+ Skills That Support Comprehension: Getting to The “Situation Model”

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The entire issue of IDA’s Spring issue of “Perspectives” is dedicated to comprehension.

An article by Kate Cain, “Making Sense of Text: Skills That Support Comprehension and Its Development,” focuses not on accurate and efficient word recognition, but on comprehension of text.

What is Comprehension?

Cain offers a short text:  

James went to the beach for a picnic with his friends.  He trod on some broken glass.  His friends took him to the hospital.

To understand this text, Cain reminds us, a reader must retrieve the meanings of the individual words and combine them into phrases and sentences. 

This leads to a representation in which specific word meanings and the syntactic form of sentences are retained; such a representation is not stored for any long period of time unless the precise wording is important, as in a joke.

But if a person is reading for meaning, he must go beyond surface representation.  He has to construct a representation that relates the ideas and concepts expressed in separate clauses and sentences. 

The pronoun “he” refers back to James, for example, and links the sentences, enabling their meanings to be integrated.  This is called “local coherence.”

But this isn’t always sufficient; to understand the concepts and information contained in the text we need to know why James went to the hospital.  Oh… James cut his foot on the glass.

By establishing how the ideas fit together as a whole, the reader achieves “global coherence.”

And so he now has, not a description of the text itself, but a representation of the situation.  We call this a “situation model.” 

Such meaning-based representations are lasting.  They can be retrieved several days after the information was presented. 

And — they are not unique to reading comprehension:  they also apply to the successful comprehending of spoken laanguage.

Learning to Read Isn’t An End in Itself

The process of comprehending text is dynamic and interactive. 

It involves several sources of information and knowledge.  These sources include:

  • information provided by the writer;
  • the reader’s linguistic, pragmatic and world knowledge;
  • and the reader’s memory for  text that has been read thus far (the “situation model”).

The “situation model” provides the context for interpreting subsequent words, phrases and events.  The second sentence of our text might have read, “He ate a peanut butter sandwich.”   In that case we could infer an allergic reaction.

Kids With Reading Comprehension Difficulties

Approximately ten percent of young readers acquire age-appropriate word reading skills, but don’t develop the commensurate reading comprehension skills. 

They’re unexpectedly poor comprehenders.  ( And, remember, these children’s listening comprehension is also poor.)

Such poor comprehenders have weaknesses on the many language and cognitive tasks that influence their ability to construct a situation model of a text’s meaning. 

Some of these children do have weak semantic and syntactic skills. 

Some, however, have problems processing the text and can’t construct a situation model, which involves

  • integration and inference,
  • comprehension monitoring and
  • knowledge and use of text structure [macrostructure]. 

Integration and Inference

 Integration and inference-making are necessary for good text comprehension.  A reader must integrate meanings across sentences.  Kids with poor reading comprehension are not able to do that.   And they can’t  generate inferences, combining text information with their general knowledge of the world.

Comprehension Monitoring

Skillful readers monitor their comprehension as they read.  They are able to notice when when their “situation model” needs them to do additional processing, or rereading, or if an inference needs to be made.  (This is called “metacognition:” watching your brain at work.) 

But less skillful readers are not able to monitor their own comprehension.  They fail to notice if two lines in a text state contradictory information.

Knowledge and Use of Text Structure

A good reader also needs to understand text macrostructure.  “Macrostructure” awareness provides a framework for the identification and integration of important information. 

Narrative texts, for example, typically comprise a goal-directed, causally related sequence of events.

A common method used to assess whether a child has the ability to recognize and apply narrative text structure is to get children to produce their own stories. 

When a child is asked to tell a story about a general topic, for example “the vacation,” a poor comprehender will produce a poorly structured  story.  It tends to be made up of lists of events with no obvious goal.  (Performance does improve when picture sequences and informative goal-directed titles are used as prompts.)

By contrast, good comprehenders are more likely to produce narratives with a clear causal structure, in which events happen for a reason and characters develop goal plans to achieve aims. 


Of course text comprehension and the skills that support it are dependent on memory. 

Short term memory enables the reader (or listener) to store and recall short pieces of information.  It is useful for processing long or complexly structured sentences.  

Although short-term memory is often poor in children with word reading difficulties, a child with good word reading but poor comprehension will typically do well on measures of short term memory.

Working memory refers to the type of memory involved in the simultaneous processing and storage of information, and many comprehension processes rely on it.   For example, the integration of two sentences means a child must hold on to the meaning of one sentence as he reads another sentence.

 Text Processing and Memory

Children with poor comprehension have deficits in the three skills that  directly contribute to the construction of a situation model.  As we said before, these are integration and inference, comprehension monitoring, knowledge and use of story structure.

Research suggests that poor comprehension on these tasks may be due to working memory limitations.

For example, poor comprehenders are particularly bad at spotting inconsistencies in text, especially when several lines of text separate the two contradictory sentences. 

When this happens, a reader can only notice that something does not make sense if it’s possible to integrate information he has just read with his existing situation model in its entirety, rather than simply paying attention to the previous sentence.

Which Skills Drive the Development of Reading   Comprehension?

Kate Cain and Jane Oakhill tracked the development of reading comprehension in young readers.  They explored how skills that support the construction of situation models influence comprehension development.

They found that word-reading development requires different skills from those required for reading-comprehension development. 

Word reading ability comes about through verbal skillfulness, vocabulary, and phonological processing.  Verbal ability and vocabulary knowledge are also important predictors of later reading comprehension, they found. 

The three major text processing skills were each important predictors of a child’s level of reading comprehension at age eleven.

At each time point in their study, the researchers observed that working memory was related to reading comprehension and those three text processing skills.  

Wider Consequences of Poor Comprehension

Dyslexic children experience reading difficulties all through life.  Reading comprehension problems also do not disappear with age, say experts.

Poor comprehension may also have an impact on language and literacy development.  

Children who fail to understand adequately what they read probably won’t have the motivation to read in their free time.  As a result, they will get less practice in word reading and comprehension than their peers; they will have fewer opportunities to acquire new vocabulary and knowledge.  Their vocabulary development will suffer over time. 

Poor comprehension skills  will impair the ability to learn more generally.  The consequences of unremediated reading comprehension difficulties  extends beyond literacy skills — as test results in math and science have shown.

Implications for Teaching

 When children have unexpectedly poor reading comprehension, they have difficulties with the skills needed to contruct the meaning-based representation of a text.

These difficulties are not restricted to text;  as we said, these students also have listening comprehension problems. 

Such students will certainly require targeted interventions to remediate their comprehension difficulties.

How to Spot a Poor Comprehender

Although children with unexpected comprehension difficulties may comprise about ten percent of school population,  they are rarely noticed by their teachers. 

It’s easy to detect a child with word reading problems, because they clearly read slowly and inaccurately.

But children with unexpectedly poor comprehension may go unnoticed by teachers, and also by parents, because their accurate and fluent word reading skills are hiding their difficulties.

These comprehension difficulties become apparent only when those children are asked questions about texts that require more than recall of simple facts.  For example, in order to answer the question, “Why did James go to the hospital?”  a reader must generate an inference.

Poor comprehenders also produce poorly structured written and oral narratives.  Ask them to tell a story or relate an event.

What Should Be Taught?

Direct instruction in text processing skills helps students with the development of comprehension.  Also effective: teaching children to summarize what has been read so far, and teaching them how to generate questions to check their understanding. 

Clue words: poor comprehenders  have also been successfully taught how to make inferences from “clue” words.  For example, steam, splash, soap and towel probably indicate a bathroom. 

Significant gains for some students has been achived by a combination of methods: training in both lexical inference and question generation.

Although poor comprehenders demonstrate limited memory capacity, it doesn’t appear that inference training leads to memory gains.  

What may be happening instead is that poor comprehenders learn to compensate by using their memory resources more effectively.

When Should We Teach These Skills?

We’ve long known that the foundation skills for good reading begin before children begin to learn to read.  In a similar way, reading comprehension draws on skills and knowledge that develop before beginning to read.

Preschoolers generate inferences as they strive to understand spoken and televised narratives.  Tiny children are monitoring their own comprehension — they detect when the order of events in a cherished book has been altered. 

So an understanding of narrative develops long before schooling begins, through listening to stories and making sense of events in daily life.  

Nurture this skill  before a child’s reading instruction begins, during storybook times and conversations.

sole source: Kate Cain’s article in the Spring Issue of IDA’s “Perspectives.”  Kate Cain, D.Phil., Sussex University, is a Reader in the Department of Psychology at Lancaster University. 

Her research focuses on the development of language comprehension in children, with a particular interest in the cognitive and language-related skill deficits that lead to comprehension problems. 

She is associate editor for the International Journal of language and Communication Disorders and the Journal of Research in Reading.

Join the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) today — to support its efforts and receive “Perspectives”  four times a year.   Visit www.interdys.org.

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email   aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com


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