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Helping children with reading comprehension difficulties

An interview with Professor Kate Cain on how to help children with reading difficulties
So hello, and here I am again with Professor Kate Cain. And she is talking to us today about how to teach reading comprehension to children. So what can teachers do in terms of adapting reading materials and teaching tasks to help children who have reading comprehension difficulties? Well, here, I probably prefer the idea of teaching children particular techniques and strategies to support their understanding. So something that’s portable that they can take from text to text rather than relying or expecting teachers to adapt materials for each lesson. Because then the child is dependent on having a good teacher who’s sensitive to their needs.
And obviously, in teaching and, like, kind of helping and supporting them with these techniques, they will be adapting materials, but the idea is that you can sort of, like, scaffold children. So eventually, they can be sort of like independent comprehenders. There’s a whole range of different interventions that have been tried to support comprehension problems. And to me, I think the essence of them– what they have at their core or what the successful ones have at their core– is this idea that they’re encouraging and teaching children to be active constructors of meaning.
There’s a research of Paul Van den Broek who talks about standards of coherence and the idea that a skilled comprehender has a higher standard of coherence than a weaker comprehender. So you can think about, as we’re listening to a text, as we’re reading a text, that we’re striving for coherence. We’re trying to construct this integrated representation. So that’s, like, kind of what your endpoint might want to be. But how do you actually get there? Some of these interventions and techniques have focused on teaching children how to make inferences– almost raising their awareness of how there are these clues in a text that you can use in order to make inferences, make your understanding more coherent, fill in those missing details.
And these can be quite fun things to do. Children can do them on their own. They can do them in groups. You’re not limited to just working with individual child on a one-on-one basis. So teaching them how to search through clues in the text, there’s an example I love from Nicola Yuill and Jane Oakhill’s work where they got children to analyse just short sentences. So for example, “Sleepy Tom was late for school again.” It’s just a really simple sentence, but you can see how rich it is– that “sleepy” kind if suggests or maybe there’s a reason why he was late for school. He was up too late. He overslept. You’ve got “again.” This is a repeat offender here.
So this is something that Tom might do on more than one occasion. The fact that they’re talking about “Tom” rather than “Mr. Brown” suggests that it’s school child rather than teacher. So all of that information is packed into that sentence. And by getting children to analyse things in these ways, you can help to raise their awareness that there’s information in the text that they can use together with their background knowledge to really understand what it’s all about. And that sort of inference-awareness training has proved successful, not only improving children’s ability to generate inferences, but also, it leads to improvements on standardised assessments of reading comprehension. So it’s potentially quite a powerful technique.
Another technique that’s, I guess, related to that is embedded within this approach called “reciprocal teaching.” So the idea here, as I mentioned, children with comprehension problems aren’t always aware that they’re not really understanding and getting the full meaning from a text. So modelled by the teacher, you teach them how to sort of stop and ask questions like– Why? What? Where? So they’re constantly striving to meaning, realising that it’s appropriate to actually question their understanding. And then they can see where there are breaks in comprehension, and you can teach children remedial strategies– re-reading, generating inferences, the sorts of things that might help them to engage in deeper processing and better understanding.
So those are two quite kind of sort of verbal techniques, if you’d like. But you might think, with children with comprehension problems, they’ve probably– a lot of them will have an underlying language impairment– sometimes, sometimes at a clinical level of being a diagnosed language impairment. But typically, not in our mainstream classrooms. But you might not want to give them a verbal support to help what is a difficulty with language. So a technique that we’ve explored as well as others is this idea of constructing mental images. So thinking about the story as the movie in your head.
And it is very, very difficult, if you’re actually thinking of that movie and putting those pictures and ideas together, to not resolve that pronoun, to have this fuzzy representation of this new pet running around. You have to make it into a dog. Otherwise, you can’t construct that mental image. So that’s another technique that, again, has proved successful and potentially is a good compensation for children with weak language skills. Now, thank you, Kate. This was really very interesting, and you showed us a lot of very useful strategies for teaching reading comprehension. And I think these strategies are useful, not only for children who have comprehension problems, but also for every child in the classroom. Mm-hmm.
And I was wondering whether we can do anything to help comprehension processes before reading develops? Completely. I think that there’s a lot that happens in the home environment for children that start school that could be used to support comprehension as well as things in the early school years– maybe before formal reading instruction has really begun. So I’ve talked about how reading and listening comprehension draw around similar skills. Engaging in shared reading activities in the home or in sort of like the early years of schooling can help to support children to extract meaning from text, to generate inferences, to know the constraints of the text, what they should be bringing in from their background knowledge to understand text.
All of that can be used to develop comprehension. And we know from studies, both with children– and actually, also with adults. There were really strong associations between your ability to understand a picture book, to understand a cartoon sequence on television or a movie, and to understand a text and to understand something that’s been read aloud to you. So there’s this sort of core comprehension processes, certainly that underpin narrative skills that we see across these different media. So I think you can use those particularly with sort of like questioning techniques, scaffolding techniques to really help children to develop the skills they need for reading comprehension. So thank you, Kate.
And I know a lot of your research is concerned with children whose first language is English. Mm-hmm. And I wonder if you have any advice to give to teachers or parents who work with children from additional language backgrounds. Well, children, whether learning to read in a language that isn’t their home language, can have comprehension problems– often because they may lack the specific vocabulary knowledge. They may lack specific cultural knowledge. They might not know about those syntactic structures or be less familiar in those syntactic structures in the new language they’re using because they haven’t got these years and years of exposure to the spoken language to draw on when they’re learning to read.
So I think it’s very important for educators to be aware of that– that these children may not have a comprehension problem that they’re going to carry through life, but they need additional support in the first few years to really build up those knowledge bases so that they can be good comprehenders.

In this video Professor Kate Cain from Lancaster University discusses how teachers can help students develop successful reading strategies and how to teach reading comprehension.

As you watch, think about how the ideas Kate presents can be adapted to multilingual classrooms and/or foreign language teaching.

Transcript of this video is also available in Spanish and Chinese.

This article is from the free online

Dyslexia and Foreign Language Teaching

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