An Interview with the Expert…On Reading Comprehension

25 March 2017

Professor Kate Cain is Head of the Psychology department at Lancaster University. She is a renowned expert on reading comprehension, which is obviously such a crucial issue to understand for teachers of students in all phases. Her book, ‘Reading Development and Difficulties‘ is available to purchase.


We are delighted to say that Professor Kate Cain  is speaking at our Research School conference in Scunthorpe on May 24th on Reading comprehension development and difficulties: the contribution of different component skills’. You can find out more and book your place at the conference here: CONFERENCE BOOKING.


Can you tell me a little about your professional role?

I am an academic, based in the Department of Psychology at Lancaster University, but my research involves working with professionals in Educational Psychology, Clinical Psychology, and Speech and Language Therapy, as well as academics based in Psychology, Linguistics, and Education Departments. The focus of my research is the development of reading comprehension, looking at the different language and cognitive skills that drive development and that are implicated in comprehension breakdown. I am currently Head of Department so have very little time for teaching, but when I do get a break from admin, I teach on our programmes for psychology undergraduates and masters students, not teacher training or special ed programmes, which might seem strange to some given the nature of my research.

How and why do you get involved with young people and schools?

After my undergraduate degree (in Experimental Psychology at the University of Sussex) I worked as a research assistant on a project examining adults’ reading comprehension, led by Alan Garnham and Jane Oakhill. When I was considering PhD options, it was Jane’s work on children’s reading comprehension that inspired me to focus in that area. So I spent 3 years on my doctorate examining the profiles of children with specific reading comprehension difficulties and was then lucky to get a 5-year postdoctoral position working with Jane and Peter Bryant on a longitudinal study of reading comprehension development. So, it was my basic research that took me into schools. Although theoretically driven, my research clearly has applications in the classroom: after all, reading comprehension is the ultimate aim of reading, and it has always been important to me to feed back the results of this research to teachers and other professionals. In the early days, this was mainly through school staff meetings and inset days, but in recent years I have been a regular presenter at conferences and seminars for education and language professionals, as well. Just now, we are working with teachers to pilot a whole-class comprehension program in key stages 2 and 3, and teachers are involved in the development of the training materials for the teachers who deliver the intervention.

Do you think that knowing and understanding the research about reading comprehension is useful for a school teacher?

Absolutely. In any classroom, teachers are faced with a range of ability and experience. They cannot simply teach all children in the same way, as if following a recipe. For example, my research confirms the view that reading comprehension can fail for different reasons: some children will have poor reading comprehension because their word reading is weak; others have weak language skills. These two sources of reading comprehension difficulty require different support and intervention. A teacher who understands the different reasons for why comprehension can fail can provide more tailored support for children with specific difficulties. And they will also know how to stretch and develop the more able children.

What aspect of research around reading and child development do you think proves the most powerful knowledge for a teacher? 

I think that the simple view of reading, as a framework for reading development and reading difficulties is incredibly useful for teachers to understand. The simple view proposes that reading comprehension is the product of word reading ability and listening comprehension; both skills are important. A child who cannot read any words, cannot be said to have reading comprehension skills (even though they may have good understanding of texts read aloud to them). Conversely, being able to read the words fluently but without comprehension does not make one a skilled comprehender (for example my ability to read German far exceeds my understanding). The simple view does not propose that learning to read is simple; we know that is not the case. What the simple view illustrates is the changing relationships between word reading, listening comprehension, and reading comprehension over time: as children become more skilled at word reading, their language comprehension skills become the key to reading comprehension success. The simple view also demonstrates the different sources of reading comprehension failure that I mentioned before: weaknesses with word reading and language comprehension.

The role of vocabulary development in reading comprehension is recognised as important. What do you think are the most effective ways to help a child develop their vocabulary?

Vocabulary knowledge is important for reading and listening comprehension; children who do not know the meanings of critical words in the text may fail to understand key ideas. In that respect, you can view vocabulary as a foundation for passage-level comprehension and is important to make sure that critical content words are known by children, particularly when studying a new topic. However, the relationship between vocabulary and reading comprehension goes both ways. Vocabulary is what we call an unconstrained skill: we continue to learn the meanings of new words, or nuances of words we already know, throughout our lifetime, and we learn most of those words from books. My work has shown that children with good reading comprehension skills are better able to work out the meanings of new or unfamiliar words from context. So, good comprehension skills can help to build vocabulary knowledge. Because books contain more rare and infrequent words than everyday conversation, teaching children how to use context to figure out the meanings of new words (as well as dictionary skills) and encouraging them to read widely to create opportunities for word learning is important.

What would be the best advice for a teacher struggling with an adolescent student who is struggling to comprehend what they read given the increase in academic language?

Adolescent students might struggle for different reasons. One is the transition from learning to read to reading to learn; if their comprehension skills in general are weak, they will struggle across the curriculum in secondary school because they are required to learn from books. However, the structures used in textbooks are varied, so this can result in difficulties. There are a range of structures that can be used, such as cause and effect, compare and contrast, description, sequence and others. Unfortunately, many textbooks (or sections in a book) do not use just a single structure, but include a range of them. What can help children is to teach them the signaling words that are used for each, so words and phrases such as ‘because’, ‘consequently’, and ‘as a result of’ signal cause-effect relationships, and sequences are identified by words such as ‘first’, ‘then’, ‘finally’, etc.

Do you have any advice for parents dealing with their children who are learning to read?

Don’t just focus on word decoding. We read to understand and we need to support children to become interested, motivated and happy readers. Reading – particularly in the early years – is a social activity and reading should be fun. Reading stories aloud to children from an early age, asking questions, and talking about books, are all important activities to foster good comprehension skills and provide a foundation for later skilled reading comprehension.



Posted on 25 March 2017
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