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Comprehension, Content Areas, Interest, Learning From Text, Prior Knowledge, Beliefs, And LearningBEGINNING READING

Banu Öney

Ed Bouchard
Tom Trabasso

Cynthia Hynd

Suzanne Hidi

Marilyn J. Chambliss

P. Karen Murphy
Patricia A. Alexander

Jane Hansen
Marcia Invernizzi
Jenesse Wells Evertson

Anne Cunningham


Beginning reading encompasses acquisition of the multiple acts, skills, and knowledge that enable individuals to comprehend the meaning of text. Reading is a complex psycholinguistic activity and thus beginning reading is a lengthy and complex process whereby the learner acquires expertise in the various perceptual, sensory, linguistic, cognitive, metacognitive, and social skills that are involved in literate behavior. Through this process the child gains functional knowledge of the purposes, uses, and principles of the writing system.

Experiences before Formal Reading Instruction

Although a large portion of literacy acquisition occurs within the context of formal reading instruction, literacy-related awareness and knowledge start developing long before formal schooling, through pre-reading activities and interactions with print in the home and environment. The accomplishments before formal schooling prepare the child for later school-related literacy development.

There are important differences among children's early literacy experiences. Some children are exposed to a wide array of early literacy experiences. They are frequently and regularly read to, they are exposed to oral and written language activities such as playing on the computer or playing word games, they experience the functional use of print materials in their home and preschool environments, and they have model adults who value reading and use reading in various purposeful ways. In 1990 Marilyn J. Adams estimated that children from these mainstream homes are exposed to thousands of hours of pre-reading activities before they enter first grade. In contrast, there are children who are never or rarely read to, live in homes with few books, are rarely exposed to rich oral and written language activities, and interact with few adult models who use reading and writing for their own purposes. These two groups of children differ widely in their awareness and knowledge of literacy-related concepts.

Concepts about print. Through repeated interactions with literacy materials and activities children develop an awareness of the nature and function of text. Social routines practiced during one-on-one book reading between parents and children facilitate children's acquisition of concepts about print. Very early on children learn about the way books are handled, the differences between pictures and print, the directionality of print, and the characteristics of written-language-like routines. Shared book reading allows children to develop a sense of story structure where characters, the setting, and the plot make up the story. By observing adults' functional use of literacy, children also learn the different purposes of different literacy activities such as writing a grocery list versus writing a letter. So, by the time they are four years old, children also learn quite a lot about the nature of print, including the names and sounds of some letters, and will pretend to "write" by scribbling as part of play activities.

The acquisition of the concepts about print is important, and several studies have shown that such awareness predicts future reading achievement and is correlated with other measures of reading achievement. Thus, the development of concepts about print early in life seems to create the foundation upon which more sophisticated skills are built.

Language development. Spoken language develops naturally and effortlessly within the context of social interactions in a community. With the exception of those who have some physical challenges all children can produce and comprehend spoken language naturally early in life. They exhibit developments in phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and vocabulary. Engagement in literacy activities provides children with added opportunities to experience and experiment with language. Book reading, for instance, offers multiple opportunities for the child to use language at a more abstract and complex level than would be possible through spoken language experiences. Children learn to have a decreased reliance on immediate context for communication. This decontextualized language is the language that they will need to rely on in most school activities later on. Early literacy experiences also set the ground for growth in meta-linguistic skills. Children learn to think about, play with, talk about, and analyze language in addition to using it effectively.

Phonological awareness. Alphabetical writing systems are based on the representation of speech sounds by letters. In order to understand the alphabetic principle, children need to be aware that the spoken message can be broken down into smaller units such as words, syllables, and phonemes. Phonological awareness is the awareness of and the ability to manipulate phonological segments such as syllables, phonemes, and other intrasyllabic units such as onset-rimes in words. When phonological awareness refers to children's sensitivity to the phonemes in words, it is called phonemic awareness.

Tasks in which children are asked to isolate, segment, blend, or combine phonological segments have been typically used to assess phonological awareness. Phonemic segmentation and phonemic manipulation tasks yield particularly strong predictions of and correlations with beginning reading acquisition. There are also studies on phonemic awareness that point out that there is a bidirectional relationship between learning to read and phonemic awareness.

While studies on children's early experiences with print converge on the conclusion that these experiences and phonological awareness facilitate and set the ground for further development in the acquisition of reading, other research has investigated the relationship between IQ and reading achievement. These studies conclude that IQ is only weakly related to early reading achievement.

Instruction in Reading

Children are immersed in formal instruction in reading once they enter kindergarten. Children come to school with different levels of awareness about print, and they encounter in school new expectations, new routines, and new experiences that dramatically broaden their concept of literacy. For children whose language and literacy experiences are closer to those in the school setting, this transition to school is relatively easy.

Understanding the alphabetic principle. Before formal instruction in reading begins, children can already recognize certain words, especially those occurring frequently in their environment, such as Coca-Cola or McDonald's. Nevertheless, a 1984 study by Patricia E. Masonheimer and colleagues investigating the features to which children attend to when they recognize these words showed that when the words were presented without the contextual cues, such as logos, most children up to five years of age failed to correctly identify them. Other studies also suggest that young children recognize words based on selective parts of the printed word. Thus, before formal reading instruction has begun, most young children cannot grasp how the writing system functions.

A dramatic change occurs when children are exposed to systematic reading instruction. Before they begin to decode independently, children start using the phonetic values of letter names in identifying words. Although this is not yet an efficient word recognition strategy, it is a big step toward using the systematic relationships that exist between speech and the printed word. Full decoding becomes possible when children begin to use the full array of letters in words and map them unto phonemes, thus demonstrating an understanding of the alphabetic principle.

Productivity and automaticity in word recognition. It is not possible to characterize children's reading as productive unless they can recognize words that they have not encountered before. As children experience a growing number of letter patterns during reading, they gradually accumulate a large number of orthographic representations. Thus, instead of using single letters for word recognition they begin relying on letter strings and their corresponding phonologies. This growing knowledge of letter sequences and spelling patterns gradually allows readers to process words quickly and easily.

Every time a reader encounters a spelling pattern and attends to the particular sequence of letters in it, the pattern acquires more strength and is thus recognized faster and more efficiently during the next encounter. If on the other hand instead of focusing on the entire sequence, the reader's concentration is focused on resolving a single letter, or if one or some of the letters in the sequence cannot be correctly identified, the sequence may not be remembered as an entity. As the young reader's knowledge of the relationships between spelling and sound grows, this knowledge allows the child to form stronger associations between visual and phonological representations. Through experience with words in print, especially those of increasing complexity, word recognition becomes an automatic psychological process, enabling the reader to gain increasing levels of fluency. Thus, differences in exposure to print lead to differences in reading skill.

Comprehension. Reading comprehension is a complex skill that requires an active interaction between text elements and the reader. Since comprehension of text is the ultimate goal in reading, understanding comprehension processes is critical to the study of beginning reading.

Children beginning to read already have a well-developed system for oral language comprehension. By the end of preschool most children have well-developed vocabulary and world knowledge as well as morphological, semantic, and syntactic processes that make oral language comprehension possible.

There is considerably less research on comprehension processes in beginning readers, compared to studies on word processing. One of the consistent findings in comprehension research is that compared to more skilled comprehenders, unskilled comprehenders are also less skilled in decoding. In fact, during the early stages of beginning reading, text comprehension is limited to children's skill in decoding. Until decoding processes are rapid and efficient, high-level comprehension processes are severely limited. There is now converging evidence that for both children and adults, difficulties in comprehension are related to difficulties in decoding as well as to problems with working memory.

Besides being better at decoding, skilled comprehenders also have better global language skills than less skilled comprehenders. Studies have shown a causal relationship between vocabulary and comprehension. There is evidence showing that vocabulary instruction leads to gains in comprehension and improvement on semantic tasks. It is also clear that both direct and indirect instruction in vocabulary lead to comprehension gains.

Skilled comprehenders also have better meta-cognitive skills than less skilled comprehenders. Skilled comprehenders are aware of how well they are comprehending and use various comprehension strategies that guide them as they attempt to understand text.

Young readers benefit from cognitive strategy instruction. Instruction in cognitive strategies usually involves helping students be aware of their own cognitive processes in reading. Usually a teacher either models the use of comprehension strategies or guides the students in the use of strategies. Many approaches to cognitive strategy instruction allow readers to practice their newly acquired cognitive strategies with the teacher until the readers master their use.

In short, beginning reading instruction needs to focus on children's acquisition of letter-sound relationships, as well as comprehension strategies to assure that both word recognition and comprehension skills can develop simultaneously.


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