Improving the teaching of reading comprehension

“The fact that I chose to do research into children’s reading comprehension had an element of serendipity. After graduating with a degree in biological sciences and education, I’d wanted to do research into circadian rhythms in locusts, but (probably mercifully) I didn’t get the funding.”

Jane Oakhill

Jane Oakhill, Professor of Experimental Psychology.

Instead, Jane Oakhill, Professor of Experimental Psychology at Sussex, followed a path into psychology and psycholinguistics research, gradually building on a longstanding fascination with children’s understanding of text when they read.

It was while she was a primary school teacher that Professor Oakhill first became interested in reading comprehension. “I noticed that some children were very fluent word readers but struggled to understand what they were reading.” There was a perception that if you just taught children to read words, their language skills would kick in and they would understand text. But reading comprehension is much more than just recognising words – it involves (among other skills) the ability to make inferences to connect up the text, and to understand text and story structures.

“I’ve always been keen to talk to teachers about what’s involved”, says Jane, “but when the National Curriculum started mandating the teaching of reading comprehension, we all realised something was needed to help teachers teach comprehension.”

Jane worked with Professor Kate Cain (now at Lancaster University) for several years. Together, they set about unpicking the skills and abilities that are fundamental to successful comprehension, and found evidence for four main elements:

  • vocabulary – depth, richness, and links between word meanings and concepts
  • inference making – connecting ideas in a text and bringing in relevant background knowledge
  • comprehension monitoring – recognising if you’re understanding, and knowing what to do about it if you’re not
  • understanding how text is structured, and using that structure as a framework for understanding.

Jane’s research has provided teachers and teacher educators with insights into these components of reading comprehension and how they work together. “We needed to make the processes involved clear so that teachers could get a solid foundation for teaching comprehension. We’ve developed activities not for teaching but for teachers, so that they can understand what’s involved in their own comprehension. The successful teaching of reading comprehension is not about using a particular text and asking set questions about it – it’s about knowing how to engage children in any text to support their understanding.”

“I continue to talk to teachers and teacher educators whenever we’re doing work that’s relevant to them. For example, we’ve recently been developing a tablet-based programme to support comprehension and we organised a workshop with teachers and educational psychologists to share what we’ve been doing.”

So why does Jane do what she does? “Intellectual curiosity – but, increasingly, realising my findings are being taken up. People are using them, applying them, seeing the relevance. It’s great to feel you can make a difference. Taught well, children are so motivated, so keen to engage with text. Teaching should be evidence based, and the UK Department for Education is now acknowledging that education policy should be evidence based. It’s great to see people finally paying attention to that.”

Jane’s and Kate’s findings have influenced England’s National Curriculum, English Programmes of Study, Key stages 1 and 2, and the training of teachers nationally and internationally. But, just as importantly, her research has had a positive effect on children. In Argentina, where many schools are using a programme based on her findings, “the children were saying 'this is so useful, why don’t we use it in all our lessons?’ As one little boy told me, 'it’s not just for our reading, it can help in our whole life.’”

The Reading Comprehension Research Team

Find out more about The Reading Comprehension Reading Research Team.

Last updated: 8 November 2016

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