Category Archives: Reading Comprehension

Penn Wood Professional Development – Language acquisition and reading comprehension

The York Reading for Meaning Project (Snowling, 2010) compared three interventions with a control to determine their effectiveness in developing reading comprehension. The interventions were led by teaching assistants and lasted for 20 weeks, each week comprising of three 30 minute sessions. The three interventions were:

  • An oral language comprehension programme
  • A text comprehension programme
  • A combined oral and text comprehension programme

Their findings showed significant gains in reading comprehension scores for each intervention compared to the control group. Interestingly, the most effective intervention was not the text comprehension programme, but the oral language comprehension programme, which also resulted in greater gains in reading comprehension scores than the combined programme. These gains were still evident 11 months after the interventions ended.

With such an impact, it makes sense to attempt to turn this effective intervention by TAs into part of our day to day teaching. Perhaps we can adapt the programme to see even greater and longer lasting gains in language acquisition and reading comprehension if the ideas were embedded in our English lessons.

SVRHirsch reading

The simple view of reading identifies the importance of decoding and language comprehension in tandem to master reading for meaning. Hirsch would add to this the importance of domain knowledge, without which a reader would not make rapid connections between new and previously learned material. As such, explicitly teaching the general knowledge required to understand a text can support comprehension significantly. Of course, the challenge to this idea is that we can’t teach children the entirety of general knowledge. However, selecting great texts which reflect a variety of general knowledge schemas gives children the opportunity to develop key chunks of general knowledge on which further domain knowledge can be built through listening and reading.

Using great texts to teach language acquisition and reading comprehension is a perfect place to start. Once these texts have been selected, the first thing that teachers need to do is consider the following question:

                Which words, phrases or concepts are children likely to find difficult to understand?

Jean Gross, in Time to Talk talks of three tiers of vocabulary. Tier 1 vocabulary includes words and concepts that children will come across first when they begin to communicate. Tier 2 vocabulary includes language that children will be able to understand the concept of and that is tricky yet functional. These words could be used in a number of contexts. Finally, tier 3 vocabulary includes language that is domain specific and only used in a small number of contexts.

When we’re looking at the bits of a text that children are likely to find difficult to understand, we’d need to be looking for those tier 2 words within a text. For children learning English as an additional language and for children in the early years, we’d also need to explicitly teach tier 1 vocabulary. Usually, these would be common nouns, verbs and concepts and these guidelines from Stories for Talking by Rebecca Bergmann are helpful when selecting them:


  • High frequency
  • Functional
  • Related to the story being studied
  • Related by topic
  • Feature around the classroom or school
  • Easily supported with concrete objects


  • High frequency
  • Functional
  • Relate to the chosen nouns
  • Easy to act out


  • High Frequency
  • Functional
  • Relate to the chosen nouns
  • Most visually represented or repeated in the story
  • Can be studied as a pair (big/little)
  • Can be experienced practically around the classroom

Once that language has been identified, teachers can introduce it to children. By introducing it before children listen to or read a text, we can go some way to guarding against cognitive overload. Also, by increasing the number of interactions with this vocabulary, and by spacing those interactions, we increase the likelihood of long term retention of those ideas. Having said that, language is best learned in context so defining words for children will not suffice. The image below is an example of how language is introduced from the York Reading for Meaning Project programme materials:


This works well because the images provide contexts in which the word is used. The variety of images and contexts helps children to make connections between ideas. A slight amendment that includes the Talk for Writing approach would be to include the sentence from the text that the word is in.


Children will not internalise this language after one interaction with it. Children need to think hard about the meaning and application of the vocabulary over time if it is to be assimilated. The following question types come from Bringing Words to Life by Beck, McKeown and Kucan.

Aggressive 2

Where children have to differentiate between two scenarios, such as in the Example or non-example?’ question, the quality of the question comes from the two scenarios being minimally different and rooted in misconceptions about a word’s meaning.  With a set of questions like this for a number of focus words across a unit of work, children’s practice of thinking about and using language can be spaced over time in a variety  of contexts, giving children a great chance of adding permanently to their vocabulary.

Oral and text comprehension

By understanding the typical difficulties that struggling readers experience, we can plan to address those issues with some carefully panned practice. If we then consider the implications from the York Reading for Meaning Project, that the materials from both the oral and text comprehension can have such an impact on reading comprehension, then we can provide great lessons.

Developing Language Acquisition and Reading Comprehension at Penn Wood outlines those difficulties and what might be done. The York Reading for Meaning Project found that oral comprehension work is more effective than a text comprehension or a combined oral and text comprehension programme when measured using reading comprehension tests. All of the suggestions for addressing the profile of the struggling reader could be applied through reading a story but also through listening to one. Talk for Writing provides a great opportunity for this as children internalise and retell stories using text maps. Oral comprehension work can quite easily be introduced at the point of retelling. With the opportunity presented, the next step is to find ways of making oral language development work in the classroom on a day to day basis.