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The Mystery of Reading Comprehension

Many students can read a passage, but afterwards are unable to tell you what they read. Or, perhaps they can answer simple factual questions (regurgitate), but it really has no meaning for them and will be forgotten the next day.

How students make the leap from decoding to understanding is something that has challenged teachers since the very beginning of reading and writing (I don’t really have a reference for comprehension problems with the Dead Sea Scrolls, but I suspect that I’m not far off the truth).

And what is reading comprehension, anyway?

The way our minds comprehend what we hear or read is to connect what we are hearing or reading to knowledge and information we already know. Regurgitating is not comprehending. Regurgitation only involves short-term memory. Our brains are designed to discard what is held in short-term memory if we haven’t found a way to make it meaningful. So, of course, we can “read” but still not have understood a darn thing.

Comprehending involves making meaning by relating information and ideas to what is already known. So one important issue is ensuring that students have the background knowledge to understand what they are reading. By the way, this applies to readers of any age.

Comprehending also involves visualizing and holding ideas in mind while we think about them. However, most reading instruction doesn’t address “visualizing”, or “holding ideas in mind.” (An exception is SkateKids, a comprehension-focused cognitively based reading program.) In fact, those mental processes are only two, although a very important two, of the cognitive skills (or mental processes) that must be working efficiently and accurately for comprehension to take place.

More importantly, these are the very skills that stand in the way of that leap to comprehension for many students. It isnt enough to hope that students will magically solve the mystery of comprehension themselves and make that leap. Reading comprehension requires a mind prepared for that challenge.

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