Imagine your employer has just handed you an important document to read and tells you he expects a summary of the material on his desk by tomorrow. You take a look and see it is written in a language totally foreign to you. After your initial confusion, you may try to make some sense of it and scan the document. While you may be able to phonetically decipher the words and sound them out, that’s where your “reading” would end. You wouldn’t have any idea what the words you just read actually meant. How would you feel? Upset? Discouraged?
The goal of reading is to derive meaning
Obviously, this is an extreme example but sadly, classrooms across the nation are interspersed with students who experience the same type of frustration every day. They don’t possess adequate reading comprehension skills to do what is expected of them. Without comprehension, reading is simply following words on a page from left to right while sounding them out. The words on the page have no meaning. And while people read for many different reasons, the chief goal is to derive some understanding of what the writer is trying to convey and make use of that information – whether for fact gathering, learning a new skill, or for pleasure. That’s why reading comprehension skills are so important. Without them the reader cannot gather any information and use it to efficiently function and enjoy the richness of life.
Reading is a multifaceted process that develops only with practice. There are certain aspects of reading, such as fluency and word recognition, which can be learned in a few years. These basics must be mastered but at the same time reading comprehension should be emphasized in the process. Students can parrot words on a page all day long but if they don’t have the necessary comprehension skills they will not be able to make predictions about what will happen next, monitor their understanding of content, sequence or characters, clarify confusing parts of the text, or connect what they’re reading to their own experience or prior knowledge. And that is what true comprehension is all about.
The dangers of functional illiteracy
There is a term known as functional illiteracy that has been discussed in academic and political circles for some time. The term basically describes reading and writing skills that make it very difficult to manage daily living and work in an environment that requires reading beyond the most elementary level. People with such skills may not be purely illiterate, meaning they can read and write in some capacity, but their reading comprehension level is so low they can’t manage the every day aspects of life.
The lack of strong reading comprehension skills obviously affects a student’s success in school. Academic progress depends on understanding, analyzing, and applying the information gathered through reading. But it goes much further than that. Poor reading comprehension skills have been also been linked to poverty and crime. Consider these facts:
- Over 60% of inmates in the U.S prison system have reading skills at or below the fourth grade level.
- 85% of U.S juveniles in prison are functionally illiterate.
- 43% set of adults with extremely low reading skills live at or below the poverty line.
And even more alarming:
- Nearly 2/3 of students who reach the fourth grade without proficient reading skills end up on welfare or in prison.
While these statistics are not meant to shock you, they do send a message that is loud and clear: developing strong reading comprehension skills is essential for a rich academic, professional, and personal life. Imagine trying to survive and thrive in a society where you couldn’t comprehend the basic meaning of your cable bill, your mortgage agreement, or how to follow road signs. Even worse, imagine not being able to read the label on a bottle of medicine or a container of dangerous chemicals. Living safely and productively is only one of the many outcomes of proper reading comprehension skills. Being able to derive meaning from the written word also enables students to develop intellectually, socially, and emotionally – something we all want for our children.