If curriculum lies at the heart of education, it is reading comprehension that enables the vibrant health and vitality of learning. If the curriculum is narrow, the heart of education is constricted, pressured and strained. Without the breadth and rigour of a curriculum that encourages expression and criticality, there may be too little in terms of intrinsic motivation to inspire effective reading comprehension.
Growth mindset, resilience and perseverance cannot compensate for a narrow and impoverished curriculum, nor can they motivate children to want to engage with learning. However, a rich and rewarding curriculum can encourage children’s natural curiosity, drive and self-sustaining motivation, which can bring focus, enjoyment and depth of engagement to reading comprehension.
If a child cannot read, they will not be able to access the curriculum and this has far-reaching consequences not only for the individual, but for all of us as well. A generation of motivated and enabled children who access and enjoy everything that their education has to offer without the limitations of fragile reading, will adapt and adjust with greater confidence to whatever the future holds.
Reading comprehension offers everyone enriched opportunities to develop their aspirations, talents and interests. Indeed, it is through reading comprehension that pupils become lifelong learners and gravitate towards the topics that most interest them. As a starting point, children must engage with different types of reading - fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and discover the many different styles of writing. Engaging with a wide range of reading material empowers children to take their first steps on their future path and to expand their vocabulary. Up to ninety per cent of this is encountered in books rather than day-to-day speech.
Some reading experts have said that a lack of requisite vocabulary or background knowledge can limit a child’s ability to access a text. This mismatch between the text and the child’s prior experiences does not happen in a vacuum and need not limit a child’s education. Lacking the vocabulary or the knowledge to access a passage of text, a child must be encouraged to fill in the gaps at school.
Outstanding schools that have a large proportion of pupils with English as an additional language (EAL), address this issue of a limited vocabulary by immersing the children in ‘enriched’ environments. Different topics that do not come up in day-to-day conversation such as space exploration, deep sea diving and mountaineering, are exciting for children and these schools use corridor spaces as places where children can sit in a ‘spaceship’ or a ‘submarine’ or a ‘safari jeep’ and listen to information about the topic, use word banks, hold relevant books and enjoy the illustrations.
Reading comprehension is not only an understanding of the text - this could be gained from the relatively static process of looking at illustrations or chapter headings. It is a more dynamic process that integrates information as the text is read. This happens when we hear spoken language: we follow along and reciprocate in real time. Reading comprehension is like a conversation, in the sense that it is a social invitation to extract meaning from what is written. If it does not engage the child socially, the text is unlikely to be understood.
When we are reading, the most important key to good comprehension in my view is the social connection with the words. Children make this connection at home before they start school, having been read to by parents or siblings or other caregivers since infancy. These adults will have built social cues such as tone of voice and rhythm into their child’s earliest experiences of books. These children also arrive at school with other social assets such as a strong vocabulary and a positive attitude towards reading.
Conversely, children with a more limited vocabulary may need to build their social connection with reading from scratch and they may also feel anxious about learning for any number of reasons. For them, the usual cues of social engagement such as tone of voice and rhythm are missing from the ‘marks on the page’. So a child with a limited vocabulary and little experience of being read to needs to discover for themselves that reading is primarily a social act before their reading comprehension can develop traction.
Young children learn through play. This involves a sense of heightened arousal as well as social engagement. Even a child playing on their own will be vocalising a narrative of some kind, involving specific sounds and patterns. Punctuation offers an opportunity to engage with a child’s instinct for social engagement and meaning-making through play. Exaggerated voices, list-building, sudden sounds, humour and suspense are invitations to play with words. In the Rhythm for Reading programme we occasionally use a word, purely for fun, at a rhythmically important moment in the music. One such word is, ‘Splash!’ This word marks the end of a very up-beat tune about dolphins and the children love to celebrate this final moment with pure joy. Their social engagement and their playfulness are central to the entire programme, so reading becomes an act of social meaning-making, regardless of the development of their vocabulary.
At the beginning of a child’s literacy adventures at school, conventions of using punctuation are taught in the context of meaning-making and involve the correct use of capital letters, full stops, question marks, commas, exclamation marks, two types of apostrophes and speech marks.
Then other punctuation marks are introduced, such as colons, semi-colons and brackets as a way to enhance meaning-making. Finally, the other conventions involving quotation marks, dashes and hyphens can be added as the child embarks on writing that involves more informality, unusual language, citations and compound words.
Moving beyond conventions and back to social engagement, it is important to consider the ‘state’ of the child. An anxious child with a limited vocabulary will be overloaded emotionally and grapple with word-by-word processing. Their working memory may not have sufficient resources to manage punctuation. A withdrawn child, on the other hand, may have insufficient motivation to engage with reading or writing. By addressing their ‘state’ through a rhythm-based approach, these social-emotional learning blocks can, and do, shift.
Punctuation is a shorthand that guides the reader to recognise familiar types of meaning-making. A series of commas tells the reader that they are going to make a meaningful list. A question mark and an exclamation mark invite the reader to ‘play’ with the concept of ‘an unknown’ or ‘novelty’ respectively. Both are motivational to the child’s instinct for social engagement - their natural curiosity. The full stop is an important rhythmic cue that defines grammatical structures that can stand alone. In a conversation, this could be an opportunity for facial expression or a nod of the head which acknowledges the social dimension of meaning making. In terms of reading aloud, the reader’s prosody - the rise and fall of their voice, shows that the information unit has completed a rhythmic cycle.
In a conversation, the rise and fall of the voice, as well as the dimensions of rhythmic flow create the socially engaged cues of meaning-making and also support reading fluency. These cues are exaggerated by parents when they talk to their young children. Defining utterances in this way creates a structural blueprint for language and social engagement that we as social beings use when we interact. Similarly, conventions of punctuation correspond to these same structures that infants learn in the first eight months of life, as they acquire their home language. For this reason, children intuitively understand punctuation marks when they read with fluency, provided they are socially receptive to and engaged by the content of they are reading.
Punctuation is the dynamic part of reading that organises individual words into grammatical chunks and ultimately, meaningful messages. It functions as a counterpart to grammatical awareness because punctuation as a symbolic system is processed ‘top down’ from the conscious to subconscious, whereas grammatical awareness, which was established in infancy is processed bottom-up, from subconscious to conscious. It’s important to recognise that conscious processing is relatively slow, whereas subconscious processing usually occurs at lightning speed. Children who struggle with reading, and have not integrated these different processing speeds, experience reading as a kind of rhythmic block, often referred to as a ‘bottleneck’. Although many academics have described this as a problem with processing print, in my experience this ‘bottleneck’ is more related to a child’s subconscious levels of social engagement as well as their ‘state’ in terms of their perceptions, attitudes, emotions and level of confidence.
The Rhythm for Reading programme addresses the so-called ‘bottleneck’. Changing a child’s ‘state’ involves ‘neuroplasticity’ or ‘rewiring’ unhelpful ‘habits of mind’ and it is possible to achieve this through regular, short-bursts of learning using high intensity, repetitive and rhythmical actions.
To find out more about how the Rhythm for Reading programme changes a child’s ‘state’, click here to read our Case Studies and click the red Sign Up button at the top of this page to receive weekly ‘Insights’ and news about our new online programme.
If you enjoyed this post about reading comprehension and punctuation, keep reading!
The comma, according to Lynn Truss, clarifies the grammatical structure of a sentence and points to literary qualities such as rhythm, pitch, direction, tone and pace.
The sentence as a whole and coherent unit is vibrant, elastic and flexible with its meaning perceived not through the synthesis of its many phonemes, but through its overall rhythm and structure.
Just as a heartbeat is organic, supporting life in each part of the body from the smallest cells to the largest organs, rhythm in reading reaches systemically into every part of language. Like a heartbeat it spreads both upwards, supporting the structure of phrases and sentences and also downwards, energising and sharpening the edges of syllables and phonemes. Rhythm therefore brings the different grain sizes of language into alignment with each other.