Comprehension in reading is the understanding that one acquires from text. It is the process in which meaning is constructed and is a main goal of reading instruction for elementary students. Without a literal understanding of text, higher-order thinking and analysis cannot be achieved. “Comprehension is the reason for reading. If readers can read the words but do not understand what they are reading, they are not really reading.” (Armbruster, Lehr, and Osborn 2002). Lapp and Fischer (2009) define comprehension as a “complex process that happens in the reader’s mind”—a metacognitive strategy that is controlled by the reader.
In the year 2000, the National Reading Panel identified key areas for educators to focus on in reading instruction in the early primary years: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension (Armbruster, Lehr, and Osborn 2002). Their findings concluded that instruction within these areas effectively support reading and the development of decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and background knowledge directly and positively impact student understanding and comprehension. If students cannot decode the letters in front of them, they will not understand what they are reading. If they do not understand the meanings of the words in the text, they will not understand the text. However, once those skills are in place, background knowledge has been found to be critical in helping students make metacognitive connections. Willingham (2007) goes on to state that, “If we’re concerned about having students who are good readers we have to recognize that reading is an interaction between the words on the page and the knowledge in the reader’s head. Without background knowledge, you can’t comprehend a text to a level we would call ‘understanding.'”
Over the past 25 years, research in reading comprehension has found that good readers exhibit certain behaviors or use various techniques when they read to make meaning out of what is in front of them. Good readers are in control of their own comprehension processes. Their behaviors include (but are not limited to) the construction, revision, and questioning of the meaning of what they are reading; checking for understanding; reviewing of text, headings, and graphics before beginning to read; making predictions; thinking about what they are reading while they are reading; setting a purpose for reading; reading selectively; integrating what they know about the topic; reflecting; summarizing; and paraphrasing (Duke and Pearson 2002) (Pressley and Afferblack 1995). In addition, self-monitoring, the ability to understand how sentences relate to one another, and the use of background knowledge are critical to the development of understanding. Good readers often take notes while reading and write to learn, so that they can further gain meaning from the text.
When students become aware of what good readers do and then learn to use these strategies before, during, and after reading, they can enhance their abilities to comprehend. The use of the strategies help students think about what they are reading, understand what is being read, and remember what has been read. They all have a positive impact on developing student meaning and help learners become active and critical readers who have the ability to approach various text types, styles, and ranges.
Strategies for the Classroom
Facilitating student development of the metacognitive skills depicted in the previous diagram can be introduced through specific strategies utilized before, during, or after the reading process. Integrating teacher modeling, guided and independent practice in cooperative settings (reciprocal teaching), the use of graphic organizer tools, and student writing (or writing to learning) throughout reading instruction and content area studies of both fiction and nonfiction texts develops comprehension (Lapp and Fischer 2009). Researchers and educators are finding that the “bundling” of these strategies or instructional routines is an effective instructional strategy (as opposed to teaching them in isolation) for they reflect the simultaneous processes that occur in a reader’s mind throughout (before, during, and after) reading.
Teacher Modeling: Having students see the teacher use a strategy, such as a technique called a “Think-Aloud,” models the process for students who then can learn to use it independently. A Think-Aloud allows listeners to experience someone’s thinking as they vocalize their thoughts. It models the way that skilled readers make meaning form text and shows students how to monitor comprehension and direct their thinking. A reader stops at key points in the text and then makes predictions, checks for understanding, reflects, and questions. Teachers can demonstrate the techniques that good readers use and then provide the opportunities for students to practice those same techniques.
- The teacher should begin the Think-Aloud process by modeling the strategy to students as they read a text aloud, pausing at the intervals during which this strategy would support the comprehension process. Statements such as “I think this chapter is going to be about…” or “The clue in this sentence as to the meaning of this vocabulary word is…” or “I never realized that…” can be used.
- Next, the teacher selects a passage for students to read silently as the teacher reads aloud, stopping at various intervals and providing opportunities for students to share their thinking in small groups and with the whole class. Questions to use can include:
- What do I understand or know already about this topic?
- What do I think is going to happen next?
- What did I learn?
- What do I think I will learn?
- Do I understand what I have just read?
- What kind of picture does this form in my mind?
- What can I do to understand this better?
- What does this remind me of?
- What was important?
- What were the most important points in this reading?
- How does it fit in with what I already know?
- What questions do I have?
- Then, students are provided with opportunities to read, stop, and think in small groups or with partners.
- Finally, students reflect on their think-aloud in either a whole class discussion or individual journaling. “By getting students to reflect on the process of thinking aloud as they read, we’re encouraging them to recognize the difference between reading the words and comprehending the text.” (Farr and Conner 2004)
Teacher modeling can also be integrated into other strategies such as “Questioning the Author” (QtA), in which questions related to the meaning, craft, and character of the writer are discussed or reflected upon. Questions can include: Does this make sense to you? Did the author tell us why? How does the author let you know that something has changed?
Reciprocal Teaching: In this instructional activity, students work together in small groups discussing a text while developing the comprehension strategies of prediction, clarification, question generation, and summarization. Students take turns being the facilitator of the group and presenting ideas or questions based on the comprehension strategy they are assigned. The teacher should always begin this type of activity by modeling the types of questions and ideas they would share for each of the strategies.
- Students are placed in groups of four and provided cards containing an assigned role for each student: Questioner, Clarifier, Summarizer, and Predictor.
- Students read a selected passage (or several paragraphs of the passage) and take notes in relation to their unique role. They can use note-taking strategies such as recording information on sticky notes or highlighting and taking notes directly on photocopied pages.
- At a given point, students take turns participating in a conversation about the text they have read:
- The Questioner poses questions such as those about parts that are unclear, information that is puzzling, or connections to the real world.
- The Clarifier addresses confusing areas of the text and answer the questions posed by the Questioner.
- The Summarizer identifies the main ideas of the passage.
- The Predictor offers ideas relating to what they think they will happen next or what the text will be about.
- Students then switch roles by giving their card to the person on their right. This process continues until all students have the opportunity to experience each role.
Graphic Organizers: Graphic organizers help users construct meaning and develop a mental image of ideas presented in the text. These tools illustrate key concepts as well as the relationships between concepts, and help students understand the structure and organization of writing. Sometimes called mind maps or concepts diagrams, these tools help support student understanding as text grows more complicated. They can be used to discern meaning from text, make connections among and between ideas, and evaluate ideas in order to interpret and understand. They support comprehension at any stage of the reading process and are effective with both fiction and nonfiction texts. Educators can organize ideas before students begin reading in order to build background knowledge or key vocabulary; support students during reading to identify key points or pose questions; or model the organization of ideas after reading to help develop connections. Graphic organizers can be used to prompt students as to what they should be thinking about when reading a story. Students can better focus on ideas, record examples, and draw conclusions about what they have read.
Examples of graphic organizers that support comprehension include Venn diagrams which compare and contrast information from two sources; storyboards or organizers that show a chain of events and help students understand sequencing, cause/effect maps that illustrate relationships between concepts, and story structure diagrams that show how a story is organized with a beginning, middle and end.
Writing to Learn: The use of writing is a powerful instructional routine that provides students the opportunity to recall, clarify, and question. It also takes students beyond literal understanding and helps them to “synthesize, analyze, integrate new ideas with what they know, or perform countless other reading tasks that are integral to reading to learn” (Griggs, Daane and Campbell 2003)—skills the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) deem as important. Writing to learn has students think about and find words to explain what they are learning.
Educators can integrate writing into the reading process in a number of ways. One widely preferred writing to learn method is the use of journaling. Students record information and ideas in a reader response or content reflection journal. Providing a list of questions that students can choose from and the time to reflect on reading they have done can provide the teacher with insights into the student’s thinking and is an effective way to check for understanding. Writing also helps readers think through the process and clarify their thoughts. Other types of journal writing include the technique of double entries, in which students record various quotes from the text, and then their own reflections or responses to the text next to them.
Lesley Roessing in her book “The Write to Read: Response Journal that Increase Comprehension” (review by Peterson 2010) describes an activity in which students respond to a question about something they are reading and then pass the note to a partner, who in turn writes a response and then passes the note on. There are many areas to look for opportunity to respond to reading and relate both reading and writing to one another, in order to enhance student understanding.
Many schools have also successfully integrating student blogging into the classroom curriculum. Classroom teachers have found that students are more reflective and thoughtful in their blog posts because they are writing to a larger audience.
Using the Strategies Effectively
Developing solid comprehension is the foundation upon which higher thinking skills are built and is the higher-level skill of reading understanding. As defined by Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking skills (Bloom 1956), comprehension is the grasping of the meaning of informational materials, and needs to be developed in order for application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation to be achieved. Once students have literal understanding, they can build on higher thinking skills. Writing, graphic organizers, and talking about text can all stretch student thinking so that they are critically and creatively engaged in developing understanding and constructing their own learning.
The use of teacher modeling, reciprocal teaching, graphic organizers, and writing to learn can be used throughout the entire educational process in all areas of the curriculum. Teachers can model their thinking about math word problems and then have students reflect on ways they came to a solution. Students can use a graphic organizer to help them understand the concept of the water cycle after reading an informational text on the process. And cooperative groups of students can employ the reciprocal teaching strategy to understand a reading that compares two different communities during a social studies lesson.
By using a variety of strategies that encourage students to become actively engaged in text, understanding the metacognitive processes that good readers possess, and integrating the various instructional routines that present effective strategies to students, teachers can enhance students’ reading comprehension, develop thinking skills, and improve student learning of the curriculum content—before, during, and after reading.
This article was originally written October 2011, by R. Puskorius.
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