By Elham Zargar
Have you ever read a paragraph but realize you have not understood it? What do you usually do to fix this problem? Do you find yourself rereading the paragraph?
Although you may not be consciously aware of it, as a skilled reader, you are likely to monitor your reading. This means that you are constantly evaluating your understanding of the text while reading. And once you find yourself having difficulty understanding, you are likely to take steps to repair the problem – usually by rereading the passage more carefully, rereading some parts of the passage, or even looking up the definition of words you might not know.
This phenomenon is called comprehension monitoring.
Comprehension monitoring is formally defined as the conscious and unconscious strategies used to (1) identify and (2) repair misunderstandings that might occur during reading (Connor et al., 2015).
Although comprehension monitoring may seem to be automatic, both aspects of it are likely to involve conscious metacognitive awareness. Metacognition (or the ability to think about thinking) is not as easy as it may sound, especially for younger students who are in the process of developing metacognitive skills. Word knowledge calibration, the ability to accurately judge whether or not one knows a word correctly, is also a metacognitive skill.
To give you an idea of how assessing one’s own word knowledge (metaknowledge or word knowledge calibration) may be difficult for a young student, let’s examine the following excerpt from a word knowledge calibration assessment developed by Connor and colleagues (in review). This assessment provides students with a short passage about an event or scenario, which purposely includes a complex target word – likely an unfamiliar one for students in 3rd through 5th grade. After reading the passage, the assessment requires the students to answer a few questions about the target word, in order to assess their word knowledge calibration.
Here is an example, with “pursuing” as the target word:
Spot and Rover were two naughty dogs. They played all day and never behaved themselves. One day, they saw a little boy pursuing a ball. They ran after the ball, knocking the little boy over. The little boy said, “Bad dogs!” and wept when Spot and Rover ran away with his ball.
Now let’s take a look at how a third grader named Jose (not his real name) responded to the following questions.
Based on his first response, Jose believes that he knows what pursuing means. However, after prompting him to define this word, we can see that Jose assessed his knowledge about this word incorrectly. Despite not knowing the correct definition of the word, he believes that he knows its meaning. This implies that he is unlikely to make the right inferences as he tries to substitute buying for the real meaning of pursuing, chasing. He will perhaps form a mental representation of the dogs snatching the ball out of the boy’s hands while he is buying it, when in fact, the boy is not holding the ball at all but is chasing it! A cascade of incorrect inferences will seriously interfere with Jose’s comprehension of this text.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 36% of fourth graders in the United States were at or above reading proficiency on the reading assessment in 2015. Reading comprehension is described as one of the most complex human activities. To understand a sentence, simply reading and understanding each of the words is not sufficient (Perfetti & Stafura, 2014). Proficient reading comprehension requires making simple inferences and drawing conclusions while making judgments and connecting parts of text (Kendeou, McMaster & Christ, 2016). Although there are several different skills necessary for proficient reading (e.g., word decoding, reading fluency, vocabulary knowledge, prior knowledge, and working memory), many students failing at reading comprehension lack effective comprehension monitoring skills (Connor et al., 2015; Cain, Oakhill, & Bryant, 2004).
Recent studies have used eye-movement analyses to examine comprehension monitoring in young students. This methodology allows for examining how they process text while reading, without relying on their reduced metacognitive skills. Investigating comprehension monitoring and how students might process text can be helpful in understanding why children might succeed or fail at reading comprehension. Researchers have used eye-movement studies to examine moment-to-moment information processing in reading. They have found that the amount of time one spends looking at a word or a phrase is a good estimate for the amount of mental effort needed for processing it while reading.
In a recent eye-movement study, 5th grade students were presented with sentence pairs, where the first sentence in each item introduced an event or action that was explained further in the second sentence. The second sentence contained either a plausible or implausible word in relation to the context (Connor et al., 2015). For instance,
Last week Kyle flew to visit his family in another city. The large plane/truck was spacious and quickly transported them.
In the second sentence, plane is a plausible word in relation to the verb of the first sentence, flew, while truck is the implausible conjugate. This study investigated how 5th grade students responded to the target word in the two conditions, by analyzing their eye-movements while reading. The two measures that are usually examined are gaze duration and rereading time. A longer gaze duration (the amount of time the reader looks at a word for the first time) is known to be an approximate measure of the first aspect of comprehension monitoring, detecting an inconsistency. And a longer rereading time (the amount of time spent rereading a word) is a good measure of repairing a misunderstanding. The figures below show how the eye movements of students differ with this sentence pair containing the plausible word (first image) in comparison to the sentence pair with the implausible word (second image). As you can see, the second image has larger and more frequent circles, which means that the students generally fixated longer on the implausible word “truck” due to the disagreement or confusion caused by the implausibility.
The findings of this study revealed that all students, regardless of their literacy skills, generally spent more time looking at the implausible words compared to the plausible ones. This finding supports the idea that noticing you’ve misunderstood the text, doesn’t really depend on your literacy skills and seems to be mostly unconscious and automatic. On the other hand, this study also showed that students with stronger literacy skills spent significantly more time rereading the target implausible words, and attempting to repair their misunderstanding. Therefore, how the students respond to text after noticing a misunderstanding appears to be the critical factor that predicts to students’ proficiency in reading comprehension. This suggests that students struggling with reading comprehension may be lacking the necessary skills needed to repair their misunderstanding while reading.
Similar to any other literacy lesson, teaching students to monitor their comprehension needs to be done systematically and explicitly. Promoting comprehension monitoring and the use of repair strategies can be done using a number of research-based methods. In addition to encouraging students to consciously monitor their understanding of the text, they can use the following explicit strategies:
Finding the main idea. Scaffolding younger students to identify the main ideas of the text can be beneficial in helping them to consciously monitor their understanding. Students can be taught to ask themselves simple “what” and “who” questions about the passage and reiterate or write the story in their own words (Jenkins, Heliotis, Stein, and Haynes, 1987).
Summarization. Although this is similar to finding the main ideas, students are not prompted by answering simple questions to identify the ideas. Similarly, summarization requires readers to regularly demonstrate their understanding of the text by identifying the main ideas, but also encourages students to attend to the higher-level meaning of the text, leading to increased comprehension (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). Although younger students might not have the necessary skills to summarize passages as they read, with explicit instruction and training, they can learn to identify the main ideas of the text and generate high-quality summaries.
Generating questions. Generating deep-level questions encourages active engagement as it promotes students to question the meaning of the text as well as their understanding to identify and repair the gaps (Rosenshine, Meister, & Chapman, 1996). Moreover, this promotes comprehension by encouraging students to use their prior knowledge, focus on the main ideas, and summarize key points while reading.
Word knowledge. Additionally, word knowledge plays a crucial role in comprehension. Children can be taught multiple word strategies for when they come across unfamiliar words. Strategies include dictionary use, morphemic analysis – a strategy used to infer the meaning of a word by examining its meaningful parts (e.g., prefixes, suffixes and roots), and contextual analysis, which is using context clues in the text to determine the meaning of a word.
By teaching students to monitor their comprehension using these strategies, they will be more likely to identify their confusions and repair their misunderstandings while reading. Although it may seem difficult at first, practicing such strategies will give students the ability to have stronger comprehension monitoring and reading comprehension skills.
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school: Expanded edition. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.
Cain, K., Oakhill, J., & Bryant, P. (2004). Children’s reading comprehension ability: Concurrent prediction by working memory, verbal ability, and component skills. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 31–42.
Connor, C. M., Radach, R., Vorstius, C., Day, S. L., McLean, L., & Morrison, F. J. (2015). Individual differences in fifth graders’ literacy and academic language predict comprehension monitoring development: An eye-movement study. Scientific Studies of Reading, 19(2), 114-134.
Jenkins, J. R., Heliotis, J. D., Stein, M. L., & Haynes, M. C. (1987). Improving reading comprehension by using paragraph restatements. Exceptional Children, 54(1), 54-59.
Kendeou, P., McMaster, K., Christ, T. (2016) Reading comprehension: Core components and processes. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3,162-169. doi: 10.1177/2372732215624707
National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2015). The nation’s report card. Retrieved from http://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_2015/#reading/acl?grade=4
Perfetti, C., & Stafura, J. (2014). Word knowledge in a theory of reading comprehension. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18, 22-37.
Rosenshine, B., Meister, C., & Chapman, S. (1996). Teaching students to generate questions: A review of the intervention studies. Review of Educational Research, 66(2), 181-221.