When we teach children to read, the ultimate goal is for them to be able to read independently, fluently, and be able to learn from what they have read.
After all, this is what we mean when as readers we say we are going to read something. We don’t mean that we are just going to word call or say the words we see, we mean that we are going to read for content. We are reading to comprehend or understand what we have just read for enjoyment or to gain new information. This is referred to as reading comprehension and it is actually quite a complex task.
If you were to describe reading comprehension in its most basic form, you will probably come up with a description that resembles The Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986).
The Simple View of Reading boils reading down to three concepts word recognition, language comprehension, and reading comprehension. These concepts are shown as a multiplication equation showing that both word recognition and language comprehension are needed for an individual to understand what they are reading. However, these concepts themselves require multiple skills.
The first step in reading is figuring out what the words on the page say and this alone is a complex skill. Word recognition requires three different skills phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition of the words on the page.
Next, the reader must have the ability to understand the words they have read in the context they are used in. Language comprehension requires a broad vocabulary, being knowledgeable about what you are reading about (background knowledge), understanding how written and spoken language are different from each other, and the ways we can look deeper into the written words than their surface meaning (literacy knowledge, language structures, and verbal reasoning).
Once a reader has developed the skills they need to have automatic word recognition and the ability to understand the language used in the text they are reading, they may need to be taught how to use these two skills together. However, there is one more fact we have not talked about, in order to do all this so that the reader can learn from what they have read, they need to have adequate working memory.
Working memory is what a person uses when they are trying to use the information at the moment. It allows a reader to sound out new words because it holds the letter sounds in mind and allows the reader to blend those sounds together to make a word. Working memory is needed to relate the words together at the sentence level so it forms one complete thought. It allows the reader to connect the sentences together in a paragraph to form the main idea. Working memory allows the reader to connect the information they are currently reading to what they have read before and to their background knowledge.
So if you have a student or a child who is struggling with reading comprehension, you really need to look at each one of these factors individually in order to develop an understanding of why they don’t seem to understand or remember what they are reading.
Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and special education, 7(1), 6-10.
Kilpatrick, D. A. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Wiley.
Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early literacy (pp. 97–110). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Be sure to check out more information about complex skills related to skilled reading development