Reading comprehension is the ability to process, retain, and correctly recite in their own words information learned from reading. For years, ELA teachers have emphasized skills like finding the main idea, summarizing, and predicting to reinforce reading comprehension, but research indicates that these skills only go so far. There are many reasons why students may struggle with reading comprehension tasks. Yet, the most common reason might surprise you, and the solution seems so obvious it’s incredible it took educators this long to identify it.
So, why do kids struggle with reading comprehension?
Many people mistakenly assume that every child who struggles with reading comprehension has a reading disability, and sometimes that is true. But others merely suffer from a word deficit. Strong comprehension requires a deep vocabulary. Studies have repeatedly shown that even high-scoring students perform poorly on reading comprehension tasks when passages include low-frequency words or discuss topics students have no prior knowledge of. And when thinking about reading comprehension in such basic terms, that makes sense. Imagine trying to take a second-year Spanish final before you’ve completed the first class. You may be able to identify a few words, but the majority of the test will be incomprehensible.
Those few words you already know are what we call prior knowledge– information learned previously recalled to provide meaning and context. This understanding of comprehension explains why, despite an extreme emphasis on main ideas, summarizing, and paraphrasing as part of the curriculum, reading scores continue to drop. These skills alone can’t be relied upon when students are exposed to new information, such as when they see a reading passage about historical events, stories from other cultures, or scientific principles on a standardized test.
Then, what’s the solution to improving reading comprehension?
That’s easy– exposure to topics outside their typical interests. Those same studies also show that as general knowledge increases, so does reading comprehension. Something as simple as previewing applicable terms before reading a passage can improve comprehension dramatically. Exposing kids to topics and concepts they’re unfamiliar with provides them with new words and strengthens background knowledge. The more well-rounded a child’s general knowledge is, the better they perform on reading comprehension tasks in the long term, allowing them to utilize those reading skills teachers heavily emphasize. Without a broad knowledge base to give meaning and context to low-frequency or topic-specific words, those reading skills are temporary and highly situational.
How to increase general knowledge.
There are infinite ways to expose children to new information. Read non-fiction books together, watch documentaries, and explore cultures to present kids with new words and concepts. Anything that educates children and expands their perspective will translate into stronger reading comprehension in the long run. As the old saying goes, knowledge is power.
It’s no secret that the most effective way to get students to read is to let them choose what they read. Decades of research have studied students who read for pleasure, seeking to understand what motivates habitual reading and the benefits of those sustained reading habits.
Reading comprehension is the ability to process, retain, and correctly recite in their own words information learned from reading. For years, ELA teachers have emphasized skills like finding the main idea, summarizing
Our previous blog post addressed the upcoming changes as the SAT goes digital in 2024. But, while the medium will change, does that mean the content will be all that different? Because the reading material can be diverse and unfamiliar to some, this makes the reading section difficult for many students.