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Comprehension: A Definition

At its simplest, comprehension means to understand what is being communicated. While this seems straight-forward to us as literate adults, its actually an incredibly complicated process for young children to master. Most researchers distinguish between listening comprehension and reading comprehension. The two are related, and both draw upon similar areas in the brain to process incoming information, but there are some important differences. We will explore these, and the impact they have on teaching young children, below.

Listening Comprehension
Listening comprehension is the ability to follow, process, and understand spoken language. When someone tells you a story about their trip to the doctor, you are using your listening comprehension to follow along. If, in the midst of their story, they suddenly add, Red-eyed tree frogs make good pets, it is your listening comprehension skills that catch the disjointedness of the comment. Children use their listening comprehension skills when talking to their friends, getting directions from a teacher, watching their favorite cartoons, and most importantly for this discussion when listening to a story book being read aloud. Indeed, one of the best ways to help children build their listening comprehension skills is to read and discuss stories with them from a very young age. These experiences, listening to narratives, discussing story plots and character motives, making up stories, sharing dialog, provide children with valuable exposure to decontextualized language.

Reading Comprehension
Reading comprehension is the degree to which we understand what we read. When we pick up the newspaper and read about the latest election results, call up a web site and read directions on installing a new light switch, or grab a novel off the shelf of the local bookstore, we are using our reading comprehension skills to gather information from text. Reading comprehension is a tricky topic, and century old debates about what it entails, how it happens, and how to best facilitate it still rage in academic circles. However, everyone agrees that reading comprehension is the ultimate end-goal of reading. If we do not read to understand, then we read for nothing. Reading comprehension is tied to listening comprehension in a basic and intuitive way. Most people perceive reading as a process of taking coded, written language and tranforming it into decoded, spoken language. Although the details of this remain unresolved, and many experts question that the process involves so simple a translation, it is fair to say that for young children up to second grade, this is precisely what happens. For primary grade students, reading really is a direct decoding of written text into spoken words, which are then processed as spoken language via the same mechanisms that make listening comprehension possible.

Writing comprehension
Teachers consistently plan for reading and writing instruction but often do not make connections between them. It is important, especially for younger or struggling students, that reading and writing connections are made. Student learning and application of reading and writing strategies should be so intertwined that it is difficult to see where one stops and one begins. As reading comprehension strategies are taught in teacher-directed whole group instruction students should also be writing. In addition, writing should be directly related to the reading comprehension strategy and focus.

Schemata Theory
One popular theory of learning is the Schemata Theory. According to Moffitt, schemata are "organized, structured, clustered and abstract bodies of information that are generally conceptualized as networks of information in which the relationships among facts and actions are specified" This theory hypothesizes that the schemata a person uses during learning will determine how the learner interprets the task to be learned, how the learner understands the information, and what knowledge the learner acquires. Rumelhart and Norman (1978) account for learning based on a schema-based theory of long-term memory.They posit three distinct types of learning:

1) Restructuring or schema creation, where the learner creates a new schema because none existed into which new information could fit. This is the most difficult type of learning; 2) Accretion, where the learner encodes new information in terms of existing schemata. It is hypothesized that this is how prior knowledge of a topic makes it easier to learn new information on that topic. 3) Tuning or schema evolution, where the learner makes slow refinements or alterations to an existing schema as it is used in different situations. Tuning takes place over the lifetime of an individual and is important in the movement from novice to expert. Schemata and Prior Learning Prior knowledge means that facts can be used independently of the context in which they were learned (Johnson & Kieras, 1983). How much prior knowledge is activated during learning affects what is learned and how meaningful the learned material is. Lack of relevant prior knowledge may cause failure to link new information with existing information that could make the new information easier to understand and remember Schemata theory is important in explaining how prior knowledge aids in the acquisition of new knowledge. According to the theory, - prior knowledge is stored in schemata. - New knowledge is either stored in existing schemata (that is, prior knowledge), - or in new schemata. According to Norman, it is easier to store new knowledge in existing schemata than to create new schemata. "When you already have the proper conceptual framework, accretion is easy, painless, efficient... but when there isn't a good conceptual background, then accretion is slow and arduous" Gagn describes three ways new learning is influenced by prior knowledge 1) Prior knowledge helps the learner remember new information by creating more memory cues; 2) Prior knowledge fills gaps in the new knowledge, supplies conventional details, and changes some ideas; and 3) Prior knowledge of simpler component skills is necessary in order to learn new procedural or rulegoverned intellectual skills.

David Paul Ausubel

was an American psychologist born in New York. His most significant contribution to the fields of educational psychology, cognitive science, and science education learning, was on the development and research on advance organizers (since 1960). Ausubel was influenced by the teachings of Jean Piaget. Similar to Piagets ideas of conceptual schemes, Ausubel related this to his explanation of how people acquire knowledge. David Ausubel theorized that people acquire knowledge primarily by being exposed directly to it rather than through discovery In other words, Ausubel believed that understanding concepts, principles, and ideas are achieved through deductive reasoning. Similarly, he believed in the idea of meaningful learning as opposed to rote memorization. He says that If he had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, he would say this: The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows.

Ascertain this and teach him accordingly Through his belief of meaningful learning, Ausubel developed his theory of advance organizers.

1. Comparative Organizers
The main goal of comparative organizers is to activate existing schemas. Similarly, they act as reminders to bring into the working memory of what you may not realize is relevant. By acting as reminders, the organizer points out explicitly whether already established anchoring ideas are nonspecifically or specifically relevant to the learning material. Similarly, a comparative organizer is used both to integrate as well as discriminate. It integrates new ideas with basically similar concepts in cognitive structure, as well as increases discriminability between new and existing ideas which are essentially different but confusable similar.

2. Expository Organizers
In contrast, expository organizers provide new knowledge that students will need to understand the upcoming information. Expository organizers are often used when the new learning material is unfamiliar to the learner. They often relate what the learner already knows with the new and unfamiliar material, this in turn is aimed to make the unfamiliar material more plausible to the learner.

Info gap activities

Information gap activities work well in a variety of lesson plan activities such as vocabulary, reading comprehension and math activities. Information gap activities are those in which students exchange information in order to complete a required lesson plan activity. Most information gap activities are done in pairs, with each student having a part of the information. They are especially effective when used as vocabulary activities during the pre-reading part of a reading lesson, but they can also be applied to reading comprehension and math activities as well. For example, this strategy can be used to teach new vocabulary from a passage students haven't yet read. Student A would have the vocabulary words written on strips of paper and student B would have the definitions of those words. Working together, they pair words and definitions to learn new vocabulary. In an information gap activity, one person has certain information that must be shared with others in order to solve a problem, gather information or make decisions. These types of activities are extremely effective in the classroom. They give every student the opportunity to speak in the target language for an extended period of time and students naturally produce more speech than they would otherwise. In addition, speaking with peers is less intimidating than presenting in front of the entire class and being evaluated. Another advantage of information gap activities is that students are forced to negotiate meaning because they must make what they are saying comprehensible to others in order to accomplish the task