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‘Woof, woof, neigh’: reading but not comprehending

Reading Comprehension

A good friend of ours told us a brilliant story recently. Her son’s class have been reading War Horse at school and she was interested in her son’s take on it.
“Is it sad?” she asked him.
“I dunno,” he said, or words to that effect.
The next day she was comparing notes with the mum of one of her son’s friends, and she related this less-than-impressive response.
“That’s nothing,” the friend’s mum said. “I asked my son if the horse died at the end, and he said, ‘What horse?'”

We’ve been laughing for weeks.

There may be no more serious issue underlying this anecdote than a couple of boys paying less than full attention at school. But for some children, reading text without understanding it is a major problem. Today we thought it might be helpful to look at why this can happen, and a few of the ways parents and teachers can help.

Woof, woof

Schools use the phrase ‘barking at print’ for children who learn to decode but can’t or don’t make the link between the words they read and their meaning. If you’re partially fluent in another language, you can replicate this experience for yourself by reading a complex passage in that language aloud. Chances are you’ll make a decent first of it on the one hand ”“ it’ll sound OK ”“ but on the other, you won’t entirely understand what you’ve read. For the struggling reader of English (for today’s purpose we’ll assume we’re talking about a native speaker), there may be similarities with your experience. A child may not have a vocabulary that is well enough developed to accomplish the task of comprehension. He or she may have to focus too hard on sounding out the words themselves to leave any processing power for their meaning. He or she may struggle with areas of phonic awareness or find sight words so much of a challenge that the reading flow suffers and sense is lost.

You are less likely to share the other problems a print-barking child may have. He or she may not have been raised in a book-friendly or language-rich environment, which can mean a lack of basic concepts of stories and reading. He or she may be unaware of the basic strategies good readers take for granted, such as re-reading a passage we have not understood. And he or she may, of course, have an underlying problem relating to processing or recall.

The good news is that there are lots of ways to help such children. Good, rich exposure to books and reading is key. If you’re a classroom practitioner, make sure you supplement your teaching of reading with lots and lots of reading aloud to the class and chances to explore books for the sake of the story within. If you’re a parent or carer, keep reading and enjoying books with your children, putting enough time aside to read and enjoy a story or two properly and finding a place where other distractions are minimised. Don’t be tempted to abandon print books in favour of apps ”“ making meaning from words is a key concept your child needs to understand and this may be missed where there are buttons to be pressed, animations to look at and lots of other exciting action going on.

One of the most valuable lessons you can teach a child at school or at home is to visualise as they read ”“ this may seem intuitive but it isn’t for all children. A good way to phrase advice is to suggest they try to run the action in their head like a film. If the film stops running, they may need to re-read a section to get it going again. You can help develop their capacity to visualise by looking together at related visual stimuli, from the jacket of the book to pictures on the net of, say, horses in World War One. Chat, too, about how you and your child imagine the different characters, places or events in the stories you read together.

Long ago we published a great book called Target Reading Comprehension, which was packed with practical (and often photocopiable) ideas for classroom use. It is no longer available from Barrington Stoke but can be purchased in an updated edition from the Helen Arkell Dyslexia Centre. You can buy the book from the Helen Arkell Dyslexia Centre bookshop here. We heartily recommend it.

Would you like more articles on reading comprehension on the blog? Do you have any ideas or tips to share? Did you know there was a horse in War Horse? We’d love to hear from you!

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