I agree with the perspective that reading comprehension is not really a “skill” that can be readily and discretely measured or taught. Rather, reading comprehension is a product –an outcome – of an efficient orchestration of a variety of reading, language, and engagement processes and knowledge sources.
We can think of reading comprehension as analogous to music created by a band. The desired outcome of the band’s effort is melodious and coherent. In this analogy, the music is analogous to the reader’s mental representation of a text as they read.
Consider a small orchestra ensemble consisting of five musicians and a conductor. Let’s say that each member represents an element involved in a person's reading comprehension ability. Of course, there are far more than six elements involved in reading comprehension, but the following are arguably the most prominent and important, so let’s work with them for the sake of the analogy:
Word reading is the piano
Vocabulary knowledge is the violin
Background knowledge (what is not already captured by vocabulary) is the bass
Inference-making is the cello
Working memory is the viola
The conductor represents engagement (i.e., attention, motivation, self-regulation).
The conductor taps their baton and directs the orchestra to begin. What emerges, and how pleasant the music sounds, depends on the contributions of each member individually and together. Depending on the piece of music, different parts of the song may rely more heavily on one musician. Poor playing by any one member of the group results in dissonance, and the more instruments that falter, the more the overall melody is negatively affected. If the piano (word reading) misses a single note it might be noticed, but its effects are not too problematic. However, when the piano misses multiple notes in close proximity, its effect can be catastrophic. At times, the other instruments might be able to compensate for a single stumbling musician and can carry the song along for a bit, but this may not be sustainable especially when the piece gets tricky. When multiple musicians simultaneously forget their place or miss notes, it is even more difficult for the others to compensate and the melody falls apart. Similarly, a conductor that was out late the night before and fails to signal musicians at the right moments can throw off the musicians’ rhythm and timing, or even cause the music to stop entirely. Only when each member is contributing effectively, hitting the right notes and chords at the right time, pleasant music is the outcome.
The analogy illustrates how a deficiency in any one component affects the overall product. The extent of the deficit in one area (i.e., the difference between a competent musician and a very inexperienced one) affects the degree to which the music is impacted, and multiple inexperienced musicians have an even greater negative effect on everything.
We can use the analogy to understand reading comprehension for a beginning reader. Imagine a novice reader like an elementary school orchestra that is full of aspiring musicians, playing their winter concert. They plod along with adorable squeaks and sour notes, the rhythm is off and the timing isn’t quite right. But the proud, smiling family and friends in the audience might sometimes identify the song, there might be some perceptible semblance of a melody, and occasionally it might even sound rather good. Reading comprehension for a beginning reader is much like that.
Now let’s extend the analogy to word-level reading disability (i.e., dyslexia). From the very start the piano (word reading) struggles to play the right notes; the violin (vocabulary), out of sync with the piano, also falters. The bass (background knowledge) tries to mitigate the building discordance by playing louder, but without the melody provided by piano and violin, just ends up playing the wrong notes as well. The cello (inference) also fails to connect with everyone else. By now things are devolving into a monstrous cacophony. The conductor (engagement and motivation), waving and pointing vigorously, tries to will the music back into something that sounds sensible, but soon acknowledges the losing battle and gives up.
And next time, the conductor might fail to show up, and the band might never even start.
The analogy can also illustrate how reading comprehension is affected by passage type, content, difficulty, and reading situation. In this case, the piece of music is analogous to a passage of text. A fair degree of proficiency amongst the musicians means that they can probably play a lot of songs well, and some very well. However, there will be some pieces of music or situations that will be challenging, such as songs with atypical rhythm, difficult note sequences or progressions, or challenging changes. The situation can matter as well; the added pressures of playing in front of an audience can create a maladaptive level of arousal or affect the musicians’ concentration, akin to taking a high-pressure exam. Having good musical skills does not necessarily mean that all songs will be played well.
No analogy is perfect, and this one certainly isn’t. A band could play without a piano or a violin, but reading comprehension cannot occur without word reading or vocabulary knowledge. However, I think the analogy is useful for understanding the “product” aspect of reading comprehension, and for illustrating the limits to the notion of improving reading comprehension by only focusing on the product.
The challenge of improving comprehension by focusing only on the outcome (such as trying to improve comprehension by only teaching strategies) is akin to a music instructor’s difficulty in improving what emanates from the orchestra as a whole. The music teacher could present a chart or diagram about the changing dynamics across the piece (i.e., a graphic organizer), encourage the group to concentrate harder, try to promote the orchestra members’ higher-order thinking by teaching them about the mood and feel of the piece, or teach the musicians about appreciating how the piece of music tells a story. The music school might even hire the very best conductor in hopes of fostering more engagement and attention. Any one of these strategies might work for a group of musicians who are better with their instruments. But if one or more musicians are inexperienced or underprepared, even the very best strategies or high-order thinking skills may have very little benefit for improving the music the group creates.
Instead, the music instructor could help individual musicians, if perhaps they are the weak link in the orchestra. For example, the teacher could work with the pianist (word reading) to improve their accuracy in hitting notes, and help them practice to play more smoothly and at an appropriate pace. Similarly, the instructor can work with the violin and bass players (vocabulary and background knowledge) to ensure their understanding. As the skills of the musicians improve through instruction and practice, the music teacher can work with the group to help them take cues from each other (i.e., drawing on vocabulary knowledge, or making connections to prior knowledge, as a student reads), help them attend to the conductor and adjust their rhythm and timing (i.e., monitoring comprehension and knowing when to slow down when reading or fix up), or notice how emphatic or subtle the notes and chords at given parts of the piece should be (i.e., identify parts of the text that are more or less important). Extensive practice opportunities with the whole orchestra help the musicians learn to work together. Over time, as the musicians improve, and they learn to work more cooperatively and efficiently, the music sounds better.
What do you think? Let me know if this analogy does or does not work, and how it might be improved.
Further reading on understanding reading comprehension more as a product and less as a skill:
Catts, H. W. (2022). Rethinking how to promote reading comprehension. American Educator, 45(4), 26.
Compton, D. L., Miller, A. C., Elleman, A. M., & Steacy, L. M. (2014). Have we forsaken reading theory in the name of “quick fix” interventions for children with reading disability?. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18(1), 55-73.
Elleman, A. M., & Compton, D. L. (2017). Beyond comprehension strategy instruction: What's next? Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 48(2), 84-91.
Elleman, A. M., & Oslund, E. L. (2019). Reading comprehension research: Implications for practice and policy. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 6(1), 3-11.
Kamhi, A. G., & Catts, H. W. (2017). Epilogue: Reading comprehension is not a single ability—Implications for assessment and instruction. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 48(2), 104-107.
Kintsch, W. (1988). The role of knowledge in discourse comprehension: a construction-integration model. Psychological Review, 95(2), 163.
Perfetti, C., & Stafura, J. (2014). Word knowledge in a theory of reading comprehension. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18(1), 22-37.
Swanson, E., Vaughn, S., & Wexler, J. (2017). Enhancing adolescents’ comprehension of text by building vocabulary knowledge. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 50(2), 84-94.
©2022, Nathan Clemens. All Rights Reserved.