A whole research industry continues to grow to monitor the effect of “comprehension strategies” or “reading skills” to help children understand what they are reading.
So, what are these comprehension strategies? We hear about monitoring comprehension, making inferences, active listening, graphic organisers, mental imagery, prediction, to name but a few. Do they make any difference? Not with children under the age of nine, according to several large research studies. Above that age only a few children appeared to have benefited and even then, their gains didn’t increase after six weeks.
There is a problem with the research according to Daniel Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia. He points out that all the studies measured average gain, when in fact, fluent readers in the class will have not benefited from the strategies because they had already picked up the skills naturally, by reading a lot.
Willingham sees little value in the strategies he calls “a bag of tricks’’ and makes the point that a broad vocabulary is by far the most important factor because you can’t understand the meaning of a sentence if you don’t know the meaning of most of the words in it.
Once children can read, they learn more words by reading than we could ever teach them at school, so the first thing we must do is to keep them reading once they can read. There are no short cuts to becoming a comprehending reader.
Let authors do the work for you. The more you love reading to children, the more likely it is that they will want to read the same book at home.
You wouldn’t teach children to dance by telling them what dancers do, so why tell children what readers do? If they’re readers they’re doing it already, if they’re not, it won’t help much. Put your efforts into getting them reading. Only readers develop a wide vocabulary.