Typical reading development might look something like this:
- Recognition of own name and letters or words seen frequently in the environment
- Growing confidence mapping letters to sounds to sound out CVC words e.g. d-o-g, gradually blending the sounds to read each word smoothly and eventually seeing the word and saying it without sounding out aloud
- Developing ability to read and understand sentences, evolving fluency in reading aloud
- Ability to read text silently with good comprehension, ability to remember what has been read and repeat excerpts or answer questions on demand
- Eventual confidence with more complex passages such as books with small print, academic textbooks and in-depth, subject-specific technical texts
A Simple View of Reading
It is widely recognised that reading can be affected by specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia. However, many people, including teachers, do not realise that other learners, such as those with ADHD, autism, developmental language disorder, and DCD/dyspraxia can also experience difficulties extracting meaning from text. This is not necessarily due to co-occurring dyslexia, although it may be. (Often, a student’s diagnosis can be dependent of the first specialist they see – that does not mean the diagnosis is wrong, far from it, but it may not be the whole picture. Co-occurring difficulties are common. But that’s for another blog.)
Beyond the obvious difficulties that may present in the first years of reading, signs of specific learning difficulties affecting reading comprehension may present in a number of ways, including:
- Ability to read silently delayed for age or not developed at all
- The same word may be read in a variety of ways (including correctly)
- Words may be misread but the student does not notice that meaning is lost
- Reading may sound fluent but be inaccurate
- Reading may be accurate but slow and effortful
- Reading may be fluent and accurate, but the learner is unable to recall what has been read, sometimes even immediately afterwards
As always, it is important to remember that none of these behaviours is a certain sign of dyslexia.
Although signs of learning differences may be seen in the early years, sometimes students develop such effective coping strategies that they get to secondary school without support for reading. Occasionally, students may reach GSCE, A level or even university (and sometimes beyond) before their difficulties are noticed. This does not mean that learning has come easily to that point, but rather that the student has worked extremely hard and possibly had excellent support.
What can we do to help?
Comprehension is the most sophisticated of the skill and strategies needed for successful reading in English, requiring the ability to process both words and concepts for accurate understanding. To attain efficiency at this level, phonological (alphabetic) knowledge combines with synthesis (blending phonemes in the correct order), as well as an understanding of the mechanics (morphology) of words and a sight vocabulary of high frequency and irregular words. All of this assumes that there is no further underlying language processing difficulty (which may be co-occurring, so do not make the assumption).
At the earliest stages, comprehension is about understanding language: ensure there are plenty of opportunities for sharing and discussing stories and other texts. At the appropriate stage, cloze procedures (gap fill activities with word banks) can be introduced to support reading comprehension and word reading skills. These can be created and used as alternatives to traditional comprehension activities for whole class, small group or individual use.
Skills need to be explicitly taught at every level. When appropriate to the age and stage of the class, this can and should be done as a whole class activity. It can then be followed up in small groups or 1:1. This also goes a little way towards helping to generalise the skills, all the way from
- listening to a story,
- building stamina to maintain attention,
- reading text for understanding,
- reading and interpreting questions,
- identifying and underlining key words and phrases, to
- formulating responses and checking answers, and
- building an ever increasing and more sophisticated vocabulary
Remember that age-appropriate multisensory strategies may still be needed at any stage. Explicit instruction will remain important – skills like inference must be taught. Do not assume that because a skill or strategy has been successfully applied at one stage that it will automatically be transferred or sufficient to meet more advanced demands. Alternatives to densely printed textbooks or busy web pages should be sought wherever possible. This might mean
- masking the parts of a page that aren’t needed (using something that looks like a picture mount – I have a stack of card ‘windows’ made over the years to suit almost every shape and size required);
- finding an alternative online, or using text-to-speech software or accessible website formats;
- setting out the class comprehension passage and questions to suit my students (considering visual stress when selecting paper colour and fonts).
It is time consuming to begin with, but it means that you can use your time to help students during lessons. All students gain greater independence and confidence, and you build up a bank of resources to adapt and use again.
Recently, when we were both panelists on a Q&A session with Operation Diversity, Chris Hargreaves, specialist speech and language therapist, shared some excellent advice. To build comprehension skills for reading, use question words. So a text may be read and then re-read highlighting all of the references to people (characters, historical figures etc.) whether individuals by name or otherwise – who. The same text or another might be given the same treatment for place – where. Or time – when, objects – what, manner – how, reason – why. As well as being a suitable strategy for 1:1 support, this technique can be taught in stages, at the appropriate time for whole class learning, and reinforced and revisited in smaller groups or individually.