Tag Archives: reading comprehension

The “Big Ideas” of Reading Comprehension and How Decodable and Leveled Texts Fit In (Or Don’t)

One of my favorite sessions from DyslexiaCon19 was Nancy Chapel Eberhardt and Margie B. Gillis’s session entitled Analyzing the Comprehension Demands of Text for Beginning Readers. Their message resonated with Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap and provided much needed perspective in how educators approach text processing (in contrast to product).

There’s an assumption among many educators that decodable texts aren’t valuable in terms of comprehension, and while the controlled orthography in decodables certainly does limit the plot and vocabulary, that doesn’t mean decodables are devoid of opportunities to deepen comprehension while strengthening decoding. Eberhardt and Gillis demonstrated this beautifully.

They discussed three “big ideas” in comprehension that contribute to text processing and their related cue questions for teachersto consider before teaching with any text (decodable or authentic texts):

  1. Background Knowledge
  2. Text Cohesion
  3. Inferential Thinking

Background knowledge is the fund of information garnered from real life, videos, stories, informative text, and reading oneself that each reader brings uniquely to a text. As explored in depth in The Knowledge Gap and a related post, background knowledge is essential for students to glean meaning from what they are reading. As educators preparing to present students with any kind of text, we must analyze the words and phrases that are essential to understand the text.

That’s where Eberhardt and Gillis’s third “big idea” of inferential thinking comes into play. Inferential thinking is the informational “gap-filling” readers have to do in order to figure out something by combining partial information in the text with prior background knowledge. It’s essential to understand a text and reach higher order cognitive skills by making a mental model based on the text and one’s prior knowledge.

It’s easy to assume students may be able to read a text based on (often contestable and misleading) readability formulas, but we must consider the knowledge the author assumes readers will already bring to the text in order to comprehend it. Readability measures text complexity in terms of word length, syntactical structures, etc. And while that certainly impacts comprehension, so much more goes into comprehension than mere formulaic features. Teachers must take the time to consider what vocabulary and conceptual knowledge is essential for students before they enter the particular text.

To harken back to Natalie Wexler, this calls for a much greater scale of change not just in individual teacher practices, but at the schoolwide, districtwide, statewide, and even nationwide level in how and what is taught. Progressive education in the United States has left students with a knowledge deficit that results in considerable comprehension challenges, struggles that could be avoided if we bring real content into schools through explicit and systematic instruction in history, geography, civics, science, and the arts. Ideally, teachers should be teaching content in units spanning several weeks on the same topic so that students have time to develop the necessary background knowledge and vocabulary acuity in order to be able to step into deeper thinking about those topics. But I digress…

The second “big idea” from Eberhardt and Gillis is text cohesion, which is the method by which one sentence is related to another through sentence structure and word choice. Good writers use cohesive ties, such as conjunctions, to show how not only the syntax flows from one phrase or clause to another but also how the ideas from one sentence to another are related.

Sadly, omitting cohesive ties for the sake of readability eliminates these relationships and thus robs students of opportunities to develop awareness and understanding of cohesion in text. This not only negatively impacts students’ ability to comprehend texts but also stymies their facility with generating text as writers themselves.

Leveled readers—authentic texts that are often predictable but not controlled—are purportedly designed to help struggling readers eventually be able to attain grade-level texts by providing books “at their level.” However, they are not aligned in any way to decodability (what the students have been explicitly taught about the sound-symbol relationship). The irony of leveled reading is that it traps students in below-grade level texts which are devoid of rich language and cohesive ties—the very aspects of language that build meaning and offer instructional fodder. Taking away such structures for the sake of readability doesn’t allow students to learn how certain words, like conjunctions, function and how they demonstrate complex relationships among ideas in a sentence, paragraph, or text.

Charles Haynes’s cohesion strategy to aid writers can be applied to reading comprehension.

Eberhardt and Gillis join Charles Haynes in advocating for the use of micro-discourses not only to develop emerging writing skills but also to develop understanding of text cohesion. Micro-discourses are small chunks of text—perhaps a paragraph or just a sentence or two—to develop the ability to think about what we’re reading. The idea is to focus on less in order to get more out of it. In contrast, the goal of readability, in many instances, is to push students into longer texts, thinking the volume of reading reflects the depth of comprehension. But volume does not equal comprehension.

Cognitive preparation is essential to help students access the meaning of more complex texts; the masterful implementation of micro-discourses enables students to get this practice. That is where true teaching comes in. As educators, our job is to teach students, not hand them a book written at a sub-par level that has eliminated the very complexity that makes text meaningful and expect students to develop into effective comprehenders. If the purpose of any given lesson is comprehension, taking out cohesion is not helpful.

But what of decodable text? Aren’t the same criticisms valid? No, because unlike leveled literacy instruction (LLI), the purpose of using controlled texts is to systematically target one isolated aspect of reading: decoding. Decoding is the strand of the reading rope that requires direct, explicit, systematic instruction of skills. By presenting students with texts that only contain the phonics concepts they’ve learned, it sets students up for successful decoding which, in turn, prepares them to move forward onto more complex phonics concepts and ultimately frees up the student to have the cognitive space to comprehend more complex texts. Decodable texts are merely a stepping stone on a student’s journey towards attaining comprehension.

The trouble with LLI and other balanced literacy approaches is that they confuse the need for direct skills instruction in decoding with direct skills instruction for comprehension. As Natalie Wexler so poignantly address in The Knowledge Gap, misconceptions in how to teach reading have led many to falsely assume decoding was the aspect of reading that happened naturally while comprehension requires explicit instruction in a set of strategies. Nothing could be more backwards. The reading brain doesn’t start with meaning and then figures out what word the letter makes up; no, it starts with looking at the orthography to analyze the phonology in order to read the word. Only then are semantics activated. Students need to be able to decode before they can access meaning. Decodables give students the targeted practice essential for building the neuronal pathways that get students on the road to reading.

With that said, Eberhardt and Gillis expertly demonstrated that even decodables offer opportunities to develop background knowledge, inferential thinking, and awareness of text cohesion—if teachers know what they’re looking for. So there’s no reason to wait to discuss comprehension until a student has mastered the code; even in controlled texts, teachers can begin to help students understand text cohesion, vocabulary, and syntax.

This is where essential instructional emphasis needs to focus. As Sharon Vaughn said, “We don’t teach reading comprehension; it’s a result.” The way we reach our goal in helping students achieve comprehension is to lay a strong foundation in all the component pieces that will equip students to comprehend. Eberhardt and Gillis proposed that instructional emphasis to support developing readers’ text comprehension should focus on content and vocabulary (for background knowledge), syntax and grammar (for text cohesion), and building background knowledge (for inferential thinking).

How would this alter the way you or your school district current approaches comprehension?