3 systematic and explicit ways to support language comprehension

One of my favorite reading memories is of my adult daughter when she was three years old. Before bedtime, I always read aloud to her, and I can still see us cuddled together with Charlotte’s Web.

As you’re likely aware, toddlers are inquisitive, and this reading experience was ripe with conversation. Kaitlin couldn’t yet recognize all her ABCs, but she was building the language comprehension skills— vocabulary, syntax, and content knowledge—she needed for reading comprehension. I remember explaining why Fern was so distraught and Charlotte’s miraculous messages, like “Radiant” and “Humble,” woven in webs above Wilbur’s pen. Many wonderful memories were created while Kaitlin was preparing to become a reader.

By now you’ve probably heard that the science of reading is a hot topic, and for good reason. The science of reading isn’t a curriculum, an instructional practice, or an assessment. Instead, it’s a body of evidence-based research on how students learn to read. This research isn’t new and was shared broadly more than two decades ago.

Why language comprehension matters

When you read the title of this post, did you assume I’d discuss phonics? If so, then I’m not surprised, and you’re probably not alone. If there’s one common catchphrase synonymous with the science of reading, it’s “systematic and explicit phonics instruction.”

While systematic and explicit phonics instruction is necessary as part of the decoding domain—think the simple view of reading—so, too, is language comprehension. In fact, decoding multiplied by language comprehension equals reading comprehension, and one factor without the other doesn’t amount to much.

While we need to systematically and explicitly teach students to decode, we need to be equally vigilant about teaching students to develop language comprehension skills.

Language comprehension is the ability to make meaning from written and oral language, and students who can decode texts must leverage vocabulary, syntax, and content knowledge for texts to make sense. While we need to systematically and explicitly teach students to decode, we need to be equally vigilant about teaching students to develop language comprehension skills.

Educators often wonder if there’s an order of operations. In other words, should we teach decoding skills first, then shift focus to language skills? If we look at the simple view of reading, we can see that both skills can and should be taught in tandem. In fact, language comprehension skills are developing before students even enter the classroom.

At birth, we’re exposed to oral language and environmental print. Before we utter our first words, or step one foot in a classroom, we’ve been adding language to our virtual vocabulary backpacks. Every child’s virtual backpack is different; some are heavy while others are light. The challenge for educators is to unzip each backpack and add to the students’ funds of knowledge while teaching kids to orthographically map letters to sounds.

We can’t wait until students are fluent readers to address language skills. It’s language skills such as syntax that enable students to read with appropriate prosody, or expression. If we want students to “read to learn,” then they’ll need language skills.

The challenges kids face with language comprehension

Beginning readers usually have language comprehension skills that exceed the demands of simple texts. In later years, complex texts begin to exceed the limits of a child’s language comprehension skills, and difficulties with reading comprehension often ensue. In fact, much of the variance in eighth-grade reading scores is due to language comprehension, not decoding.

The following examples highlight how vocabulary, syntax, and content knowledge are necessary for students to decode and comprehend the most complex texts. The first sentence is simple and easily decodable given the single-syllable words, and it contains only one punctuation mark. In contrast, the second sentence is complex, with multisyllabic words, commas, and advanced vocabulary. Students will need language comprehension skills to understand the complex text they’ve decoded.

  • Simple text: The big dog barks.
  • Complex text: Waiting patiently, without barking, the Great Dane stretches out at the feet of his master while salivating for a tasty reward.

Systematic and explicit strategies to support language comprehension development

How can we better prepare our students to comprehend those challenging texts? Like Charlotte’s webs, there are several artful practices we can implement daily with our students. Let’s explore three of them.

1. Read-alouds

Students need systematic and explicit experiences with language that require them to make sense of new ideas. This skill develops daily as we read aloud rich, complex texts that feed students vocabulary and advanced text structures. As Jim Trelease explains in The Read-Aloud Handbook, “Vocabulary and coherent sentences can’t be downloaded onto paper unless they’ve first been uploaded to the head—by reading.”

Reading aloud texts too difficult for readers to independently decode is the scaffolding they need to access texts and develop necessary language skills. Narrative and informational read-alouds expose students to complex syntax, rich vocabulary, and new content knowledge they may not otherwise experience. Narrative read-alouds also introduce and reinforce literary language, story elements, and character development.

Similarly, informational read-alouds provide content-rich vocabulary in math, science, social studies, music, and other content areas. These texts, when read aloud, help develop reasoning skills as well, especially for students not yet able to independently access the content. Texts beyond students’ decoding skills but within their comprehension reach make perfect read-alouds.

Looking to take your read-alouds to the next level? Check out Maria Walther’s The Ramped-Up Read Aloud: What to Notice as You Turn the Page. In this interactive book, she provides ready-made lessons that are aligned to grade-level standards and created specifically for each diverse text included.

Here are some helpful guidelines to follow when designing an interactive read-aloud:

  • Choose texts rich with ideas and language.
  • Preview interesting, unfamiliar, and high-utility words.
  • Use parenthetical explanations.
  • Plan for places for student dialogue and conversations.
  • Check for understanding.
  • Support active listening skills.
  • Include a written response activity.

2. Dialogic reading conversations

Dialogic conversations are authentic and intentional verbal interactions that allow students to express their opinions and experiences about a topic while weaving in new vocabulary gleaned from a text. Although these conversations are organic, consider asking the following to ensure they’re implemented systematically:

  • Is the text you’ve selected engaging enough for students to discuss?
  • How can you repeat and expand on what students say, adding new concepts and vocabulary from the text?
  • How often are students engaging in conversations about texts?

Are your students reluctant to join a conversation? No worries! You now have an opportunity to explicitly develop their skills and encourage participation. Try out the PEER technique from Reading Rockets:

  • Prompt students to say something about the book. (“What does the dog want?” “A reward!”)
  • Evaluate the response. (“That’s right…”)
  • Expand the response by rephrasing and adding information to it. (“The Great Dane is waiting patiently for a treat.”)
  • Repeat the prompt to students and ask them to respond again with more details. (“What does the dog want? Tell me more.”)

3. Words of the week

It’s true that children learn new words implicitly from their environments, but we need to explicitly teach strategic words students aren’t likely to encounter on their own, in the absence of direct instruction. Charlotte, with her advanced vocabulary, was one smart spider who spent time schooling Wilbur and his barnyard friend, Templeton, on the meaning of words like “crunchy” and explaining why “radiant” should, instead, be woven into her web. Charlotte’s short, scripted messages saved Wilbur, and vocabulary development can be just as impactful for students.

Explicit and systematic vocabulary instruction should include morphology, or the study of the formation of words. Specifically, we need to teach students that words may have pieces and parts (prefixes, roots, and suffixes) that carry meaning and help students comprehend. For example, take the word “disease.” The prefix /dis/ means “not,” “none,” or “apart.” When we add /dis/ to the beginning of a word, the new word has the opposite meaning. “Disease” means “not at ease.” Have students apply their knowledge of this prefix to define other words, such as “disband,” “disinfect,” and “dislocate.” Send them on a scavenger hunt to discover other examples to define and share with their peers.

Direct vocabulary instruction should be part of your daily practices, including lessons for math, science, and other content areas. One way to make vocabulary stick is to introduce words of the week. As you plan ahead for your lessons, consider explicit instruction for words that are high and low frequency, as well as words with multiple meanings based on context. Also consider the needs of multilingual learners and any students with learning disabilities. Follow the suggestions below to select the most appropriate words to introduce and apply throughout your lessons for the upcoming week.

  • Select five content-specific words to display throughout your classroom or school.
  • Introduce each word in a complete sentence and display the definition.
  • Identify and interpret prefixes, roots, and suffixes.
  • Allow students to practice spelling the words and writing them in complete sentences.
  • Intentionally use the words in sentences throughout the week.
  • Play word games like Wordo.
  • Encourage and recognize students for “random acts of vocabulary” as they’re speaking throughout the week.

It takes time

When educators create language-comprehension opportunities, they expose students to new concepts and language structures that help students begin to independently access written language through reading complex texts.

While Charlotte was famous for weaving new webs overnight, language comprehension skills continue to develop cumulatively over time, given the right educational environment. Just like each ring of a spider’s web is connected and anchored to the center, serving as the foundation holding the web intact, readers need a foundation in language comprehension. Without language comprehension strands, decoding isn’t enough to weave that reading comprehension web. Like phonics, let’s strategically weave language comprehension into our daily practices.

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