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Canadian Language & Literacy Research Network
clarity. The result of applying science to children's language and literacy development  

reading comprehension - the critical next step

family history: the oldest potential remedy?

Every Canadian child is taught to read the words on a page. But what comes next - what about using reading to understand stories and learn from text?

"We're not sure what reading, language, and cognitive skills are important for understanding stories, social science and science materials in children of different ages", says Marcia Barnes, PhD., a professor of Psychology, a Research Chair at the University of Guelph, and adjunct scientist in the Brain and Behavior Program at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. "But through research, we can begin to unlock those mysteries and find the answers."

An internationally acclaimed investigator, Barnes' work is one of the new 2004 funded research projects by the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Her past accomplishments include significant contributions in the application of cognitive and developmental models to the study of academic skill development in children with acquired and congenital brain injuries. Her findings on this and other topics have been published throughout North America, and she participates in numerous research and early childhood development committees.

Barnes and her team, including Network researchers, Alain Desrochers from the University of Ottawa, and Rosemary Tannock from the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, are conducting studies to understand the development of reading comprehension skills in elementary school children, and to develop reliable, valid assessment tools for evaluation. The study couldn't come at a better time, as the ability to absorb, comprehend and use informational data becomes increasingly important in a modern economy and social environment.

"It is sometimes assumed," says Barnes, "that if a child is able to read the words, he or she will be able to fully understand what is read. However, this is not always the case, and it is worth noting that reading comprehension skills are much less likely to be explicitly taught in school than are word reading skills."

"Statistics from 2002 in Ontario show us that 15% of children in the academic program are not passing the Grade 10 literacy test on their first attempt, and this figure climbs to 55% for the reading portion of the test for students in the applied program. Even though many of these youth can probably read the words and have some basic understanding of what they read, it is not sufficient to meet minimum standards," says Barnes. "The greatest problems arise when these teenagers are asked to make connections between personal experiences and what they read, though children who fail the literacy test have additional problems understanding both stated and implied information in the text."

Ten years into the education system, too many children are having trouble linking their own knowledge and experiences with new information. According to Barnes, they are reading in isolation to what they know, and not creating new knowledge as a result.

Barnes and her team of investigators are studying three levels of reading that contribute to comprehension: understanding what is written; understanding what is inferred based on an integration of ideas within a text; and creating new knowledge based on an integration of what is in the text with the reader's knowledge and experience.

They are also studying how factors such as accurate and fluent word reading, working memory, attention skills, vocabulary and grammatical knowledge are related to children's comprehension of narrative, social science, and science text from Grade Three to Grade Eight.

"What we're doing is a project with enough breadth and enough children (Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board of Ontario and partner school boards in western Quebec) that we can say, with some certainty, these are the skills that are most important, grade by grade, for both English and francophone children – and this is what needs to be taught and learned at each level to improve comprehension."

Once Dr. Barnes' team has determined the skills required to understand narrative and informational texts at different grades, they will use that information to design appropriate English and French assessment tools for reading comprehension – a marked improvement over the assessment tools that exist now (which are not based on research evidence, and which often do not consider comprehension of different types of text).

We live in an economy where creating new knowledge through high-level literacy skills is critical to academic achievement and job success. Barnes and her team are determined to help improve the assessment and teaching of reading comprehension skills for Canadian children.


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