Strengthening Students’ Reading Comprehension

Mar 14, 2024 | Posted by the IEW Blog Team

What elements need to be in place for a student to have solid reading comprehension? In 1986 psychologists William Tumner and Philip Gough distilled it down to a simple mathematical formula: reading comprehension = decoding x language comprehension. What this means is that a student needs to be able to use phonics skills to actually work out (decode) the content in order to comprehend the content. Furthermore, the student also needs to know what the words and phrases mean. If both elements are in place, reading comprehension is achieved. Without both elements solidly in place, there is no reading comprehension.

Teaching students to read using a program that follows the latest science of reading addresses the decoding side of the equation, but teachers still need to address the language comprehension side. This has become more challenging lately due in part to the way students interact with information. In general, students prefer to watch videos, which is a passive way of accessing information, versus the active engagement that reading requires.

Students are reading for pleasure much less than in prior years. A recent report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveals two trends. The first is that only 14% of thirteen-year-olds report that they read for pleasure almost every day. This is a decrease from 2020, which showed that 17% of students enjoyed reading books. Secondly, this report shows that 31% of students share that they either never or hardly ever read for fun. In 2020 that number was 29%.  

These are worrying trends. Students acquire language by encountering new words. In general conversation and communication, people tend to use simple language and sentence structure. One of the best ways to acquire new vocabulary is to read widely and frequently. When students don’t read, they essentially “clip their wings,” limiting their ability to expand their vocabulary and increase their comprehension. As reading decreases, so too does the exposure to information that helps a student understand nuances in language such as idioms and allusions. As Andrew Pudewa has often asserted, “You can’t get something out of the brain that isn’t there to start with.”

So, how do you put that information into the brain? One of the ways IEW’s Structure and Style methodology accomplishes this is by providing source texts that students use to craft key word outlines. From these outlines students write their compositions. These source texts are written at different reading levels to account for students of different ages and abilities. The texts cover a wide range of subject matter, including topics from history, literature, social studies, and science. This assures that the students will be exposed to a wide variety of material to add to their background knowledge.

When students begin a new lesson, the teacher will read the source text aloud while the students follow along in their books. Instructors who have taken the teacher training course, Teaching Writing: Structure and Style, understand that it is important to furnish their students with relevant background information about the source text. They may pull out maps, display a relevant item, or even share a related food. These are other ways teachers support building comprehension.

Furthermore, as the teachers read the passage, they will take time to engage students in Socratic dialogue so that students understand the material and are able to draw inferences from it. The instructors also take time during class to define unknown vocabulary and clarify any unclear language such as idioms or allusions. Teachers may even take time to model action verbs for younger students. By providing this support to the students, they avoid Deadly Error #2: withholding help, which is described more fully in Andrew Pudewa’s article “Four Deadly Errors of Teaching Writing.”

Using a checklist to help them meet all of the requirements of the assignment, the students write their compositions using their key word outlines. Part of the checklist’s requirements are for students to include stylistic techniques that are taught gradually throughout the year. The style elements include adding dynamic vocabulary, phrases and clauses, and sentence openers. To expose students to new vocabulary, some adjectives and verbs are “banned” so that more dynamic words can be selected. Teachers help students with this by taking time during class to brainstorm alternate words and build word lists for easy reference. This helps students expand their vocabulary. As students become more adept at adding in style, more style is introduced, a process we call EZ+1. Eventually, students who master earlier stylistic techniques begin to include literary devices such as similes/metaphors and alliteration in their writing.  

While implementing the Structure and Style approach to writing supports reading comprehension, there are other tools teachers can use to help their students in this skill. Regularly reading aloud to them from high quality literature is another way teachers can strengthen comprehension. To learn more about this, listen to Andrew’s audio talk Nurturing Competent Communicators and read Andrew’s article “One Myth and Two Truths.”

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is reading comprehension. It is a skill that is built through repetition and consistent application. If you would like to learn more about comprehension, check out these additional resources.

●    Cultivating Language Arts – Preschool through High School
●    Episode 354: Paper and Pen – What the Research Says
●    Virtual Teaching Writing: Structure and Style
●    “What about Comprehension?”
●    “How the Structure and Style Writing Approach Supports Reading”

by Jennifer Mauser

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