Comprehension is understanding. If the boy in the picture above reads the word, making each sound, but has no idea that the sounds /s/, /a/, /p/, together, make the word sap and that sap is the often sticky liquid that is in trees and other plants, he’s not comprehending. However, if he doesn’t know the word automatically, one could explain that the sticky stuff on our mittens after we cut down our Christmas tree is called sap. Ah. There it is: understanding. Now he comprehends.
Sometimes comprehension comes with a light bulb flash of knowing. At other times it dawns on us with slow yet steady illumination. Still other times we perceive seemingly random flashes that enlighten a thing we hadn’t yet considered.
Comprehension is the very purpose for reading.
If one can recognize and name the words on a page, but the words hold no meaning for the reader, what is the point of reading?
I have begun to consider how the Foundations for Literacy approach* to reading instruction impacts reading comprehension.
I am a strong advocate for phonics instruction. I believe that, though most everyone eventually becomes sight word readers, reading instruction should consist, almost exclusively, of teaching the code upon which our language is based.
I have helped thousands of people learn to read. I’ve helped preschoolers, elementary through high school students, and adults who were learning English as a second language. I’ve worked with kids who struggled, and I’ve worked with children who were identified as gifted learners. In every case, teaching kids how words work was extremely beneficial.
Essentially, I systematically teach foundational phonics lessons in a logical progression. Each lesson highlights a featured letters or letter combinations along with the corresponding sounds and a motion that serves to promote the accurate production of those sounds. I utilize a high-quality children’s book, fun-focused activities for supported practice, and other materials for additional practice that may be spread across a few days. Each lesson provides opportunities to review previous material, so the skills build one upon the other.
We are making the sounds we see, across each word, moving from left to right, applying what we know about how words work. This is also known as synthetic phonics.
As I considered my approach to reading instruction and compared it to sight word instruction (analytic phonics), I believe that my method is superior for a number of reasons.
When teaching sight words, instructors present the word the children are to learn. They name the word, show the word, and offer repeated opportunities for practice. The students are to recognize the word “on sight”, “in a snap”, or, generally, with immediacy. Even if the word is decodable, the children are not to make the sounds. That’s considered too slow.
Here’s the thing. The kids are told what the word is. There is no search for meaning. All the kids need to do is remember that word.
(When presented with a sight word and asked what the words says, kids’ eyes often move from focusing on the word toward the ceiling, in an effort to recall the word.) That leads to all kinds of reading problems!
When teaching synthetic phonics, instructors present letters and letter combinations. The kids are to learn the sound or sounds that the letters represent, whether those letters are found at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of words. The kids are to slide the sounds together and determine what words say. When kids practice this way, they are NOT told what the word says. The kids make the sounds they see, moving from left to right, across the word, while their brains strive to make meaning from the sounds represented by the letters. Kids’ eyes remain on the word, moving from left to right, striving to conjure a picture in their minds.
The light bulb moments- when kids make the sounds and recognize the word— are absolutely magical.
Here’s the thing: My students are continually striving to make meaning. Their brains are tuned in like a Bluetooth signal searching for a connection. I watch preschoolers decode words, and it’s as if I can see neural pathways from those letters to (doo, doo, doop- a connection) –a picture inside their minds . . . understanding.
When we play Read it & Act it Out, our kids must decode words, such as h-o-p, and then they do what the word says. (tap, beg, grin, nod, run, smile, shake, march, smooch, etc.)
The more the kids practice making those connections, the more efficient they become in the process. And when kids recognize that their language as a highly decodable language- IT IS!-, they build stamina for decoding more and more sophisticated words. They absolutely learn to persist, even when words are tricky.
They don’t mumble through words they don’t recognize. They don’t say a word that looks similar and then move right on through a sentence that, due to the error, holds little meaning.
Decoders are primed to make connections with pictures in their minds that hold meaning. That’s why a child’s background knowledge is so impactful when it comes to reading. If there is no picture in their minds, there is no understanding. How could there be?
Of course, there are many, many words that kids must know that are connector words that don’t, on their own, represent a vivid picture, but they do sound like words they know. Words like it, and, a, and was are needed, certainly. When kids decode these words, it is important to say things like, “Yes! That word says it, like ‘I like it very much,’” or “You’re right! That says and like ‘I like peanut butter and jelly.’”
Kids who are applying phonics knowledge in their reading are working on comprehension skills right from the very start. They are, without even knowing it, preparing for understanding increasingly complex texts. They are training their minds to continually connect with pictures in their minds.
They aren’t just word calling. They are not guessing what the word might say. They are not relying on how many times they’ve practiced saying a word.
I tell my students, “You don’t have to know the word. You don’t have to remember the word. You just have to make the sounds you see, slide those sounds together, and ask, ‘Is that a word I know?’”
Decoders are reading for meaning.