Have you ever wondered what reading comprehension is? Well, it may not exactly be what you think it is. Consider a “sentence” such as the one below, for example.
Cat grey fish fast eat.
Do you know what each of those words means? You very likely do, if you can read them. You likely know that both “cat” and “fish” are words referring to animals, for example, and that “grey” is a color. You know that “eat” is the name for the activity of putting food into one’s mouth and that “fast” is a word describing how a particular action is done (speedily, that is).
All of that does not actually describe your reading comprehension, though. Rather, what it indicates is your word recognition instead.
Now let us try something else with the same sentence. Try to figure out what it means as a sentence. That is, try to figure out what all of those words in that particular order mean.
If you recognize that “Cat grey fish fast eat” is a nonsense sentence — one that does not really mean anything logical — then that demonstrates reading comprehension. That is your ability to understand what you read.
How Does Reading Comprehension Develop?
Comprehension is actually something that we learn to do over time, as we read more. The more words we add to our vocabularies, the more “pieces” we can use to put together longer and longer puzzles or sentences. In your youth, you start out figuring what something like this means, for instance:
The cat eats.
From there your reading comprehension grows. Later you can make sense of the sentence even when another word has been added:
The grey cat eats.
And after you figure out that adding the “grey” to that particular place does not change the fact that the cat eats; it only tells you that the cat doing the eating is colored grey, then it’s but a short leap to yet another level of complication:
The grey cat eats fish.
And so on, until you get to sentences like “The grey cat eats fish fast”. Reading comprehension is something you build up over time as you learn to see patterns in linguistic usage — you learn where verbs are placed and where the words modifying them go, where the doer of a verb has to be placed for the sentence to be logical, and so on.
Recognition of these rules is critical when comprehending text. With most of us who read and with most texts, we can recognize their application very quickly. In fact, for us, it is practically instantaneous.
It was not always so, though — and not just in terms of us having once been beginner readers. The process is now easier for us English speakers compared to before. We have more or less standardized spellings now, for example, whereas people several centuries ago did not. In fact, even the way we write words and sentences makes it easier now.
In earlier times, for instance, Latin users would have to read even simple text twice or thrice to get meaning from it. This was because Classical Latin writers used something called scriptura continua, a method of writing where words and sentences had no separation from each other. Imagine reading a book made up of script like this, for example:
There are two sentences there and 11 words. You can see how reading comprehension would be rather more challenging with such a script. Readers of Classical Latin thus had to read it first to try to separate the words from each other, then try to separate the sentences from each other, and then (finally!) try to get the actual meaning of what had been written. Imagine how long it could take to read a short letter with such a system!
Teaching Children Reading Comprehension
Can you teach children reading comprehension at the same time that you teach them reading? The answer is yes. In fact, at least one method of teaching reading places most of its store by it: the Whole Language Teaching Method. That said, every method of learning to read actually does incorporate some element of reading comprehension in the curriculum. Reading comprehension is something fostered through all interactions with a text.
If you are currently teaching your child to read, chances are high that you are doing it by teaching him to sound out words and by giving him their meanings. Most teachers use this method now and it has been proven to be quite effective at helping children get early starts on literacy. It is called the Phonic Reading Method and many courses are now available to show parents how to do it.
If you plan to get such courses, look for ones that incorporate techniques from other reading methods, too — ones that promote reading comprehension as well. A good example is the Children Learning Reading course, which is based on the principles of Phonics teaching but nevertheless uses paraphernalia often associated with Whole Language (like storybooks) to teach it.
A good way to help children become better at comprehending what they read is to ask them questions about it. This will get them to thinking about the deeper meaning behind the words they have spoken out or sounded out. Ask them how they liked the story that you just read them, for example, or what the sign above the door in the restaurant means. Ask about the practical application of the words in the world.
The import of reading comprehension cannot be overstressed. The fact is that we continue to read and rely on what we read all of our lives. We learn to avoid automatic cash machines that have “Out of Order” signs and queue up at the desks where there is a sign saying “Line here”. We send messages to each other about the groceries or the appliance we forgot to turn off when we left the house. Reading comprehension is something every parent should seek to build in his or her child for that child’s own sake later on, in school and even beyond.