The goal of all reading is comprehension. We read to understand the printed code and to find meaning. This is a given, no matter how we teach reading.
So if we are to comprehend text, we need to be able to represent words in memory, supported by vocabulary, syntax and background knowledge relevant to what is being read (Kilpatrick 2015, p. 135). This makes sense, but how memory works and how words are stored in the brain is not well understood by many teachers. This knowledge can make a major difference to how we teach and even how we think about our practice.
While it's clear that beginner readers are less proficient at reading than skilled readers, it is important to understand there is a difference between the skills necessary to enable early reading that are different to those that enable skilled reading.
Early reading is enabled by specific skills (language comprehension and word recognition) that need to have a strong foundation before skilled reading can be developed or is even possible for many children.
Once language comprehension and word recognition (decoding) skills are well embedded, it is possible for words to be stored in long-term memory for almost instant retrieval (See Sight Words and Orthographic Mapping).
As we become more skilled and words become instantly recognisable (usually after 1-4 exposures of a word whose orthographic and phonological structures have been successfully linked), inferencing and contextual clues become increasingly relevant to assist us (not to enable us) to read rapidly and with fluency (Kilpatrick 2015).
However, neither inferencing or contextual cues are important for word recognition in the initial phase of learning to read; instead they are better suited to support other aspects such as the learning of irregular grapheme-phoneme relationships to assist comprehension (Hoover & Tunmer 2020). This suggests that inferencing and contextual cues are more appropriate for later, skilled reading or the second phase of learning to read once word recognition is well established.
Below is a diagram that explains the different skills required for early reading and skilled reading. (It's modelled on the Sydney Harbour Bridge for reasons I'll make clear one day...). The point is that all children's early reading actually begins with the quality of their oral language experience. While some children may come to school with less of this capital, the job of teachers is to ensure all children receive a rich language experience when they reach school, building background knowledge and vocabulary from day one through explicit and systematic teaching.
Early reading is based on this foundation and enabled by the two pillars you see in the diagram that support early reading comprehension. These two pillars are language comprehension and word recognition (decoding).
Once children are able to independently and reliably recognise, manipulate, blend and segment grapheme-phoneme correspondences and decode unknown words, they are able to read independently and develop the skills to become fluent, skilled readers.
In other words, there are distinct phases of learning to read. The skills that enable early reading must precede those that develop skilled reading.
Comprehension is an OUTCOME,
not a strategy.
Dr. Anita Archer.
Dr Nancy Hennessy discusses how she thinks about Reading Comprehension and Scarborough's Reading Rope
for practical guides to teaching comprehension according to the SoR.