The ability to decode text is a critical skill. However, the ability to accurately decode text does not ensure reading comprehension. Scarborough’s reading rope model describes the many strands of skilled reading. Background knowledge is only one strand included in language comprehension and is necessary for readers to make sense of new ideas and situations. It includes all of the knowledge acquired through life experiences and learning. The more background knowledge students have, the more they can comprehend what is read.
“If we do not spend large amounts of time reading aloud and discussing challenging material with children – material that is well beyond their ability to decode with understanding, we miss a critical opportunity to increase their knowledge of language and of the world – the kind of knowledge that will prove decisive for reading in later years” (Hirsch 2006).Without the necessary background knowledge, a reader cannot make sense of what is decoded. A lack of background knowledge especially affects higher order thinking such as inferencing or making connections to other content and experiences.
The strategies in this section will provide educators with tools to build students’ background knowledge. Strategies will also support students’ ability to recognize when they do not have sufficient background knowledge and what to do about it.
An understanding of syntax, how sentences are constructed, and semantics, how words and phrases are related, are required skills for students to become proficient readers. The ability to make the text cohere or stick together is not always natural. Readers must be able to make connections between and across words, phrases, and sentences. Just because students can decode all the words on the page does not mean that they will comprehend what they read.
Students can get lost when reading complex sentences that contain many ideas or text that contains a lot of pronouns and phrases.
Syntax is basically the grammar of language. Consider the following example:
A dog is a mammal.
If students understand the syntax of the sentence, even if they cannot decode the word mammal, they know that the word has to be a noun because it follows an article and is the last word in the sentence. Students would be able to answer this literal question without decoding the word mammal: What is a dog?
Semantics is an understanding of how the meaning of a word or phrase can change depending on the language around it. Consider the following examples:
We can fish.
Depending on the other words around this sentence it could have different meanings.
Students must know how to use the surrounding language to clarify the meaning.
John is a snake in the grass.
Does the author mean this literally or metaphorically?
After work, Trisha and Claudia went to the store to get supplies for Ed’s birthday party. Although it was just down the street, they decided to drive because the celebration was less than an hour away.
The joy of reading comes from the ability to understand an author’s message. Does the writing make you laugh, cry, get angry, or be in awe of the knowledge you learned? Reading is most memorable when you put yourself in the situation the author is describing. To do that, readers have to be skilled at decoding and understanding language at many levels. Too many students do not enjoy reading because they struggle with understanding what is not explicitly explained. They cannot make inferences or understand ambiguous language due to the lack of background knowledge and grasping the nuances of the English language. There are three levels or models of text comprehension, all of which must be held in memory as students build their understanding of what they read.
There are three ways that readers build and represent their understanding of what they read in memory: surface code, text base, and the situational model (Bernaerts et al. 2013).
The surface code refers to the exact language used to express ideas. Students that lack understanding of the vocabulary included in a particular text or lack knowledge of the syntactic features of the language being read could have difficulty with comprehension at the literal level. Students who understand the text base are able to restate the literal message of the text in their own words and can answer literal comprehension questions. These two levels depend on an understanding of the syntax and semantics of English. Additional information on these levels can be found in the Language Structures section of this resource.
To understand text at a deeper level, a student must use the third level of understanding. The student must create a situational model or representation of what is read. In order to do this, she must infer information not directly stated by the author. In other words, a student uses the surface code as a set of cues to build the situational model. The situational model involves activating the appropriate background knowledge including general knowledge, memories, and interactions with other texts (Bernaerts et al. 2013). See the Background Knowledge section of this resource for more information.
Consider the following sentence from the Language Structures section:
We can fish to store in the cellar so we have fish to eat in the winter.
As the reader,
As the reader, I have control of the surface code and text base of this text. As I hold that information in memory, I start to build the situational model of what I am reading.
Because of movies I have seen or books I have read, I fill in information that the author did not explicitly explain using my background knowledge.
Students that lack general knowledge or background knowledge about the words in the text will have a very difficult time understanding what they read beyond a literal level. This section includes strategies that address this challenge of understanding the text at a literal and non-literal level.
Learning to read begins long before a child starts school. Print is everywhere in our society and children can’t help but be curious about all the squiggly lines they see. Children begin to understand that certain symbols represent meaning – the golden arches mean McDonald’s. Soon they begin to notice that adults point to those squiggly lines and say words. Some children may even start to “read” those same words.
Before preschool, most children do not understand that those squiggly lines are made up of individual letters and that those letters have a sound that is blended together to create the pronunciation. They have just memorized the shape of that word or its location on the page.
As adults, it is hard for us to remember how many concepts have to be learned to become an effective reader. Many of the very early skills we take for granted. But these very skills are predictors of future reading achievement and “… serve as the very foundation on which orthographic and phonological skills are built” (Adams 1998, 338).
Literacy knowledge includes understanding concepts such as (not an exhaustive list):
Reading and comprehending text is a complex process especially when interacting with the English language. English is an alphabetic system that has a deep orthography, meaning it does not always have a one to one correspondence between a phoneme (sound) and a grapheme (spelling) and we spell based on meaning. For example, English has 5 vowel letters (a, e, i, o, u) and approximately 18 vowel sounds. Each vowel or a vowel grapheme has more than one sound. Consider the different spellings for the long a sound in the following words: rate, bait, play, steak, baby, weight, vein, hey. We also maintain the spelling of a word based on morphemes (meaningful parts of words). The best example is the spelling of the inflectional ending –ed. It is always spelled –ed even though it represents three different sounds, as in played /d/, twisted /ed/, and hopped /t/. The spelling is maintained to indicate a word is past tense (Moats 2009b; Moats 2009c; Moats 2009d).
As Scarborough describes in the reading rope model, reading comprehension is the product of language comprehension and word recognition.
“The reader who has difficulty with decoding will not be able to derive meaning from the text…” (Carreker 2011, 208).If the goal of reading is comprehension of text, then decoding is a necessary skill for students to learn, especially in English which is a complex alphabetic system. Beginning reading curriculum that includes explicit decoding instruction is more effective than programs that do not (Moats, 2009). However, word recognition is only part of reading instruction. Teaching comprehension skills should always be included in a comprehensive reading curriculum.
A student who can efficiently and effectively decode words has acquired many prerequisites such as an understanding of the concepts of print, phonemic awareness and the alphabetic principle (Carreker 2011).
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