(see previous posts here), written a two books about it (here & here) and published a monograph in recent times for the Primary English Teaching Association in Australia (PETAA). In these publications I describe comprehension as the ability "to understand, interpret, appreciate and critique what they read, view, hear and experience." This might not sound like the things you see a 2-3 year old doing when they pick up a book, and in one sense it isn't. Young children begin to make sense of their world and all that is in it from birth, but comprehension as we know it in school emerges over time in these early years.
As distinguished literacy researchers Ken and Yetta Goodman said many years ago (in 'Learning to read is natural', 1979):
"The beginnings of reading often go unnoticed in the young child".For the young child meaning making occurs from birth, but reading comprehension as we recognise it emerges over the first 5 years of life, and in fact, for most children begins before they can decode print.
Caitlin McMunn Dooley wrote an excellent article in The Reading Teacher (Oct 2010) in which she described her observations of a group of children aged 2-5+ years in an early childhood classroom over a three year period. Her observations suggested four broad phases in their emerging comprehension. These are not neat stages (hence the use of the word phase):
Book as prop (<2 to 3) - When choosing books children pay minimal attention to the topic and content of the book and instead use books a prop and treating them like other play things. The book symbolises story time or is used to simulate reading.
Book as invitation (2+ to 3+) - Eventually, children begin to consider the book holistically as a complete unit of meaning. They begin to recognise the topic of the book mainly through images, colour, shape etc. They start to bring books to adults and expect them to read them. They might also volunteer to 'read' the book to others.
Book as script (3+) - Eventually, children begin to show an understanding that text carries meaning, as do the many features of the book. Dooley found that many 3 year olds begin to treat the books more like "..scripts, memorising and calling out the texts in books..". They point to the print and attend to text content, images and sound including voice intonation and inflection.
Book as text (4+) - Most four year olds begin to attend more to the print, pointing to the words and recalling (generally from memory) word by word what is on the page. They are still just as interested in content, images and sound, but there is an emerging sense of integrated comprehension where the reader can see consistencies and inconsistencies between print and other elements such as image and sound.
Comprehension emerges with other people
What needs to be understood about emergent comprehension is that the ability to make meaning as children encounter books, films, objects and experiences, develops as they try to make sense of their world. It also happens as an extension of their relationships within families and in other learning situations both informal (play with others) and structured (a preschool classroom or playgroup).
The following description of a preschool class gives some sense of what I mean:
Even when the teacher was not initiating reading or writing, the classroom was filled with literate behaviour. In the dress-up corner several children were including story reading in creative play. Children took turns as mother reading to her baby. Genevieve was asking her pretend mum to explain why the dog in I'll Always Love You (Wilhelm, 1985) had such a sad face (this is a book about death). Mum was doing a wonderful job explaining the relationships within the story. Another group playing shops was using a receipt book to record purchases. Receipt books were often referred to in the home corner. 'Mum' and 'Dad' were reading the newspaper and later flicking through the pages of the telephone book (Cairney & Langbien, 1989).In is in varied social settings that children make meaning and begin to acquire a more sophisticated understanding of how written language works. Over time, the foundations of comprehension are laid.
What parents can do to help comprehension emerge?
Here are 10 simple tips.
- Read regularly (at least daily) to your children and talk about the things that you read.
- Try to read the book with emotion, with invented sound effects, with different voices for characters and the narrator, changes in voice volume and tone - much meaning is communicated this way.
- Support their emerging understanding of what they read or hear by encouraging them to look at pictures and images and relate these to the words that you read. Emphasise key words or repetitive patterns in the book “But don’t forget the bacon”, “But where is the Green Sheep?”
- Encourage them to relate ideas, language and knowledge that a book introduces to other areas of learning or life – “You’ve got a teddy too”, “His puppy is like Darren’s puppy”, “We saw an elephant like this one at the zoo”.
- Encourage them to draw, sing, talk about, act out, make things, dress up and so on, in response to the things that you read to them or they read themselves (creating meaning in response to books).
- Encourage them to use other tools to make meaning (playdough, toy animals, dress-ups, Thomas trains, drawing, craft etc) and relate these as appropriate to books (creating meaning leads to books).
- Encourage them to memorise and learn things from the books they read or listen to. You can’t read “Wombat Stew” without reciting over and over again “Wombat stew, Wombat stew, Gooey, brewy, Yummy, chewy, Wombat stew!”
- Encourage them to make connections between the things they read, view and experience – “This story is like in the television show Shaun the Sheep when he…..”.
- Read varied books – different story types, factual books as well as fiction, poetry and prose, different forms of illustrations and so on.
- Watch TV shows, videos and movies with your children and talk about them, explain things, try to make connections with stories they have read, encourage response with art, drawing, play dough, puppets, dressing up, acting out and so on.
Comprehension is ultimately the highest goal of reading, we read to understand things, to work things out, to make meaning. Its foundations are laid in the first 5 years of life, not through structured activities, but through the use and experience of language and in particular, story.
Comprehension emerges over time as children are encouraged to encounter and use written language and to integrate this with other avenues they have for making meaning.
Other blog posts related to this topic
'Teaching and Supporting Children's Reading Comprehension' (HERE)
'Reading to Learn Using Text Sets' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Sketch to Stretch' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Map Making' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Advance Organisers' (HERE)
'Why Kids Re-read Books' (HERE)
'Making Books Come Alive' (HERE)
'The Power of Literature' series (HERE)
All posts on 'Children's Literature' (HERE)
All posts on 'Comprehension' (HERE)
References cited in this Post
Cairney, T.H. (1995). 'Pathways to Literacy', Cassell: London.
Cairney, T.H. (1990). 'Teaching Reading Comprehension: Meaning Makers at Work', Open University Press: London.
Cairney, T.H. & Langbien, S. (1989). Building Communities of Readers and Writers, The Reading Teacher, Vol. 42, No. 8, pp 560-567.
McMunn Dooley, C. (2010). Young children's approaches to books: The emergence of comprehension, The Reading Teacher, 64, 2, pp 120-130
Goodman, K.S and Goodman Y.M. (1979) Learning to read is natural. In L.B. Resnick and P.A. Weaver (Eds), Theory and Practice of Early Reading (Vol 1), Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, p 137-154.
* This is a revised version of a post I wrote in November 2010