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Silent Reading Comprehension
Acronyms and Abbreviations
ABLE = Adult Basic Learning Examination
CASAS = Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System
TABE = Tests of Adult Basic Education
For most of us Silent Reading Comprehension is what we mean when we talk about a person's reading ability. It is the end result of the reading process, when all of the components interact successfully. Silent Reading Comprehension is also what is usually measured by standardized tests, such as the TABE, the ABLE, or CASAS. "Adults [in ABE classes] have poor functional literacy comprehension achievement. Although they may be able to perform simple comprehension tasks such as recalling ideas from simple stories and locating a single piece of information in a simple text, they are often unable to combine (integrate and synthesize) information from longer or more complex texts."RR
The reading components—Word Analysis (phonics), Word Recognition, Fluency, Word Meaning, and Background Knowledge—are the recognized and taught subskills of Silent Reading Comprehension. Less than mastery of any one of these will impede comprehension. Can we say, then, that if a reader can effortlessly decode the words of a passage and knows their meanings, he/she will be able to read that text with comprehension? Maybe.
Researchers have found high correlations between oral reading Fluency and Silent Reading Comprehension. In order to be able to devote attention to the meaning of sentences and paragraphs, learners have to be fluent readers. Hesitations caused by a need to decode unfamiliar words interrupt the flow of the author's intended meaning. Fluent reading requires that Word Recognition ability be automatic for the particular reading level being assessed. Those who have well-developed reading comprehension skills get information independently and accurately from text; they remember, evaluate, and adapt what they read.
There are other subskills of reading comprehension that require knowledge of the structure of language (compound and complex sentences, paragraphs, stories, and informational text), and the ability to interact with text (metacognition) by assuming some responsibility for understanding the author's message. Many ABE learners have to learn "how" to comprehend. Teachers address these issues through instruction in reading comprehension strategies.
"...ABE adults' knowledge about reading, or their meta-comprehension, is more like that of children who are beginning readers. They are less aware than good readers of strategies that can be used to monitor comprehension, view reading as decoding as opposed to comprehending text, and are less aware of the general structure of paragraphs and stories.... Comprehension strategies, such as how to monitor comprehension during reading and how to determine a text's basic structure, may need to be taught."RR
Writing that learners do in preparation for the GED also helps them to develop some of the higher-level comprehension skills they will need if they enroll in post-secondary education.
Assessment (also see Published Tests)
Most formal tests of Silent Reading Comprehension require answering multiple choice questions about passages of increasing difficulty (more challenging vocabulary, longer sentences, more information). The questions also become increasingly difficult. The easiest questions require finding explicitly stated information in the text; the most difficult ones require making inferences and comparing ideas presented in the text.
Here are the names of some tests that you may wish to investigate:
Tests Constructed Solely for Adult Learners
- Adult Basic Learning Examination (ABLE)
- Adult Measure of Essential Skills (AMES)
- Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System (CASAS)
- Laubach Way to Reading Diagnostic Inventory
- Tests of Adult Basic Education (TABE)
Tests Constructed for All Ages
- Bader Reading and Language Inventory
- Burns/Roe Informal Reading Inventory
- Diagnostic Assessments of Reading (DAR)
- Woodcock-Johnson Reading Mastery Test-Revised (WRMT-R)
Approaches to instruction
Comprehension Instruction differs somewhat depending on whether the learners are at Beginning, Intermediate, or ASE Levels.
Beginning Level (GE 0-3.9) learners are rightly focused on learning to decode. Most of their class time should be spent in oral reading of words and text so that they can have feedback on their word reading accuracy. Their reading material is designed to be familiar and predictable so that the easy-to-understand meaning of the text can help them to verify their decoding. Comprehension activities are more likely to occur in discussion around short texts that the teacher reads to them or brief poems.
Intermediate Level (GE 4-8.9) learners are in the process of being able to use reading to "learn about the new."RR They can tackle texts that lend themselves to the application of comprehension strategies.RR But instructors should bear in mind that comprehension difficulties among adult Intermediate Level learners are often caused by poor Fluency and/or underlying deficiencies in vocabulary. Unless these underlying causes of poor comprehension are addressed, instruction in strategies alone is unlikely to be successful.
ASE Level (GE 9-12) learners can benefit from instruction in many varieties of reading comprehension strategies including note-taking and summarizing, weighing multiple viewpoints, matching reading style to the genre and purpose for reading, and optimal strategies for reading the various content areas covered by the GED tests. Writing in preparation for the GED also helps to develop some of the higher-level comprehension skills ASE Level learners will need later for post-secondary education.
Research on comprehension strategies has shown that "explicit, as opposed to incidental instruction, leads to increased reading comprehension."RR Particular strategies investigated were:
From a study by Mikulecky & Lloyd, 1997:RR
- skimming a text
- reading a text more carefully in order to monitor comprehension
- using headings to help guide the reading process
- focusing on topics in a text
From a study by Rich & Shepherd, 1994:RR
(Instruction in only one strategy; either of the two below increased reading comprehension.)
- monitoring learner's comprehension by asking questions about a text as they read (who, what, when, where, how, and why). This was found to be an especially effective strategy.
- orally summarizing a text as learners read
A study by Curtis & Chmelka, 1994RR focused on using challenging and adult-oriented words for sound-to-symbol Word Recognition instruction, as well as for vocabulary enrichment. Improving Word Recognition skill improved comprehension. Easy words are often sight words but challenging words require a Word Analysis approach. "The use of more challenging words appears to lead to a faster rate of growth in reading comprehension."RR
The role of readability levels in instruction
To get the best results from instruction, teachers should use materials whose readability presents an appropriate level of challenge—not too easy and not too hard—for both silent reading and oral reading.
- For independent silent reading, use text that is at or only slightly above a learner’s tested grade level, while for in-class Silent Reading Comprehension reading, use text that is a grade or two above tested level.
- For oral reading, use text that is slightly below the learner's tested level for practicing Fluency and expression, and use text that is a grade or two above tested level for practicing reading with accuracy.
With texts for which the readability was determined by the publisher, all you need to do is pull the right text off the shelf. But if you want to use texts that are not already leveled (e.g., novels, newspapers, magazines, Web sites), don’t guess about their readability based on print size or your intuition, because readability can fool you! Instead use one of the readability formulas, available below, to establish the readability of any text you might be considering for instruction.
"Readability" is a way to express the level of difficulty of a passage. It is usually expressed as a grade level equivalent—e.g., 9.5, which would mean that the passage or text would be accessible to an average ninth grader. Some publishers provide the readability level for their texts, but there are formulas available to estimate readability for unleveled texts (see below).
Download Four Popular Readability Formulas
- Flesch formula
- The Fry formula and grade level graph [PDF]
- Gunning Fog index [PDF]
- SMOG readability formula [PDF]
Find out more about comprehension and suggestions for instruction
McShane, S. (2005). Applying research in reading for adults: First steps for teachers. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.
Following is the summary from Chapter 7 of Applying Research in Reading for Adults:
Comprehension Strategy Instruction Tips in a Nutshell
- Provide instruction in comprehension strategies for learners at all reading levels.
- Teach learners how and when to use several broadly applicable, research-based strategies.
- Teach strategies explicitly, explaining what to do, and how and when to apply the strategies.
- Teach strategies one at a time, providing plenty of opportunities for guided practice to ensure learners can use them independently.
- Model the strategies for learners by thinking aloud as you read.
- Consider applying the comprehension strategies to listening comprehension, especially when working with weaker readers read text aloud or use taped readings.
- Consider readability level and learners' Background Knowledge when choosing texts for comprehension-strategy instruction.
- Because decoding, Fluency, and vocabulary are required for comprehension, include instruction/practice in all appropriate components in reading lessons.
Note: This is the last page in the "Meaning Skill" section of the review of Reading Components. You can now proceed to the "Reading Profiles."
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