Helping young readers with comprehension problems

Project: Research

Project Details


Reading comprehension is vital to the success and self-esteem of school pupils, so much so that it is a high priority in the Scottish Executive's current education strategy. Yet it has proved an intractable problem for teachers. In recent years this has led to a prolonged and sometimes heated debate over the advantages and disadvantages of varying teaching methods, such as the method of synthetic phonics. However, this debate has focussed on problems of 'decoding' text rather than comprehending it. 'Decoding' means turning letters into sounds and words, and it is of course a crucial stage in learning to read. But research has shown that many pupils are proficient at decoding a text, yet when they are asked what the text is about, they find it difficult to answer. This is where research on the history of reading and prose style can provide some answers. Dr Jajdelska's work on the rise of silent reading in the eighteenth century has shown that writers who assume a silent reader (as almost all writers do in the present day) construct their texts differently from those who write for readers who speak the text to themselves or an audience (as almost all writers did before the eighteenth century). Since the eighteenth century, texts have been constructed so that readers need to imagine a 'narrator' in order to make sense of it. If the reader cannot imagine this narrator, they will have great difficulties in understanding narrative, because they won't be able to make sense of movements in time and space. For example, if the narrator explains that a character has left the room, the proficient silent reader can adjust their mental model of what's happening accordingly. But if the reader has problems imagining the narrator, and working out the narrator's imaginary position, they will have problems both in creating and adjusting their mental model of the narrative in this way. In other words, they will have problems with comprehension, even though they are perfectly competent at decoding the text. Dr Jajdelska's work explains in great detail exactly which kinds of textual features are likely to be difficult for readers (such as those in the early eighteenth century) who have learned to read but find it hard to follow texts written for silent readers. Given that these findings arose in an academic field unconnected to educational studies, how can this knowledge be made available to teachers? Ideally, the method should involve the teachers themselves and take place in a context of pupils reading. The literacy circles developed by Sue Ellis, a researcher in literacy and education, are ideal for this purpose. Dr Jajdelska and Ms Ellis will choose texts for children which highlight the comprehension problems in question. We will then work with teachers to explain the nature of these comprehension problems and how to spot them. The teachers will establish literacy circles, a reading context which maximises pupils' motivation to read. When comprehension difficulties arise, the teachers, with continued support from the researchers, will be able to identify and remedy them more effectively than in the past. In the final stage of the scheme, the researchers will help the teachers to write up their experiences in a suitable way for fellow teachers for the Learning and Teaching Scotland website. We believe that the Dr Jajdelska's findings may prove invaluable to teachers. Communicating them this way will ensure that they are well understood by individual teachers in the first instance, who will then by responsible for communicating them as effectively as possible to the wider teaching community.
Effective start/end date1/05/0724/03/09


  • AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council): £26,874.00


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