The joy of reading comes from the ability to understand an author’s message; to laugh, to cry, to get angry, to be in awe of the knowledge learned, to put yourself in the situation the author is describing. To do that, readers have to be skilled at decoding and understanding language at many levels. Too many students do not enjoy reading because they struggle with understanding what is not explicitly explained. They cannot make inferences or understand ambiguous language due to the lack of background knowledge and grasping the nuances of the English language. There are three levels or models of text comprehension, all of which must be held in memory as students build their understanding of what they read. These are three ways that readers build and represent their understanding of what they read in memory: surface code, text base and the situational model (Bernaerts, et. al., 2013).The surface code refers to the exact language used to express ideas. Students that lack understanding of the vocabulary included in a particular text or lack knowledge of the syntactic features of the language being read could have difficulty with comprehension at the literal level. Students who understand the text base are able to restate the literal message of the text in their own words and can answer literal comprehension questions. These first two levels depend on an understanding of the syntax and semantics of English. You can find more information on these levels in the Language Structures section of this resource.
To understand text at a deeper level, a student must create a situational model or representation of what is read. In order to do this, she must infer information not directly stated by the author. In other words, a student uses the surface code as a set of cues to build the situational model which involves activating the appropriate background knowledge including general knowledge, memories, and interactions with other texts. (Bernaerts, et. al., 2013) See the Background Knowledge section of this resource for more information.
Consider the following sentence from the Language Structures section:
We can fish to store in the cellar so we have fish to eat in the winter.
As the reader, I have general knowledge of fish and that people eat fish. I understand this specific meaning of the word can (to preserve). I know that a cellar is used to store food and I understand that in some places winter can be very harsh and people cannot go outside. I also understand that eating is necessary for survival. As the reader, I have control of the surface code and text base of this text. As I hold that information in memory, I start to build the situational model of what I am reading. I immediately pull up memories of my grandparent’s cellar and picture the canned food on the shelves. I remember walking down the concrete steps, the musty smell, the spider webs, and the cool feeling of the air. I know that the process of canning food takes time and preserves food for long periods because I have that personal experience. Because of movies I have seen or books I have read, I fill in information that the author did not explicitly explain using my background knowledge – these people are storing food for the winter months because they may not be able to get outside to find food in the winter. I can infer that they live by water because fish live in water and that they catch the fish themselves. I can infer that they are worried about having enough food for the winter because they are canning food and storing it – not eating it right away. I create a situation in my memory based on the words and my background knowledge.
A student that lacks general knowledge or background knowledge about the words in the text will have a very difficult time understanding what he reads beyond a literal level. This section includes strategies that address this challenge of understanding the text at a literal and non-literal level.
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