I can read it, but I don’t think I get it…
By: Mia Daucourt
74% of fourth graders struggle to understand what they read. That percentage is even higher for minority children and children living in poverty. These reading comprehension struggles are a serious problem because reading to understand is important to all aspects of life, from getting through school and finding the right job to navigating the grocery store. In an effort to address this problem, the Reading for Understanding Network was created to design and test interventions to improve children’s ability to understand what they read. As part of this effort, Connor and colleagues (2019) recently tested a whole gamut of interventions to figure out if they could help kids improve their reading comprehension skills. Specifically, they focused on the many underlying skills that make reading comprehension possible, including an array of language and metacognition skills. Metacognition is our ability to take control and be conscious of our mental abilities in order to use them when we need them. It’s how we control our brain and “tell” it what to do. One example of a metacognitive skill is “comprehension monitoring,” which is our ability to evaluate in real time whether we are understanding what we are reading, and if not, to re-read what we just read or use some other strategy to try to grasp the meaning better.
Reading comprehension is the big kahuna of reading skills. It’s the home plate we are all trying to run toward as we acquire all of the component reading skills, like vocabulary and comprehension monitoring, along the way. We have to bring together all of the less complex literacy and language skills in order to make reading for understanding possible. Thus, the reading for understanding interventions were designed to help third and fourth grade children get closer to the goal of reading for understanding by targeting the bases leading up to home plate, the less complex skills that add up to reading comprehension. All of the interventions were designed to be administered to children as a form of tier 2 instruction, which means that they were added on to regular classroom teaching. This means that kids that were taught in the regular classroom setting that did not get high enough scores in certain reading and language skills tests were assigned to small flexible learning groups to get extra help learning more about and practicing the skills they struggled with. These learning groups were used multiple times per week for 20-30 minutes and included a teaching component and an interactive component where students worked together with the instructor and then demonstrated what they learned independently.
There were four interventions total, which followed an “I-do, we-do, you-do” sequence, where the activity started with the teacher demonstrating what to do, then the teacher and child worked together, and finally, the child showed that he or she could complete the task on his or her own. The interventions included Comprehension Monitoring and Providing Awareness of Story Structure (COMPASS), Language in Motion, and Enacted Reading Comprehension (Enacted RC) in Grade 3, and Enacted RC and Teaching Expository Text Structure (TEXTS) in Grade 4.
COMPASS taught children text structure knowledge, comprehension monitoring, and vocabulary through illustrated short stories and accompanying activities. Text structure knowledge is knowing how different kinds of written texts are organized, like knowing that a topic sentence typically comes at the beginning of a paragraph to frame it. With the use of visual aids and a song, children were taught about the text structure of a story, including that stories include settings, characters, and events. Then, children practiced their understanding of these story features by retelling the story using the text structure components, like mentioning the story’s characters and settings. For comprehension monitoring children were taught to keep track of their understanding by being told to stop and ask questions when things did not make sense in a given story. For vocabulary, target vocabulary words were included in every story and their meanings were directly taught to the children and reiterated within the story context.
The Language in Motion intervention was designed to help children pick up on the how oral language differed from written language and to teach children about language devices they would encounter when reading, like similes and metaphors. These concepts were all embedded in adventure stories that covered science concepts using highly interactive games and story boards in order to help develop children’s vocabulary, listening comprehension, and the understanding of the more formal language usually used in books.
The Enacted RC intervention focused on a concept called embodied cognition, where new language concepts are acted out and linked to movements in order to improve understanding. The lessons moved from more concrete concepts to more abstract versions of the same concepts. For example, in order to teach children the concepts of conflict and opposition, children were first taught about opposing forces in earthquakes by using their hands and shaking toy houses full of toys. Once they understood the concrete definition of the term opposition with their bodies and minds, children were taught about the abstract meaning of opposition, with the use of hand gestures using opposite hands to demonstrate how opposing forces in an earthquake are like the opposing forces in the internal conflicts and moral dilemmas found in a story. This intervention was meant to help children’s overall academic knowledge, the kind of knowledge that is acquired in formal textbooks and school settings, which would help their overall understanding of the things they read.
The TEXTS intervention was designed to teach kids about expository text structure and picking up on little cues that show that a text is expository. Expository texts are written products meant to be educational and to teach the reader something, so this intervention was specifically targeting children’s ability to understand formal, academic texts. It was meant to help children transition from informal, straightforward reading to the denser, more purposeful reading that appears as education advances. The intervention used short passages and had the children piece stories together using pictures, like comic strips, followed by memory games and other game-based reviews. These techniques focused on teaching kids about the way that these kinds of texts are formatted, like using compare and contrast or problem and solution formats, and how children could seek out the “signal” words usually used in these educational texts. This intervention was meant to teach kids about how more advanced language is structured and to build their overall academic knowledge.
For third-grade children, the researchers found that some of the interventions helped improve some of the skills they expected. Specifically, children who participated in the COMPASS intervention improved their comprehension monitoring skills and children who participated in the Enacted RC intervention improved their vocabulary skills. The interventions had different impacts on the participating children based on some of their starting skill levels. Specifically, the Enacted RC intervention was especially effective for children who started off lower in their vocabulary ability than children who had higher vocab scores, the COMPASS intervention helped improve younger but not older children’s understanding of texts they listened to, and the Language in Motion intervention helped improve children’s ability to read words quickly if the children started off scoring low in word reading ability before the intervention.
For fourth-grade children, the researchers found that the Enacted RC and TEXTS interventions were the most effective for improving children’s academic knowledge, which includes understanding of complex ideas and concepts taught in school, but only if children started off having low scores in academic knowledge. The Enacted RC intervention also helped older fourth graders’ improve their ability to quickly read words and younger fourth graders’ ability to identify letters and words, in general.
Overall, the intervention results showed that kids will respond differently to extra help, depending on where they start off skill-wise and age-wise and that helping children better understand what they read is a difficult feat. None of the interventions improved children’s ability to understand what they read; instead they helped children improve some of the less complex skills that children use to understand what they read, like comprehension monitoring. This might mean that reading comprehension interventions should focus on reading comprehension directly, instead of trying to build up the bases, or simpler skills, leading up to the reading comprehension home plate. However, the fact that the interventions did give children a leg up on some of the important academic skills covered shows that the extra help does help children who are struggling, even if reading comprehension improvement may require additional steps. Thus, the interventions still helped improve many of the children’s skills, showing evidence that a wide range of different techniques, materials, and games can all help support children’s academic development overall.
Citation: Connor, C. M., Phillips, B. M., Kim, Y. S. G., Lonigan, C. J., Kaschak, M. P., Crowe, E., ... & Al Otaiba, S. (2018). Examining the efficacy of targeted component interventions on language and literacy for third and fourth graders who are at risk of comprehension difficulties. Scientific Studies of Reading, 22