Reading comprehension is the heart and goal of reading, since the purpose of all reading is to gather meaning from the printed page. If a student says words in a passage without gathering their meaning, one would hesitate to call that reading.
By age six to seven children should be sensitive to such characteristics of stories as the main character, sequence of events, inferences, the motives and feelings of characters, and sentence order. As they get older, children should be more efficient at recognizing and recalling facts, recognizing and inferring main themes and relationships, drawing conclusions, making judgments and generalizations, predicting outcomes, applying what has been learned, and following directions. The comprehension goals of the intermediate grades address these abilities as well as those required for independent study: skimming, using reference materials, outlining, summarizing, altering reading rate and focus as the purpose of reading changes, use of headings, note taking, and so on.
For many learning-disabled students, reading comprehension is a major problem. There are mainly three causes for poor reading comprehension:
1.) The person has a language problem: Language plays a vital role in reading. Its role in reading can be compared to the role of running in the game of soccer or ice-skating in the game of ice hockey. One cannot play soccer if one cannot run, and one cannot play ice hockey if one cannot skate. One cannot read a book in a language unless one knows that particular language. If a child’s knowledge of English is poor, then his reading will also be poor, and naturally also his reading comprehension.
2.) The foundational skills of reading have not been automatized: When a person attempts to speak a language in which he has not become automatic yet, he will necessarily have to divide his attention between the content of his message and the language itself. He will therefore speak haltingly and with great difficulty. As Yap and Van der Leij explained in the Journal of Learning Disabilities, “if the skill on the primary task is automatized, it will not be disrupted by concurrent processing on the secondary task because automatic processing does not take up attentional resources. If, on the contrary, the skill is not automatized, it will be disrupted by concurrent processing of a second skill because two skills are then competing for limited attentional resources.” This also applies to the act of reading. The person, in whom the foundational skills of reading have not yet become automatic, will read haltingly and with great difficulty. The poor reader is forced to apply all his concentration to word recognition, and therefore has “no concentration left” to decode the written word, and as a result he will not be able to read with comprehension.
3.) The reader is unable to decode the written word: The decoding of the written word is a very important aspect of the reading act. Without being able to decode the written word, reading comprehension is impossible. This explains why some children can “read” without understanding what they are reading.
To decode the written word the reader must be able to integrate what he is reading with his foreknowledge. Foreknowledge can be defined as the range of one’s existing knowledge and past experiences. If one reads something that cannot directly be connected to or tied in with knowledge that one already possesses, one cannot decode or decipher the contents of the message. As Harris et al. state in Learning Disabilities: Nature, Theory, and Treatment, “What a child gets from a book will often be determined by what the child brings to the book.”
A decoding skill that is closely related to that of integration is classification. When a person sees a chair, although he may never have seen a chair exactly like this one, he will nevertheless immediately recognize it as a chair, because he is familiar with the class of objects we call “chair.” This implies that, whenever a name is ascribed to an object, it is thereby put into a specific class of objects, i.e. it is classified.
The Gestalt principle of closure means that the mind is able to derive meaning from objects or pictures that are not perceived in full. W- -re s-re th-t y– w-ll b- -ble to und-rsta-d th-s s-ntenc-, although more than 25 percent of the letters have been omitted. The mind is quite able to bridge the gaps that were left in the sentence. The idea of closure is, however, more than just seeing parts of a word and amplifying them. It also entails the amplification of the author’s message. No author can put all his thoughts into words. This stresses the importance of foreknowledge. If it were possible for an author to put everything related to the subject he is dealing with on paper, the possession of foreknowledge would not have been necessary. That, however, is impossible, as an author can at most present a very limited cross-section of reality and the reader must be able to expand on this before comprehension becomes possible. Poetry is a good example of the importance of foreknowledge. Any person, who is unfamiliar with the Arthurian legend, will probably derive little meaning from a reading of Morte d’Arthur by Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Lastly, imagination plays a role in decoding. It is doubtful whether a person really understands something unless he is able to think about it in terms of pictures. When we read, the words and thoughts comprising the message call up images in our mind’s eye. If this does not occur, the message will not make any sense. If you read or hear a sentence in an unfamiliar language, it will not make any sense to you, simply because none of the words will call up any pictures in your mind’s eye. This ability plays a very important role in the decoding of the written word. Furthermore, by using one’s imagination while reading, one’s emotions can be addressed during the reading act.