Monday, August 4, 2014

Helping toddlers to develop reading comprehension


I've written a number of times about comprehension on this blog and have also written books and articles on the topic (see some references at the end). This post is a revised version of one I wrote in 2013. My claim in many of these publications is that comprehension begins early; in fact, in the first years of life. By comprehension I mean the ability "to understand, interpret, appreciate and critique what we read, view, hear and experience." This might not sound like something preschoolers do, but it is! Young children begin to make sense of their world and all that is in it from birth.

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, and reading comprehension as we recognise it emerges over the first 5 years of life. In fact, for most children, it begins before they can decode print.

The emergence of comprehension

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 as a prop, treating them like other play things. The book can symbolize story time or can be 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 children 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).
It 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.
    Summing Up

    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. (2010). 'Developing Comprehension: Learning to make meaning'. Sydney: e:lit (formerly Primary English Teaching Association).

    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 2013


    Coral said...

    This is a great reminder for parents and teachers Trevor - especially that comprehension starts early and comprehension emerges with others.
    The 'ten tips' list for parents is particularly helpful. Once again, thanks for a valuable blog... Coral

    Trevor Cairney said...

    Thanks Coral, glad you found it helpful and nice to hear from you.