Fluency, vocabulary, background information, awareness of text structure, and self-monitoring (for application of strategies) are the things a reader needs. A further understanding of the structure of the genre and sentence/discourse patterns is helpful as well. Comprehension is an ongoing process; a process that changes with the individual and the situation. It is also something that can be improved with instruction. It is easier to understand comprehension as a whole process when it is explained in relation to three areas: the text, the person and the situation.
A person brings different ideas and understanding to a piece of text. His or her background knowledge, knowledge of vocabulary, and personal experience with the type of genre are all important to understanding the text. When you have students, like I do, who have been out of the classroom through a lot of their school experience because of behavior, then you have students who don’t bring a lot of background knowledge to a text. Further, when they come from homes where reading is not valued then their knowledge of vocabulary and experience with reading different genres is severely limited. Clearly these types of students have a long way to go to comprehend different kinds of texts. But this is only a small part of the issue with these students.
The text itself has a direct relation to how well a person will comprehend it. It may be written with lofty or discombobulated discourse. It might have difficult sentence structure, or the content itself might be something difficult to understand. Working with students to learn the style and structure of different kinds of texts can help them overcome problems with difficult discourse and sentence structure. Further, teaching them strategies for how to navigate through different kinds of expository text will be beneficial. But this will only help the students who come from homes where education is valued.
The situation in which a reader must comprehend his or her text is a final big factor in comprehension. Thinking about what goals, you the teacher, have for the reading, what the learning activities are and the whole context of the situation will make a difference to the reader. Is the student reading for a standardized test? Is the student reading to gain background information? Is he or she reading to find the answer to certain questions? Thinking about comprehension beyond “the reader” will help a reader utilize the situation and the text in the best way for understanding, and it will help the teacher be able to guide the students better. But, again, students who don’t value education or see the importance of it will gain nothing even from the best teachers.
Comprehension is more than just what the student brings to a text. At the same time, I began to get frustrated and angry about the content of the chapters. It is so simple, so straightforward— but only for students who come from homes where education is important. All these ideas and practices mean nothing to students who have a jaded view of reading (and school) because of years of difficulty. There is another barrier to comprehension for these students, and these students are the ones who need the most intense instruction. They aren’t going to learn anything from teachers they don’t value.
Many students I work with began their reading instruction way behind most other students simply because of their home environments where reading and education weren’t valued—this would have been noticeable even in Kindergarten. Then, because these students kept falling behind their peers, they developed behavior issues to avoid reading altogether—this would have been noticeable even in first grade. Then as elementary school progressed it was easier to be kicked out of school and fail than to learn to read—and it was easier for teachers to have them out than to discover the true reason for the behavior. Sometimes the baggage teachers carry, their prejudices about socio-economic status or family names, may be the worst thing of all about why so many students fail to learn to read and eventually become significant behavior problems.
It is a story told every year in the files I read of most of my students; a student is identified with a behavioral disability in first grade, then years later (fourth or fifth or even sixth grade) they are found to have a reading disability; but there was always a history of reading problems from the “get-go”–a reading disability, misdiagnosed (or missed altogether) in favor of labeling the child “emotionally disabled.” Dealing with the behavior became the priority rather than teaching the child to read. My work with these students to teach them to read and comprehend involves breaking down the “walls” that have been built after years of failure in school.
Students who come from a background where education and reading are not valued, who come from a background of aggressive problem-solving or other types of abuse, who come from a background where getting the next meal is more important than being in school—those types of students must feel successful in school and valued by others in order to become better readers and better able to see the value of learning to read, the value of education as a whole. If we, as teachers, don’t connect to our students and work with the “whole” child, then we will never teach them to read—why would they even care to learn if no one bothers to understand them? Most teachers I’ve worked with in public schools find it easier to remove a problem child than to work with him or her. These are the children who need the most attention—the others will learn to read without much of our help. It’s those problem children who need our attention—before they reach middle school and high school–before they become so jaded to education that their only future is on the streets or in jail. Without really knowing a student, without bothering to care about his or her situation, all the comprehension work in the universe isn’t going to make a bit of difference.