills. There is no greater nor more fun way to build and increase reading comprehension than through the use of a group reading. During such readings, when I see that a student does not understand a word or concept until he/she uses such a word on their own volition – I become the more powerful teacher. I plan for this growth from the activities I have chosen. Word/world knowledge is an essential component of reading comprehension.

 In summation, for there to be reading comprehension, a student’s reading rate must approach the rate of human conversation with only 1 to 2% errors; the student must read with proper inflection; and there must have adequate background knowledge.


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