The need to improve reading comprehension is well-documented.
The schools’ greatest successes in reading achievement have come at the third grade level. This is true in every state and at the national level as well. The downward trend in reading achievement begins in the fourth grade and continues through the high school years – it never improves, and only rarely levels off.
Why does achievement decline after the third grade? The answer is reading comprehension.
Reading instruction through the third grade is mostly concentrated on mechanics and on concrete content. After the third grade; the emphasis shifts to reading comprehension and the content becomes increasingly more abstract.
Lastly, it is worth noting, the drop in achievement after the third grade is significantly more pronounced among students in the lower socio-economic classes.
How can reading comprehension be improved? Probably not by more reading. The problem is not lack of exposure. If that were the case, the achievement after the third grade would continue to grow naturally with more practice. It does not because there are impediments to more advanced reading comprehension.
The keys to improved reading comprehension are two enabling factors: the development of the appropriate intellectual abilities, and the development of a comprehensive set of concepts.
The intellectual abilities required for advanced reading comprehension.
Basic reading can be sustained with a modest set of intellectual abilities – Cognition and Memory at the Units, Classes, and Relations level. (Obviously in the seMantic content area.) So, if the following abilities are adequately developed, a student can be a competent reader:
- Cognition of seMantic Units – basic vocabulary
- Cognition of seMantic Classes – how basic vocabulary is organized conceptually
- Cognition of seMantic Relations – how basic vocabulary units are related
- Memory of seMantic Units, Classes, and Relations – the ability to recall the basics
In other words, if the mechanics of reading have been satisfied – the perceptual skills and the skills to process symbolic representations of words – the content of basic reading requires little more than the intellectual abilities listed above.
Comprehensive reading is dramatically expanded in its intellectual demands. The content is more extensive and more complex.
In the first place there is simply more of it – sentences and short paragraphs become long paragraphs and chapters. Just compare the difference in the amount of content between third grade and fifth grade achievement testing. The amount of text presented for any given set of questions is increased significantly. The requirement to deal with more content presents new intellectual demands, mostly centered on memory abilities.
In the second place, the content presentation becomes more complex – simple sentences become compound; simple subjects, verbs, and predicates become qualified with modifying adjectives and phrases; and straightforward declarative sentences become nuanced with different tenses and voices.
In short, once a student leaves the domain of basic reading, the content changes and those changes require new intellectual abilities in order to decode the information. Some students will have developed these abilities without formal training, but many others will not, and, as a consequence, they will have difficulty processing advanced reading material.
What new abilities are required? They are generically identified as “higher order thinking skills,” but this generic classification does not help much in guiding their development. In Structure of Intellect terms, the abilities required are the following:
- Evaluation – the ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty
- Convergent Production – the ability to follow rules and solve problems
- Systems – the ability to deal with complex relations (relations of relations)
- Implications – the ability to see outcomes or consequences
- Transformations – the ability to see content from a different perspective
These abilities are clearly related to the increased content demands of comprehensive reading.
Evaluation is needed to resolve the ambiguity (often deliberately created by an author) of nuanced presentation, and to encode different tenses and voices in context.
Convergent Production is needed to deal with content that is understated or is required to follow the development of a line of argument or threads of a plot.
Systems abilities are needed to comprehend the interrelationships of complex content; complexity is more than a simple concatenation of simple ideas; complexity implies that the components of the presentation are interrelated to one another to make a whole of the separate components. It is most often up to the reader to put this whole together with systems thinking.
Implications abilities are needed in order to anticipate the next step(s) in exposition, argument or plot development. Anticipation facilitates comprehensive understanding – when the reader knows what to expect next, comprehension is greatly facilitated, and even when that anticipation is not satisfied, it raises a mental flag that either (1) the author is being inconsistent, or (2) the reader has not understood the previous material. Without anticipation, every sentence is a new, separate piece of comprehension.
Transformations abilities are needed in order to understand the perspective of the material being presented in a larger context of different perspectives. In many more advanced tests of reading comprehension, the student is asked to respond to the material from a perspective different from convention – i.e. what would the United States be today if the Confederacy had won the Civil War? – an adequate response to this question supposedly tests the students’ understanding of the cultural and economic values of the South in contrast to the North. It is a legitimate question, but it cannot be answered without the ability to take known facts and see them in a different perspective.
For the students who have not developed these abilities, it is important to improve them SOI learning abilities training. In each case we need to teach the ability from the “ground up” – starting with the most basic and proceeding to the most advanced required skills.
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