What are verbal skills and reading comprehension

Reading Comprehension - What is it?


  1. Components of reading comprehension

  2. Word-level processes
    1. Visual word recognition models
    2. Influence of meaning and context on word recognition

  3. Record-level processes

  4. Text-level processes
    1. Cross-sentence information integration
    2. Mental models
    3. Inferential reading

  5. literature

Additional information

The theoretical introduction to the topic presented here Reading comprehension comes from the manual of ELFE II (chapter 4). It formed the basis for the construction of the ELFE II reading comprehension test.

Quotable source for the text: Lenhard, W., Lenhard, A. & Schneider, W. (2017). A reading comprehension test for first to seventh graders II (ELFE II). Göttingen: Hogrefe.
(Attention: The illustrations are slightly different compared to the ELFE II manual.)

If you are interested in further publications and information, we also recommend the book

Lenhard, W. (2013). Reading comprehension and reading skills: Basics - Diagnostics - Promotion. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.

"The written language is one of the most fascinating achievements of mankind. The process of understanding when reading is very complex and is determined by many influencing factors. In the book, these factors, their development and their interaction are systematically worked out. This opens up a perspective on the question, At which points diagnostics and support can start. This book offers the reader an insight into theories and models and shows current research results and developments in German-speaking countries since the first PISA study. In addition, it illuminates the question of where the special needs are weaker The reader lies, describes diagnostic options and deals with systematic and evidence-based funding options. "

Components of reading comprehension

If one compares the two written language components of reading and writing with one another, one can easily imagine that reading is more of a passive-receptive activity, whereas writing is an active-productive activity. In contrast to this intuitive everyday conception, however, cognitive psychology and experimental reading research assume that reading (or speech reception in general) represents a highly active process of dealing with the respective content (Klicpera & Gasteiger-Klicpera, 1995, p. 133; Artelt, Stanat, Schneider & Schiefele, 2001; Schneider, 2016). The task and at the same time the aim of the reader is usually to decode the information that has been encoded by the writer in a text (Christmann & Groeben, 1999). This process of reconstruction does not only consist in deciphering the meaning of the individual words, but also in a meaningful connection between the word meanings and the surrounding information - the other words, sentences and parts of the text. The information extracted is interpreted on the basis of individual prior knowledge - possibly with the help of strategic behavior - and may lead to conclusions that go far beyond the actual text (see Cromley & Azevedo, 2007).

In the following, the processing steps required to understand a text are highlighted, a distinction being made between lower hierarchical processes at word and sentence level and hierarchical processes at text level. With the interplay of these different components, numerous sub-processes intermesh until finally a mental image of the content has emerged from the word surface of a text. There are many models that attempt to describe this process. The individual models mostly focus on certain aspects (cf. W. Lenhard & Artelt, 2009). The Verbal Efficiency Theory (Perfetti, 1989) assumes, for example, that reading comprehension depends above all on processes at the word recognition level. According to this theory, the more confidently and quickly a person recognizes words, the better the reading comprehension. He takes a slightly wider perspective Simple-View-of-Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986), according to which reading comprehension depends on word recognition and listening comprehension or general language reception skills. Reading fluency is only a limiting factor in this model. Interactionist approaches again emphasize that basic processes (e.g. word recognition) and hierarchical processes (e.g. establishing a global connection between words or sentences) are strongly intertwined and influence each other (cf. Christmann & Groeben, 1999; Richter & Christmann, 2002). The question of the validity of the individual models cannot be answered without further assumptions, since the importance of individual sub-processes and their interaction in the specific reading activity also depend on the level of development of the reader, the reason for reading and the text properties. In addition, the validation of individual models always depends on the measuring instruments used to record certain sub-processes (cf. e.g. Keenan, Betjemann & Olson, 2008).

Regardless of the different meanings assigned to the individual components in the various models, there is, however, a relatively high consensus as to which essential processes actually take place when reading. At a lower level in the hierarchy, all those aspects can be subsumed that have to do with deciphering the words and the syntax. This includes, for example, the fast and reliable recognition of characters, groups of letters, word components and whole words, the extraction of units of meaning (so-called propositions) from sentences, the reconstruction of the syntactic deep structure of a sentence and the linking of sentences and parts of sentences using so-called cohesion means (cf. . W. Lenhard, 2013, chapter 2.1). At a high hierarchical level, these meanings are inserted into a superordinate macrostructure or framework using one's own area-specific prior knowledge, a process known as global coherence formation. Self-regulation (i.e. the ability to monitor one's own understanding process) and inference formation (i.e. drawing conclusions that go beyond the text) play a major role here. Based on these processes, a mental representation emerges, the so-called situation model, which is a strongly condensed summary of the text content enriched by one's own prior knowledge and conclusions and reproducible in one's own words. So that the various sub-processes can be separated from each other by measurement, a differentiated consideration of word, sentence and text level is advisable in the psychometric recording of reading comprehension. Since the publication of the first version of this test (W. Lenhard & Schneider, 2006), numerous studies have been published in the international area that support this division (e.g. Ahmed, Wagner & Lopez, 2014; Klauda & Guthrie, 2008). It therefore represents the theoretical basis for the construction of the test procedure. The individual sub-processes are specified and described in more detail in the following sections on the basis of this division.

Word-level processes

Visual word recognition models

Recognizing the meaning of individual words plays a central role in the main goal of reading - namely, understanding the content of the written material. This is also clear from the fact that with automated reading, a single word is usually fixed for a certain period of time during the reading process and then a saccade (= jump in view) is used to jump to the next word. The reading process is essentially a word for word reading, at least for the experienced reader (Klicpera & Gasteiger-Klicpera, 1995).

However, a novice reader cannot yet grasp words in their entirety. His focus is (at least in relatively sound-faithful written languages ​​such as German) initially only on individual letters or groups of letters that represent a certain sound (e.g. "sch"). Even the identification of these smallest meanings that differ Units of language, i.e. graphemes, involve a number of difficulties with non-automated reading: First of all, the individual characters must be identified and assigned to a certain letter class, regardless of their shape, color and the type of font used (see Fig. 1). Due to the relatively complex syllable structure of German (cf. e.g. P. Marx, 2007, p. 24; Seymour, Aro & Erskine, 2003), the identification of the graphemes can be difficult even when recognizing the letter classes. For example, the letter group "sch" in the word "Engelschöre" does not represent the grapheme [sch], but rather the two graphemes [s] and [ch], which are separated from one another by a syllable boundary. Sometimes the recognition of syllable or word boundaries already plays a role for the identification of graphemes or typical grapheme groups (e.g. prefixes and suffixes). Sounds or sound classes must then be assigned to the graphemes, with the position of a character within a syllable as well as within the entire word having an effect on the phonetic realization. For example, the two "e" s in "send" are articulated differently, although they both have the same position within their respective syllable (see Fig. 2). As you can easily see from this, there is no unambiguous assignment of sounds to characters in German either.

If the reading process has not yet been automated, the identified sounds have to be stored in the correct order in the phonological loop of the working memory and then combined to form a sound sequence. The phonological structure of a word is thus reconstructed serially by means of phonological recoding of the graphemes. This is a process that demands a lot of phonological working memory resources. Only if it succeeds can a word from the semantic lexicon be assigned to the generated sound sequence, i. H. only then can what has been read be understood (decoded). In view of these requirements, it is not surprising that understanding reading can be severely limited by poorly developed basal functions (see e.g. Brandenburg et al., 2013; Fischbach, Preßler & Hasselhorn, 2012; Mähler & Schuchardt, 2012), but on the other hand The more automated the reading processes involved are, the easier and faster it is mastered (see e.g. Denton et al., 2011; Kim & Wagner, 2015; Silverman, Speece, Harring & Ritchey, 2013). With German-speaking children, this automation is usually promoted significantly within the first year of school, which means that the development of written language skills is very much gaining momentum. Words then no longer have to be laboriously deciphered, but can be assigned directly to the units of meaning and sound images from the semantic memory. Both strategies are ultimately available to the experienced reader: direct, holistic (i.e. automated) word recognition and indirect reading of words letter by letter.

The distinction between these two processing paths is at the same time the basic idea of ​​what is perhaps the most prominent theory of word recognition, the so-called. Two way theory (Dual route theory after Coltheart & Rastle, 1994 resp. Dual-Route Cascaded Model after Coltheart, Rastle, Perry, Langdon & Ziegler, 2001; see Fig. 3). It is not only in line with numerous neurological findings from the field of acquired dyslexia, but has also significantly stimulated research into subgroups of reading and spelling disorders (see e.g. Morris et al., 1998; Stanovich, Siegel, Gottardo, Chiappe & Sidhu, 1997; Fletcher et al. 1997). In addition, the two mechanisms can be demonstrated in the experienced reader during the reading process using imaging methods (cf. Dehaene, 2010, p. 116 f.): Both routes manifest themselves in independent neuronal networks in our brain and are activated in parallel in the experienced reader. Since the automated recognition of whole words is much faster than the recoding of the individual sounds, the direct route is usually used for the experienced reader. The second, indirect route is only chosen for words that are not represented in the semantic lexicon.

Influence of meaning and context on word recognition

Undoubtedly, the visual word recognition represents a basis for understanding reading, but it is by no means possible to assume a strict sequence from the simple to the complex. This is shown by the fact that the reading of words and characters also depends on the context and thus higher hierarchical processes have an effect on word recognition. In experimental research, context dependency in reading words and characters can be demonstrated as follows: If test subjects are presented with pseudo-words (i.e. word-like, but meaningless character strings) and meanings are arbitrarily assigned to some of these pseudo-words, then these "meaningful" pseudo-words can be read faster than the senseless. Likewise, one and the same character can be read faster if it occurs within a meaningful word, compared to an isolated presentation or embedding in meaningless strings - an effect that is called Word superiority effect and was first described by McKeen Cattell (1886; see also Balota, 1990). The embedding of characters in meaningful or meaningful words consequently affects the speed of recognition of the individual graphemes.

Similar effects can also be seen with regard to the embedding of words in sentences: the reader can use the context to correct or avoid reading errors and at the same time word recognition is accelerated by preactivating similar content (Oakhill & Garnham, 1988, p. 84) . The following two sentences provide an illustrative example: "The soldiers stayed in the guard room for a long time." vs. "He wanted to wax the leather, but found that the guard room was empty." The meaning and pronunciation of the word "Guardroom" can even only be deduced from the context when reading in this example. Experienced readers in particular find it easier to use the context to make predictions about the next word that occurs and to correct reading errors. Embedding words in a congruent context leads to accelerated word recognition compared to the isolated presentation of words without any context. Incongruent context, however, leads v. a. in children to slow down the recognition speed. In summary, it can be said that when reading, there is constant interaction between high-hierarchical and lower-hierarchical processes, which is already noticeable at the level of word comprehension.

Record-level processes

One key to understanding whole sentences is syntax; H. in the system of word order within sentences. Linguistic research distinguishes between the Surface structure and the Deep structure. The surface structure is understood as the immediately observable sequence of words. However, a word is not only related to the preceding and following word, but there are characteristic relationships between words or groups of words, which under certain circumstances can also be located far apart from one another within the sentence. In addition, the relationships are sometimes tightly interwoven. These relationships between words and groups of words are called the deep structure of the sentence. Only when it is deciphered can the sentence be understood (Christmann & Groeben, 1999; Richter & Christmann, 2002). Deciphering the individual word meanings does not guarantee understanding of the entire sentence. The meaning of the individual words can also change due to their position in the sentence or the appearance of other words. Note, for example, how the meaning of the word "Bank" in the following two sentences only changed by having the word "yourself" come in addition: "Because the requirements were too high for him, he put on the bench." vs. "Because the requirements were too high for him, he sat down on the bench."

Deciphering the deep structure of a sentence is called in linguistics parsing designated. This creates a propositional structure of the sentence, d. H. that now the word groups and their relationships - no longer the individual words - represent the basic information units. The mental structure of this structure of meaning is called local coherence building (see W. Lenhard, 2013, chapter 2.1.1).The difficulty with parsing is that the structure of the sentence can sometimes only be finally clarified once the sentence has been read in full. In one sentence, the one with the words "The teacher suggested ..." begins, most readers would do the part "The teacher" presumably identify first as the subject of the sentence. This would be correct, for example, if the sentence with "... open the book." would end. The sentence, however, takes a completely different turn when it ends with the following words "... the smallest of the rocker group, while his strong buddy took care of the school principal." The fact that an assumption about the meaning of a part of a sentence turns out to be wrong when you read it further is also known as Bogus or Dead end effect (engl. garden path effect; see Sanz, Laka & Tanenhaus, 2013). At the same time, this effect shows which high cognitive demands sometimes have to be met when reading sentences. After all, parsing not only requires that the individual read words are stored in the phonological loop, but hypotheses about the propositional structure of the sentence must be formed while reading and possibly revised again when reading on - a process that is extremely stressful represents for the executive functions of working memory. It is therefore not surprising that children with selective deficits in reading comprehension (but not in spelling) show, on average, strong underperformances in these cognitive functions (Brandenburg et al., 2013).

In accordance with the simple view of reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) mentioned above, many empirical studies show that the ability to decipher the structure of a sentence and to form local coherence makes an important contribution both to reading comprehension and to the General understanding of language provides: On the one hand, children with a good understanding of language are more easily able to recognize syntactic errors in grammatically complex sentences (Waltzman & Cairns, 2000). On the other hand, the syntactic skills also have a clear influence on reading comprehension (Ennemoser, Marx, Weber & Schneider, 2012), as can be shown especially in children with a migration background (Martohardjono et al., 2005; Gabriele, Troseth, Martohardjono & Otheguy, 2009). Nevertheless, the simple view of reading falls short for various reasons or in various places. One of these reasons is that spoken and written language usually differ from each other in some important ways. In written language, longer and grammatically more complex sentences are usually used (e.g. Chafe & Danielewicz, 1987; Weijenberg, 1980; Grundmann, 1975). In addition, spoken language has a much higher level of redundancy than written language. For example, the content of what is spoken is repeated more often with varying formulations. In addition, non-linguistic aspects such as gestures, facial expressions and prosody can support the conveyance of the content of spoken language, which is not the case with written language. In short, understanding written language is generally more cognitive than understanding spoken language.

In terms of school? and especially with a view to the elementary level? It must also be borne in mind that the written language acquisition takes place at an age at which language development has generally not yet been completed. For example, while at the beginning of elementary school children in active text production mainly temporary conjunctions such as "then" and "after that" prefer, the understanding of causal conjunctions such as "because", "therefore" and "consequently" only during the first six school years. Refunds within sentences (e.g. "Lea promised her friend that she would come to her today.") are regularly misinterpreted by primary school children (Oakhill & Garnham, 1988; cf. also A. Lenhard, Lenhard & Küspert, 2015, p. 28f). In the ELFE reading comprehension test, this fact is taken into account by the fact that precisely such neuralgic points of local coherence formation are taken up in the tasks in the sentence comprehension part.

Text-level processes

Cross-sentence information integration

At the next higher level of reading comprehension - text comprehension - information obtained from the analysis of individual sentences must be integrated and put together to form an overall picture (Klicpera & Gasteiger-Klicpera, 1995, p. 136; W. Lenhard, 2013, chap. 2.1.1). We have already described above that letters in words and words in sentences are not isolated next to each other. Likewise, sentences within texts are not isolated next to one another. Rather, they are through so-called. Cohesive agent linked (Christmann & Groeben, 1999). There are many different cohesive agents. Some of them already play a role at the sentence level, e.g. B. Conjunctions like "after that" and "therefore". Rhetorical stylistic devices can also act as a means of cohesion, such as B.

  • Lexeme recurrence (i.e. the resumption of words; e.g. "Mother is in Pomeranian Country. Pomeranian Country burned down." -> Mother is in a burned-down country.)
  • Cataphors (i.e., forward references; e.g. "If you had won the election, it would have been a first in US history. We're talking about Hillary Clinton.")
  • Anaphors (i.e. backlinks; e.g. "This is Mrs. Schmidt. you is the new biology teacher. ")
  • Ellipses (i.e., omissions; e.g. "I feel like pizza!", "I (have) also (in the mood for pizza)!")
The safe use and understanding of cohesion funds are not completed either at school entry or at the end of elementary school. In the field of developmental psychology, the point at which children are able to linguistically differentiate old and new information and to ensure discourse coherence by means of anaphoric references was examined (Grimm, 1998). The ability to link two sentences using anaphoric pronouns, for example, only develops from the age of about 5, i.e. at the time when the written language acquisition usually begins. Five-year-old children usually do not recognize when two sentences are linked by an anaphoric pronoun ("The princess .... You ....") results in pragmatically implausible stories. Seven-year-olds, on the other hand, are in a position to establish this reference in comparison to children who are two years younger. Other anaphoric forms, however, also cause problems for older children. Incidentally, these structures also include anaphoric references within a single sentence. For example, 10 year old children interpret the sentence 11% of the time "Peter's brother is tied up" incorrectly as "Peter binds himself tight" (Oakhill & Garnham, 1988, p. 58). Some tasks in the text comprehension part of ELFE II are explicitly aimed at this phenomenon, such as: B. the sentence "Alex is easy to find", which some children call "Alex finds it easy" instead of as "the other children find Alex easily" is interpreted.

Mental models

While word recognition, syntactic parsing of sentences, proposition formation and the linking of sentences are referred to as lower hierarchical processes, processes within larger text units are subsumed under the term hierarchical processes (cf. Richter & Christmann, 2002). So that this term is not misinterpreted, it should be pointed out explicitly at this point that high-hierarchical processes do not necessarily play a greater role in reading than lower-hierarchical processes. Rather, all processes must constantly interact with one another, i. H. all processes have to work so that what is read is understood. However, high-hierarchical processes are usually actually more complex processes. B. more material has to be processed and a higher level of abstraction has to be achieved.

When reading whole texts - analogous to sentence comprehension - the propositions (i.e. the meanings taken from the individual sentences) must be linked to one another across the text or at least across text sections. The meaning structure generated in this way is then condensed and converted into a mental image, a so-called mental model or situation model, which is independent of the specific word or sentence sequence of the text. The so-called Model of Discourse Comprehension according to van Dijk and Kintsch or the construction-integration model (Kintsch & van Dijk, 1978; van Dijk & Kintsch, 1983; Kintsch, 1998) conceives of this process as a two-stage process:

  1. In the first step - the construction process - as in section "Processes at the record level" described, the propositions of the sentences extracted. By activating existing knowledge nodes in long-term memory and drawing local conclusions (inferences), these propositions are related to one another. This enriches the structure with content that goes beyond the actual text content. The more extensive the previous knowledge, the easier it is to establish relationships between the propositions, the easier it is to draw inferences and the more stable the mental representation of the text content.
  2. In the design process, incorrect references are made and irrelevant information is extracted. The structure of the resulting network is still disordered and the relationships between the propositions unstable. In the integration phase, these problems are resolved and the network is transformed into a stable, coherent form. The result is a uniform meaning representation of the text, the situation model. This mental representation of the text content is at least partially independent of the actual text surface, i. H. it is no longer necessary to memorize the original words and their order. At the same time, it contains associations and conclusions that go beyond the text.
The previous knowledge or the integration of the newly acquired knowledge with the previous knowledge is an extremely important factor in the creation of mental models (Artelt et al., 2001). By the way, prior knowledge includes not only factual knowledge, but also knowledge of the structure and structure of a text (so-called story grammars) or about prototypical processes in everyday life (so-called schemes). These knowledge structures facilitate the process of understanding, since text content is pre-structured, typical processes or argumentation sequences are already known, it is easier to distinguish between important and unimportant information and the reader can generally orientate himself more easily (cf. W. Lenhard, 2013, Section 2.2.2) . Prior knowledge of typical text structures and the peculiarities of different types of text helps to build up expectations about the content of the text and to activate prior knowledge. Experienced readers know intuitively where information is located in a text. For example, factual texts usually begin with a definition or a brief outline of the topic. Subsequently, various aspects of the topic are dealt with in sub-chapters or text sections. Experienced readers usually adapt large gaps in coherence and contradicting information in texts to the schemes available to them. Contents are thus reshaped in such a way that they correspond to one's own prior knowledge and personal expectations.

Checking one's own understanding process is also extremely important for understanding reading. This is a metalinguistic skill that only develops over the years. Reading beginners usually still have serious problems with this. First graders usually fail to discover serious logical errors in texts themselves. Third graders notice that there were inconsistencies, but often cannot verbalize exactly which errors have occurred in the text (Oakhill & Garnham, 1988, p. 115 f.).

Inferential reading

One skill closely related to mental models is inferential reading, as mentioned earlier. In terms of reading comprehension, the term inference is not interpreted quite as strictly as in logic, but rather in the sense of "reading between or behind the lines" (Klicpera & Gasteiger-Klicpera, 1995, p. 138). It is therefore a matter of abstracting information from the literal realization and connecting different sentences with one another in such a way that a mental model of the text that goes beyond the text is created. Looking at the example "Anna tried to make a dress out of the beautiful material. The scissors were blunt and it gave her a lot of trouble."It is immediately clear to the reader that Anna is trying to cut out parts of the fabric with scissors. In order for this image to unfold in the mind's eye, however, various non-trivial and not necessarily logically compelling conclusions have to be drawn. For one, it is necessary to understand the terms scissors, dress and material to put them in an action-relevant relationship with one another. On the other hand, the anaphoric pronoun must be related to Anna.

Of these, necessary for text understanding are inferences further inferences that narrow, supplement or extend what is said in the text. The sentence "The waiter slipped on the freshly mopped floor and the expensive dishes fell to the floor" (Klicpera & Gasteiger-Klicpera, 1995, p. 138), for example, is usually interpreted in such a way that the dishes not only fall on the floor, but also break. This conclusion is not logically compelling either, it simply follows a heuristic. In the text comprehension test of ELFE II, therefore, specific tasks are presented in which the available information must be used to infer a process that is not itself described in the text.


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