Hello. Here I am today talking to Professor Kate Cain from Lancaster University. Kate is a psychologist by training. And her research concerns the reading comprehension processes of children. Kate has recently won the Samuel Orton Award of the International Dyslexia Association, which recognised her outstanding research in the field of dyslexia. Now Kate, tell us a little bit about why children might experience difficulties with reading comprehension. OK. Well, reading comprehension difficulties can arise for different reasons. And for some children, they simply have reading comprehension problems, because they’ve difficulty with reading the words on the page. So they’ve got inaccurate word reading. They struggle. And that limits their ability to extract meaning from text.
But for many other the children, there were very different barriers to reading comprehension that aren’t simply to do with the ability to read words. My research concerns how children construct meaning from texts, so I think it’s a good idea to think about the processes involved in extracting that meaning from text in order to unpick some of these potential barriers. So typically, the way we think about it in psychological frameworks of reading development is that beyond decoding the words on the page, the skills, abilities, the knowledge processes that we draw on to understand texts are the same whether you’re reading a text or whether you’re listening to a text that someone’s read aloud to you.
So you have to process the individual words and retrieve their meanings, you have to assemble those meanings into sensible sentences. And then what a reader or listener does, they go beyond those individual words, those individual sentences and they integrate their meaning. So they’re constructing what is a mental representation that embodies the meaning of the text. And in doing so, they’re striving to ensure that it’s coherent, that it’s integrated, and that it’s accurate. So sometimes, what they need to do to integrate the meanings of individual sentences, they might have to resolve pronouns. So you would get a cohesive type, a trigger, such as he or she.
That is referring back to a previous character or object in the text, and it helps you to integrate the meanings of those two sentences rather than simply storing them in isolation. In addition to things such as pronouns, we may draw on our background knowledge in order to generate inferences. So typically, we encode meanings that are specific to the context of the text. So if you had a text where it didn’t specify a new pet in the family, but it said that it’s a small furry creature, it wagged its tail, it barked, it liked going for walks, a skilled comprehender would encode that as being a dog rather than this unspecified representation, or this unspecified object.
So what you’re typically doing, you’re trying to go beyond individual words and sentences and integrate these meanings together so that you’re constructing this model that is a meaning based representation of the text. So it’s describing the situation in the text rather than the words or sentences verbatim. So if you think about what you’re doing in order to understand a text, you can see that there are several different barriers to comprehension. So in terms of vocabulary, if a child simply doesn’t know the meanings of some of the critical words, that is going to impede their ability to understand that text. At the sentence level, particularly for younger children or children who have language impairment, specific syntactic structures can be hard.
So younger children, although they’ll know the active form for sentence, they might be unfamiliar with the passive. And if they use a simple world order processing strategy to extract the meaning of that sentence, they’re going to get things wrong. But going beyond the words and the sentences, again, if you think about these processes of integration, of inference making, these are things that we know children with comprehension difficulties struggle with. They’re poor in resolving pronouns. They’re poor at drawing on this background knowledge in order to generate these inferences. And as a result, they’re not constructing a coherent representation of a text meaning.
And I think the other thing to bear in mind is that when you’re reading a text, when you’re listening to texts– like when you’re listening to a conversation such as this, as each new piece of information is coming in, you’re constantly updating and revising this representation of the text meaning, and that’s happening in real time. You’re drawing on cognitive processes, such as working memory, in order to do that where you’re activating information but maintaining and storing what you’ve heard or read so far.
And we also know that some children with comprehension difficulties have limits in their working memory capacity, and that seems to be another barrier that’s actually preventing them from constructing this integrated, coherent representation of a text meaning, and therefore impacting on their successful comprehension of that text. So how can parents and teachers notice that children have reading comprehension problems? But that’s a very good question actually, because certainly my research and that of others has shown that children who have reading comprehension difficulties aren’t always aware that they’ve got a comprehension problem.
And when we asked teachers to identify children with potential comprehension problems in the classroom, often they don’t identify the right children because they think about word reading, and work reading is a very good benchmark. You hear children reading aloud to you. So children with poor word reading are typically thought of as poor comprehenders. But we know that certainly in my work and that of others has shown that about 10% of children in mainstream classrooms develop accurate, age appropriate word reading, but they have a significant problem in understanding things that they read, and that extends to their listening comprehension as well.
And in terms of thinking about a significant problem, I’m thinking here of children who may have a lag of between about 18 months to 2 years between their word reading ability and their ability to understand that text that they’ve read. So they can read apparently fluently. When you ask them questions, then you can see where their comprehension breaks down. And I think that’s the thing for parents or teachers.
If you want to conduct an informal assessment of reading comprehension or even listening comprehension, you can adopt the format that we have in a lot of our standardised assessments of reading comprehension, and that is getting a child to read a text aloud, or if you think that child has also got a word reading problem, you could read the text aloud to the child and then ask them some questions. Find out what they can remember about the text, what they’ve really understood. And what you typically find in children that have got a comprehension difficulty– they can remember characters’ names quite well. They remember a lot of the very explicit details that are mentioned in the text.
And what they don’t do is they often fail to extract the overall message from the text. They may miss the main point of the text. They don’t understand causal relations between events. So a character’s motivation of why they engaged in a particular course of action, and that’s because as they’re reading or listening to that text, they weren’t constructing this coherent mental representation that’s actually encoding these links between different events and ideas. So what you can do, as I said, the child can read the text or you can read something aloud to the child and ask them questions to assess this type of information.
It’s quite important to think about the questions that you ask. So simply asking a closed question that’s just got a yes or no answer isn’t very good because you could just guess, and you’re not really helping the child to elaborate on their understanding if maybe they have some partial understanding there. So it’s much better rather than saying, for example, or asking, for example, did the child have a dog, which would be a yes or no answer, you can say what type of pet had the family just got. And then you can also follow this up by asking the child, ‘well, how do you know that?’
And there’s some interesting research that shows that children with comprehension difficulties, they’re not constrained by information that’s provided in the text or they draw on the wrong types of background knowledge. So draw on their personal experience rather than thinking what we know about dogs wagging tails, and going for walks, and things that helps us to generate these inferences. So you can ask these questions to get a better feel for whether they’ve got a superficial or deeper level of understanding of the text. So that’s one thing, just that standard kind of story reading, question asking format. Another way that it can be done is asking children to recall a story.
And again, because they typically don’t make these links and establish these clear causal relations between events, you might find that if they retold you a story that they just read or that you had read to them, that it would be lacking in structure. The main point would be missing. You wouldn’t have strong causal links between events. So it would seem quite sparse and superficial, often like missing the main point. So that’s informal ways, but I think that’s what often parents and teachers are doing anyway– asking questions, getting children to talk about events, talk about stories. So it can fit quite nicely into a standard shared reading routine. It doesn’t actually seem as if the child’s being tested in any way.