Thursday, 14 March 2019

Vocabulary and comprehension: chicken or egg?

Reading comprehension reflects two underlying skills working together – the ability to recognize words and understand their meaning. For decades, researchers have been studying comprehension in an effort to identify root causes, with the aim of finding effective remediations. One question frequently arises: Is it fundamentally a vocabulary problem causing comprehension difficulties or a comprehension issue creating a vocabulary deficit?

In this case, it's the chicken and the egg. The complex interactions between vocabulary and comprehension make it difficult to isolate one from the other. For some readers, there may be gaps in word recognition. Others lack inferencing strategies to glean the meaning of new words from context clues. Approaching vocabulary and comprehension as interwoven skills can significantly improve outcomes for struggling readers. 

Word processing

Slow and inaccurate word processing creates a barrier to comprehension. Students who have not “automized” the visual and sound recognition of words in a text need to use inefficient working memory to process the words and determine their meaning. This is a difficult task that can be very frustrating, especially in the upper grades when students are working with longer academic and technical texts. Practicing word and phrase recognition as a pre-reading activity for a text can help to ensure that slow, effortful processing won’t hinder comprehension.

Same or different? 

The ability to determine synonyms and antonyms is frequently underdeveloped in below-level readers. In BrightFish Reading, students typically score the lowest in this area of the program’s vocabulary sequence. Using strategies and tools such as elimination, online dictionaries and graphic organizers can significantly improve accuracy in this area. 

Making inferences

Students who struggle with reading comprehension often have difficulties making inferences. This affects both their ability to use comprehension strategies and apply context clues to infer the meaning of new words. Providing structured practice in word usage for a text, along with explicit instruction in vocabulary strategies, increases understanding and confidence in learning new words.

Time for data chats 

In BrightFish Reading, we typically see an acceleration effect after a few stories – once students begin using the helper tools and strategies, most improve without additional interventions. But some don’t get there without extra support, which has teachers seeing red in the Student Progress report. (Color coding in the reports is a visual cue that highlights areas of weakness in each story unit.) Taking time out to review errors and strategies is needed before students start their next story unit. By monitoring errors and trends for each student, teachers can guide students with effective interventions to bridge the gap in reading comprehension.

Download sample vocabulary strategies here.