Pillar 5: Comprehension

The Science of Reading approach to reading instruction is based on five decades of research in cognitive science and literacy. The approach emphasizes five pillars as the core for explicit teaching of reading.

The Five Pillars to the Science of Reading are:
  1. Phonemic Awareness
  2. Phonics
  3. Vocabulary
  4. Oral Reading Fluency
  5. Comprehension

Science of Reading practices have recently gained popularity as reading experts agreed the importance of phonics and phonics instruction had been downplayed in recent years. While a popular reading instruction methodology called Balanced Literacy did not include phonics instruction, the program sought to use exposure to literature as a method of increasing reading comprehension. Unfortunately, most literacy experts now agree that all five pillars of the Science of Reading are essential for reading comprehension.

Reading Comprehension refers to the complex cognitive activities that allow a student to read and understand the passage or piece of text. Obviously, reading comprehension is the purpose of reading but, again, all five pillars play roles in students’ ability to understand what they read.

There are 5 common types of comprehension:
  1. Lexical comprehension is understanding the vocabulary.
  2. Literal comprehension understanding the basic meaning of the text. You might think of this as being able to answer “what happened” questions but not necessarily “why it happened.”
  3. Interpretative comprehension is inferring the meaning of a text. This is the “why” question.
  4. Applied comprehension in understanding the text and applying it to the reader’s life, world experience, or understanding from another reading.
  5. Affective Comprehension is understanding the text holistically.

The most common method for developing comprehension is asking questions about a recently read text. In schools, we often see stories that are followed by a series of comprehension multiple choice or essay questions. Students answer these questions to show their ability to read and understand the reading.

The purpose of reading and comprehending is for a student to be able to apply new learning and knowledge to their life and experience. As such, comprehension can be practiced and measured through discussion and depiction of understanding. When we provide students opportunities to not just answer but apply their learning, we are extending their willingness and ability to comprehend their reading.

In order for children to read and comprehend, they must understand most of the vocabulary in the passage. In fact, most readers need to understand at least 95% of the vocabulary in a story in order to comprehend the meaning of the passage.

When students are asked to compare different passages or form an opinion on a piece of writing, this is considered a more complex comprehension skill. Comparison and contrasting expects the reader to have enough schema to form their own conclusions on a new reading experience and use additional information outside of the passage to promote comprehension.

As students get older, strategies like annotating can help students track their reading and develop their comprehension skills. Some educators offer graphic organizers and note catchers to help younger students comprehend deeply.

While it can be argued that comprehension is the most important of the pillars, it’s essential to reiterate that all five pillars of the Science of Reading play into a student’s ability to comprehend a passage. Comprehending might be the point of reading but all the pillars offer threads for a child to pull on as they grow as readers and comprehenders.

Although typically considered a fluency program, the AI reading tutor Amira, is also used as a comprehension tool. As students read, they are asked probing questions about their understanding. By constantly assessing and supporting understanding while reading, Amira is able to help students track and make meaning of stories.
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