Skilled reading comprehension is critical to modern life; success in education, productivity in society, and almost all types of employment require fast and thorough understanding of information from text. We tend to assume that reading is a singular act, but when we read, our brains are actually engaging in a number of tasks at the same time. There are five aspects to the process of reading: phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, reading comprehension and fluency. These five aspects work together to create the reading experience and draw on other aspects such as our working memory. The diagram further below, shows the building blocks of reading as an expanding and complex process and the relationship that working memory has at all stages.
Young children’s reading comprehension is strongly predicted by lower level language skills, such as letter and sound recognition and grammar. These are the building blocks of reading and called low level skills since they emerge relatively quickly and easily for the majority of children during the course of early childhood: demonstrated by the child who reads a book with ease but can’t yet explain the story. These lower level language skills serve as the foundation that supports what are considered to be the higher level language skills. Phonics is the connection between sounds and letter symbols. Without phonics, words are simply a bunch of squiggles on a page. Phonemic awareness is the understanding that words are created from phonemes (small units of sound in language). Phonemes are only sounds that are most often learned before a child begins to read. To read words we must first know them. Imagine how frustrating it would be to read this blog article if all of the words were unfamiliar to you. Fluency is a reader’s ability to read with speed, accuracy and expression. It is dealt with in a previous blog about reading.
There are higher level language skills involved in the integration of information across sentences and ideas in a text, namely, inference and integration, comprehension monitoring, and knowledge about text structure. These skills are important for comprehension because they help the reader to understand and enjoy the text in a deeper way; drawing on implied meaning; play on words; use of symbolism and imagery in the text. The processes of integration and inference require that the relevant information, either from the text or world knowledge, is both available and accessible.
Working memory holds information retrieved from long-term memory to help us make sense of what we are reading. Working memory is a resource that affects our ability to carry out many of the processes associated with reading comprehension and comprehension monitoring. Many factors can influence or affect comprehension such as slow or inaccurate word reading by using up too much processing capacity (that is using up too much of our working memory), with little left for integration and inference skills.
Is it ever too early to introduce your child to reading? Research over the last decade has shown that children with poor comprehension skills, aged 9-10 years old (despite good word reading abilities), had low language skills as early as 15 months old. Similarly, children with language delays during nursery face higher risks of future reading comprehension difficulties.
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