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Reading comprehension: How to stay connected with the text.

27 September 2023

Image credit: Ismail Dirir via Unsplash
Image credit: Ismail Dirir via Unsplash

In early reading, children must use their ears, eyes and voices in a very focused way. Their attention, already scanning everything that moves in the environment around them must suddenly narrow down onto a page, an illustration and then onto the tiny squiggles of black ink that they are learning to decode and understand. Many children willingly take on the challenges of reading. Some learn to read effortlessly, but what about those children who cannot focus their eyes and ears and voices onto the page? Read on to discover how to support all learners, particularly the most disadvantaged and those with SEND, as every child needs to connect deeply with reading in order to access the curriculum. If, like me, you are passionate about helping every child to access the curriculum and to overcome their challenges with connecting to the text, click the link to get the FREE downloadable pdf checklist.

What does connected to the text mean?

When writers convey messages through words, their readers receive those messages. For the development of reading comprehension, connections with the text should have been made between:

  • the writer and the reader,
  • the writer and the words,
  • the reader and the words.

The words are the ‘messengers’ that provide the link between the writer and reader. Even though communicating through written language is complex, as it involves knowledge and skill, it is also an important form of social connection that people use every day of their lives. Reading with fluency and understanding therefore builds a child’s resilience, confidence and independence. Until the invention of the telegraph, people wrote letters to each other when they needed to convey an important message. Emails have replaced letters to a large extent, but reading comprehension is important for understanding many different forms of written language such as:

  • text messages
  • emails
  • letters
  • news articles
  • stories
  • non fiction books
  • websites

How many types of connection are there between the writer, the text and the reader?

According to Keene and Zimmerman’s book, ‘Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader’s Workshop’, published 25 years ago, there are three main levels of connection and these make the text more relatable and meaningful to the reader.

  • text-to-text connections
  • text-to-self connections
  • text-to-world connections

Text to text connections allow the reader to grasp the style of language being used, which may be formal and using jargon, or informal and using everyday language. Reading a wide range of different texts helps readers to adapt to a variety of styles of language use, and also supports fluency and comprehension.

For example, the first time someone reads an official letter from an authority, the formality of the tone, and the use of unfamiliar words and phrases might be off-putting. However, when a similar letter arrives one month later, it’s easier to make connections with the underlying message, because the reader has already adapted to this particular writing style, with its ‘professional’ tone and use of formal language. This is one example of how text-to-text connection speeds up the process of understanding the message conveyed by the official letter.

Text-to-text connections also allow the reader to pick up the structure of a story. For instance, when a reader returns to a novel and starts reading a new chapter, there is a sudden recollection of the plot and characters from earlier chapters. Text-to-text connections are made as soon as the information from the earlier chapters of the book spontaneously arrive in the reader’s mind and provide the background information for a deeper and more satisfying understanding of the new chapter.

Text-to-self connections enable a reader to feel personally invested in a narrative. This might happen because the details in the text are similar to the reader’s own day-to-day, or perhaps even their imaginary life. How many children wish that they could fly and then feel connected to their favourite superhero? Even more importantly, some children may discover lifelong fascinations or passions through making text-to-self connections during reading.

Text-to-self connections also make the text believable. Even if the book is futuristic and seems unreal in many ways, human experiences such as danger, love, hunger and even boredom can spark text-to-self connections.

Text-to-world connections provide the reader with a sense of time, place and context. For example, many of the Rosie and Jim stories start with ‘One sunny day….’ which would always be followed by a description of where in the world Rosie and Jim were, as well as why they were there. Even very young children can discuss these text-to-world connections when parents are reading to them.

Both older and younger children can benefit from text-to-world connections by linking new to existing knowledge. This opens up into a powerful learning pathway because the children experience reading as rewarding and intrinsically motivating, which is why many develop a thirst for learning.

Text-to-world connections also show the reader how things work.Take for instance, the difference between rubber balloons that children can blow into, versus helium balloons or even hot air balloons. In a text about these different types of balloons, the reader might already have a text-to-world connection, as well as a self-to-text connection about ordinary ‘birthday party’ balloons that can be inflated at home. The reader’s text-to-world connection expands very quickly as they learn that helium balloons contain a gas that is lighter than air, and that this gas causes the helium balloon to disappear up into the clouds if released into the air outside. The text-to-world connection develops even further as the child reads that large hot air balloons work by heating the air with a controlled flame to make it rise to such an extent that it can carry people in a basket below.

How can I support reading comprehension through these connections?

In early reading there are many different ways to support the development of reading comprehension, such as taking turns to read aloud, talking about what was read, extending vocabulary by introducing new words in context and drawing attention to different letters and sounds.

Here are some effective ways in which adults can support children’s early reading before, during and after the reading activity.

Before reading the text, ask questions about the title, the author and the book’s cover. Help the child to think about similar texts they may have come across - perhaps by the same author or on the same topic or featuring the same character. The illustration is likely to show the context for the story and this is similar to something the child may have already experienced.

During reading, check with the child that they are making connections with the text. Help them to monitor the messages in the text by discussing the meanings of key words and probe their text-to-self connections by asking them how they may feel in a similar situation.

After reading, ask the child further questions about the text to help them find deeper connections with their understanding of the setting. This may involve talking about the characters’ intentions and feelings and what might happen in the next chapter. They may even want to think about an alternative ending.

What are word choices?

Word choices are the child’s solution to decoding - the words that ‘best fit’ the relationships between letters and sounds, the context and the grammatical structure of the sentence.

When a child is connected to the text, word choices are made more quickly and effectively. So a ‘text-to-world’ connection would allow a child to select ‘circus’ rather than ‘circle’, especially if the main characters in the story were, for example, acrobats.

Word choices based on connections to the text are also informed by the development of the text. Using likelihood to make word choices, based on connection to the text, is very different to a fundamental strategy of guesswork, in which children are usually correct between ten and twenty per cent of the time.

What is prior knowledge?

Prior knowledge is what the child already knows before reading the text. Prior knowledge develops every day of our lives and is more easily accessed when we feel relaxed and yet alert.

Children pick up prior knowledge through conversations as well as through media such as books, television, games and the lyrics of songs.

Even if a child has never been to the circus, they may have seen one on television, heard about another child’s visit, or even sung the song about ‘Nelly the Elephant’ (who belonged to a travelling circus).

What are the main things to consider in relation to reading comprehension?

Here are some tips, if a child makes an inappropriate word choice:

  • It’s a good idea to stop reading and talk with the child about their connection with the text.
  • It’s unhelpful to say, “That’s nearly right”. Instead, say, “Hang on a moment! Let’s think this through”.

If you notice that the child frequently misses the ends of words, (also known as ‘suffixes’), this does not mean they are being careless! It means they are not processing the deeper grammatical structures of the text and may need support through a reading intervention that deepens their level of engagement.

Please see below where I’ve linked to related blog posts for further information about this.

Did you enjoy reading about the different types of connection that support children’s reading comprehension?

Would you like to put these ideas into practice?

Then, click here to get a FREE Reading Comprehension checklist.

Here are links to related posts about the deeper levels of language comprehension.

Visiting the library for the very first time - Share in the joy of a ten year old who has just discovered that reading is meaningful!

Virtuous spirals - This is a brief look at the differences between skilled and unskilled readers.

Ears, eyes and voices - This explores early reading and the importance of speech perception and the arcticulatory system.

Tags: Improving reading comprehension , reading comprehension

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