SLPs’ Foundational Role in Reading Comprehension: A Response to Alan Kamhi In the May 29 issue, Alan Kamhi discussed the wisdom of focusing on word recognition skills to support children’s literacy development, and forgoing trying to teach reading comprehension. His arguments contained many compelling points, but I completely diverge from the general conclusion that we should not spend time on reading ... From My Perspective
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From My Perspective  |   August 01, 2007
SLPs’ Foundational Role in Reading Comprehension: A Response to Alan Kamhi
Author Notes
  • Anne van Kleeck, is professor and Callier Research Scholar in the doctoral program in child language development and disorders in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. Contact her at annevk@utdallas.edu.
    Anne van Kleeck, is professor and Callier Research Scholar in the doctoral program in child language development and disorders in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. Contact her at annevk@utdallas.edu.×
Article Information
Development / Special Populations / School-Based Settings / Language Disorders / Attention, Memory & Executive Functions / From My Perspective
From My Perspective   |   August 01, 2007
SLPs’ Foundational Role in Reading Comprehension: A Response to Alan Kamhi
The ASHA Leader, August 2007, Vol. 12, 32-33. doi:10.1044/leader.FMP2.12102007.32
The ASHA Leader, August 2007, Vol. 12, 32-33. doi:10.1044/leader.FMP2.12102007.32
In the May 29 issue, Alan Kamhi discussed the wisdom of focusing on word recognition skills to support children’s literacy development, and forgoing trying to teach reading comprehension. His arguments contained many compelling points, but I completely diverge from the general conclusion that we should not spend time on reading comprehension.
Reading comprehension is the sum of many parts, most of which are dimensions of oral language ability. Viewed in this manner, speech-language pathologists are already laying critical foundations for reading comprehension. They need to understand exactly why this is true, for two reasons—first, so that clinicians can better understand the development of the reading process, and second, so that they can explain to parents and other professionals how they are a critical part of the team that supports reading comprehension skills—even if they do not directly teach reading skills—because reading is a language-based skill.
Kamhi asserts that word recognition and comprehension are two different abilities. I would add that they are integrally related in that decoding is necessary, but not sufficient, for basic literal reading comprehension. He also contends that word recognition is a skill that is “teachable because it involves a narrow scope of knowledge (e.g., letters, sounds, words) and processes (decoding),” whereas “comprehension is not a skill and is not easily taught” (p. 28). I agree with these statements, but diverge in my belief that we need to think about fostering reading comprehension long before children can actually read. We need to think about the many skills that are foundational to later reading comprehension, because developing solid foundations cannot await formal training—achievement gaps already in place when children enter school are stubbornly resistant to change.
Although I agree that reading comprehension is not “a” skill, it relies on a set of skills that are in the development purview of preschoolers. Research continues to demonstrate that the better preschoolers are at these skills, the better their later reading comprehension abilities will be. Reading scholars would agree that these include critical areas of oral language comprehension, such as sentence-level semantic-syntactic skills and vocabulary—exactly the skills that define preschool language delays. Clearly, SLPs work constantly to foster these skills. It is helpful for them to understand how they also support later reading comprehension. Indeed, if these skills remain weak in preschoolers with language delays, problems with reading comprehension will likely follow—even if decoding is mastered.
In addition to these two basic skills, I have recently discussed the need for and demonstrated the efficacy of teaching inferential language to preschoolers with language delays (van Kleeck, Vander Woude, & Hammett, 2006). Inferencing is not only central to later reading comprehension, it is essential to the text-level language skill of story comprehension. Furthermore, it helps children engage in the kinds of talk that abound in classroom lessons, which supports both reading comprehension (see Nystrand, 2006, for a review) and academic success.
“School talk” often involves going beyond the literal meaning of language and inferring to reason, explain, define, hypothesize, predict, and so forth. Inferencing also helps children build vocabulary depth, or richer semantic representations of words, as they learn to infer the meanings of words from the context. Vocabulary depth predicts later reading comprehension, whereas vocabulary breadth predicts decoding skills (Ouellette, 2006).
The centrality of inferencing to many skills important to reading is captured in Figure 2 [PDF]. Many preschoolers get a great deal of practice with inferencing and other dimensions of “school talk;” other preschoolers, however, including those with language delays, do not (see van Kleeck, 2006b, for a review of cultural variation in exposure to inferential language). It seems critically important to think ahead with preschoolers at risk for later reading comprehension difficulties by including inferential language in our preschool interventions.
One final area deserves mention. Purcell-Gates (2001) discusses the importance of reading to preschoolers to help them learn written language features. Through this exposure, they learn the “vocabulary, syntax, and reference conventions” that differ significantly between oral and written language. Logically, experience with these differences would also help children with later reading comprehension.
The two different paths to the two different aspects of reading are depicted in Figure 1 [PDF]. The figure emphasizes that the development of skills foundational to decoding and to reading comprehension begin years before formal reading instruction. It also highlights that the two different skill sets develop simultaneously. I think we are not well-served as SLPs, nor will we best serve our clients, if we ignore all we are doing to foster later reading comprehension abilities and how these skills are interrelated. Kamhi is right—comprehension is not easily taught. But instead of abandoning it, let’s begin earlier, and work smarter, in laying the foundations.
References
Nystrand, M. (2006). Research on the role of classroom discourse as it affects reading comprehension. Research in the Teaching of English, 40, 392–412.
Nystrand, M. (2006). Research on the role of classroom discourse as it affects reading comprehension. Research in the Teaching of English, 40, 392–412.×
Ouellette, G. P. (2006). What’s meaning got to do with it: The role of vocabulary in word reading and reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(3), 554–566. [Article]
Ouellette, G. P. (2006). What’s meaning got to do with it: The role of vocabulary in word reading and reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(3), 554–566. [Article] ×
Purcell-Gates, V. (2001). Emergent literacy is emerging knowledge of written, not oral, language. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development (92), 7–22.
Purcell-Gates, V. (2001). Emergent literacy is emerging knowledge of written, not oral, language. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development (92), 7–22.×
van Kleeck, A. (2006b). Fostering inferential language during book sharing with preschoolers: A foundation for later text comprehension strategies. In van Kleeck, A. (Ed.), Sharing books and stories to promote language and literacy (pp. 269–318). San Diego: Plural Publishing.
van Kleeck, A. (2006b). Fostering inferential language during book sharing with preschoolers: A foundation for later text comprehension strategies. In van Kleeck, A. (Ed.), Sharing books and stories to promote language and literacy (pp. 269–318). San Diego: Plural Publishing.×
van Kleeck, A., Vander Woude, J., & Hammett, L. A. (2006). Fostering literal and inferential language skills in Head Start preschoolers with language impairment using scripted book-sharing discussions. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 15, 85–95. [Article] [PubMed]
van Kleeck, A., Vander Woude, J., & Hammett, L. A. (2006). Fostering literal and inferential language skills in Head Start preschoolers with language impairment using scripted book-sharing discussions. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 15, 85–95. [Article] [PubMed]×
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