The comprehension approach is most strongly associated with the linguists Harris Winitz, Stephen Krashen, Tracy D. Terrell and James J. Asher. The comprehension-based methodology mostly commonly found in classrooms is Asher's Total Physical Response approach; Krashen and Terrell's Natural Approach has not been widely applied. English as a Second Language Podcast is a more recent application of the comprehension approach grounded in Krashen's theories.
The comprehension approach is based on theories of linguistics, specifically Krashen's theories of second language acquisition, and is also inspired by research on second language acquisition in children, particularly the silent period phenomenon in which many young learners initially tend towards minimal speaking. In contrast, the communicative approach is largely a product of research in language education.
Comprehension approach refers to a method of learning a new language through the process of understanding the meaning of words and expressions in the language as opposed to any other form of language learning. Other methods that may be used as part of the progression of language learning include the process of learning the letters, symbols and other representations of the language first before actually understanding the meaning of the words. The difference between the compression approach and the other more scientific approach to learning a new language lies in the fact that the comprehension approach is simply another dimension toward learning a new language. The comprehension approach usually involves a silent period when the learner tries to assimilate the various meanings of the words that make up the target language. How long the silent period lasts depends on the skills of the learner in terms of comprehension ability and general cognitive skills, as someone who is a quick study may be able to quickly grasp the basic concepts of a new language faster than others. During the silent period, the new language learner will try as much as possible to understand what the words mean and how to pronounce them. The disadvantage of this type of approach is that some people who are not very confident might decide to wait until they feel that they have totally grasped the concepts of the language, including the correct pronunciation, before attempting to speak that language. This may be due to a reluctance to mispronounce the words or to misapply the language while attempting to speak it.
An advantage of the comprehension approach of language learning is the fact that when the learner eventually understands the meaning and the correct application of the words, the language will sound more effortless when he or she speaks it in contrast to other forms of language learning, which may result in more stilted efforts. Since the comprehension approach requires a deliberate effort to understand the language first, it often leads to situations where the language learner might understand the general gist of the language, but lack the ability to speak it. This phenomenon may be attributed to the fact that the brain is a complex entity that allows for the resources to compartmentalize different cognitive skills, as is clearly evident in the ability to learn the meaning of a language first before speaking it.
Winitz founded the International Linguistics Corporation in 1976 to supply comprehension-based materials known as The Learnables; several positive articles have been published testing these picturebooks with their accompanying audio recordings, mostly with Winitz as co-author.
Levels of Comprehension
- Literal or text-explicit comprehension: Often described as “reading on the lines,” this level requires the reader to process information that is explicitly stated in the text, to understand what the author specifically reported. For example, the reader may be called on to recall or locate precisely stated main ideas, details, directions, or sequences of events. Literal comprehension requires a lower level of thinking skills than the other three levels because the reader must only recall from memory what the book said. Still it is the foundation for content-area courses and remains the most frequently tested comprehension category. It consumes the bulk of instructional time in the classroom and is the level that struggling readers and ELLs strive to attain.
- Interpretive or text-implicit comprehension: Described frequently as “reading between the lines,” this level demands that the reader process ideas based on what was read but not explicitly stated in the text. It involves understanding what the author meant, and the reader must call on his or her intuition, personal experiences, and imagination as the foundation for making inferences. Children may be asked to predict outcomes, find main ideas, determine word meanings from context, draw conclusions, make generalizations, or infer cause-and-effect relationships. Behaviours commonly associated with critical thinking are involved in text-implicit comprehension, which is said to separate the active reader from the passive reader.
- Critical or applied comprehension: Sometimes stated as “reading beyond the lines,” this level requires readers to integrate their own thinking with the facts from the text. Consequently, they evaluate and apply information and ideas from the printed page to their own experiences and judgment.
- Creative comprehension: This most advanced level calls for readers to develop original ideas based on the pages read. They must use divergent thinking skills as they ponder new or alternative solutions to problems or crises presented by the writer.
Factors that influence comprehension approachThere are several factors that influence comprehension approach. The first of these factors is purpose, which focuses the readers’ attention and helps them understand the text. While teachers routinely help students focus in the classroom, self-directed purpose is the better route to promote the feeling of competency that leads students to independent reading both in and out of school. In the classroom, children can make individual predictions about their reading (e.g., Do tsunamis occur in only one part of the world?), and those predictions then become purposes under the careful direction of their teacher. Outside of school, students may wish to assemble a toy for a younger sibling, and thus reading the directions for that task also has a clear purpose. In both instances, comprehension is stronger when the purpose is specific.
The second is being an active reader because active readers, according to Blachowitz and Ogle, think as they read. They use their prior knowledge (which stems from previous experiences) and their vocabulary as well as reading strategies to help them comprehend what they are reading presently.
The third factor that affects comprehension is the type of text being used. Children who have had experience with story texts may encounter difficulty with expository or informational materials. Therefore, they should be introduced to these materials early and review them often as they usually contain concepts, vocabulary, and format that are markedly different from those found in storybooks. Teachers must keep in mind that the less familiarity students have with expository texts, the harder it is for them to comprehend such books.
The fourth factor affecting comprehension is the quality of literacy instruction. They emphasize literature by reading aloud, maintaining a classroom library, and discussing books and author studies; they integrate the curriculum by making direct connections between reading/writing and the content areas. These instructors manage all aspects of classroom learning, including planning, scheduling, and student behavior, and they maintain an environment characterized by fair rules, high expectations, and a learning atmosphere. They offer supportive instructional context by monitoring student accomplishments and establishing realistic but challenging expectations. Finally, they promote self-monitored learning by teaching students how to organize their work habits and use their time productively.
The fifth factor influencing comprehension is interest. When children are curious about a subject, sometimes to the point of absorption, they will read to seek information and discover answers. Some students can even be described as hyperlexic—their interest in reading is strong enough to qualify them as avid readers.
The last and final factor is independent practice preceded by adequate instruction. Life-long readers evolve from students who are allowed to choose their own books, read them independently in class daily, and have the opportunity to discuss and share them with classmates.
- Winitz (1981); Gary & Gary (1981a and 1981b).
- "Language Acquisition Methods". LTG. 15 January 2014. Retrieved 9 February 2014.
- See www.sdkrashen.com for some of Krashen's books and articles, available on-line.
- Asher (1969; 1981). Further information is available at TPR-World (Sky Oaks Productions, Inc.).
- Krashen & Terrell (1983).
- Krashen (1982).
- Winitz et al. (1995); cf. Gibbons (1985), whose own interpretation of the 'silent period' is that children's silence reflects lack of linguistic knowledge or bewilderment within their new language environment.
- Acar (2005: 4).
- "The Comprehension Approach" 54 (8 (May, 1959), pp. 344-345). May 1959.
- e.g. Winitz (2003); see also the International Linguistics Corporation's Learnables materials on-line.
- e.g. McCandless & Winitz (1986).
- "Learning from text, levels of comprehension, or: Why anyone would read a story anyway". Poetics 9 (1–3, June 1980, Pages 87–98): Pages 87–98. June 1980.
- "Listening techniques for a Comprehension Approach" (PDF). victoria.
- Acar, A (2005) 'The "communicative competence" controversy.' Asian EFL Journal 7(3). Retrieved 20 January 2007.
- Asher JJ (1969) 'The total physical response approach to second language learning.' The Modern Language Journal 53: 3-17.
- Asher JJ (1981) The total physical response: theory and practice. In H. Winitz (ed.) Native Language and Foreign Language Acquisition. New York: New York Academy of Sciences. pp. 324–331.
- Gary JO. & Gary N (1981a) Comprehension-based language instruction: practice. In H. Winitz (ed.) Native Language and Foreign Language Acquisition. New York: New York Academy of Sciences. pp. 343–357.
- Gary JO. & Gary N (1981b) Comprehension-based language instruction: theory. In H. Winitz (ed.) Native Language and Foreign Language Acquisition. New York: New York Academy of Sciences. pp. 332–342.
- Gibbons J (1985) 'The silent period: an examination.' Language Learning 35: 255-267.
- Krashen SD (1982) Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon.
- Krashen SD & TD Terrell (1983) The Natural Approach. New York: Pergamon.
- McCandless P & Winitz H (1986) 'Test of pronunciation following one year of comprehension instruction in college German.' The Modern Language Journal 70: 355-362.
- Winitz H (ed.) (1981) The Comprehension Approach to Foreign Language Instruction. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
- Winitz H (2003) The Learnables, Book 1. Kansas City, MO: International Linguistics Corporation. 6th edition.
- Winitz H, Gillespie B & Starcev J (1995). 'The development of English speech patterns of a 7-year-old Polish-speaking child.' Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 24: 117-143.