Can your kids read? Can they comprehend?

Posted: May 14, 2010 in Uncategorized

I’ve been taking some master’s courses in reading theory and assessment. Apparently, a lot of kids are being taught to decode and memorize sight words (which is definitely important), but they are not being taught strategies to help them actually comprehend what they are reading. How about your kids? Can they comprehend what they read? After your child reads a story, can they retell it to you and recall details? If you’re not sure, try it out with your kid and then leave a comment.

If kids aren’t comprehending what they are reading, we have a serious problem. I recently worked with a 7-year-old who kept telling me that reading with expression and reading so others can hear you are the important aspects of reading. She never mentioned comprehension. My graduate professor told us that reading with expression is actually a performance issue and not a reading issue. When adults sit down and read, whether or not they can read with expression and in an audible voice doesn’t really matter most of the time. What matters is that they understand and can remember what they read.

Does anyone else see lack of comprehension a problem? I teach developmental college reading. The majority of the students can read rather fluently but have comprehension problems. Your thoughts?

  1. Comprehension is definitely the sine qua non of reading. Recent studies have shown that many teachers just assess comprehension, rather than teach comprehension strategies. On the other hand, recent research also seems to be showing that other teachers are spending too much time on teaching comprehension strategies in isolation.

    The funny thing about comprehension is that unless readers have enough background knowledge on the topic and a good grasp of the majority of the vocabulary used, there really isn’t a comprehension strategy they can use to increase their comprehension. (Unless you call building background knowledge and vocabulary a strategy). Reading requires making inferences and in order to infer, you need to combine background knowledge with information from the text.

    Here’s another point – many struggling readers think that good readers just read the words and they magically understand what they read. They don’t realize that good readers think, wonder, reflect, and make connections as they read. Struggling readers are also the ones who typically have weak vocabularies and lack a lot of world knowledge. This makes thinking deeply about what they read very difficult. I am a good reader when I read about familiar subjects, but I have a difficult time comprehending anything dealing with unfamiliar ones (ex. quantum physics).

    That is sad that the 7 year old never mentioned comprehension. I agree with your professor that reading with expression is a performance issue. On the other hand, I find that the better expression students have, usually the better they understand. It is difficult to read with proper expression and misunderstand what you read. Even words like “not” and “nearly” are important when considering expression. Think of how many different meanings you can imply with the word, “Dude” depending on your intonation. The way readers phrase the words also influences their understanding. Many struggling readers struggle with phrasing, too.

    Overall, no, reading aloud with expression is not a requisite for comprehending, but I want all readers to be able to do so and I believe that this ability increases the likelihood of comprehension. (I am not talking just accents.) Fluency (speed, accuracy, phrasing and expression/intonation/prosody) is a bridge to comprehension. S. Jay Samuels would argue that comprehension is included in the definition of “fluency.”

    If you go to my blog at and look at the sidebar categories for “fluency,” “comprehension,” and “favorite articles, charts & videos,” you will find several articles that shaped my thinking about fluency and comprehension. I think they will give you lots of food for thought.

    Good luck with your studies and thanks for sharing your reflections and wonders.

  2. Nancy says:

    My issue with comprehension instruction is that so many teachers do not understand the difference between a comprehension skill and a strategy. I am totally frustrated by those that embrace the basal and feel as if they are teaching authentically.

    Many students reach third or fourth grade and can decode, read with fluency, recognize and call words, but they are not using metacognition. We must model for students how to activate their prior knowledge, connect, question, infer, synthesize, summarize, determine what is important, and then get books into their hands and let them read for extended periods of time without interruption. We must give students a chance to verbally and in writing reflect on what they have read.

    This is a hot button for me. Feel free to visit my class website to see the many pages devoted to Reader’s Workshop. Here is the address:

    By the way, I am the only teacher at my school who does not use a basal.

    • mdeducator81 says:

      I’m learning a lot about reading strategies in my graduate classes. I teach developmental college reading for students who don’t have the reading skills necessary for completing credit-bearing work, and we even use basals at the college level. The basals do not represent real reading, in my opinion. For example, there is a chapter that teaches how to find a stated main idea. Students read paragraphs and have to determine which sentence is the main idea. I understand the importance of being able to come up with a main idea, but finding a main idea that is already embedded in the text doesn’t seem like a reading skill that students will need to use in the future.

      I agree that students (of all ages) need to read real books. In addition to the basal that I am required to use, I always have students read at least one novel, and I also pull a lot of readings from magazines such as Time and Newsweek.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment! Students definitely need to be able to create their own questions, activate prior knowledge, and synthesize, and they probably won’t learn to use those strategies by spending their time using basals. I’ll definitely check out your site to learn more about Reader’s Workshop.

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