Every student can benefit from comprehension instruction. Essentially, every time I meet with a small group to read a text, comprehension is the ultimate goal. To scaffold them and help them be successful, I choose text where students have some basic comprehension.
Students who are good decoders but can’t tell you what they’ve read need extra small-group instruction on how to comprehend. If you’re using an assessment such as DRA or an informal reading inventory (IRI) and find the students decode on grade level but can’t retell what they’ve read, those students need small-group work with comprehension, too. Likewise, if you’re using an assessment like DIBELS that does a quick measure of comprehension, use that data to form groups with students low in retelling for extra work on comprehension.
Often overlooked are kids who have some basic comprehension but don’t go any deeper with their thinking. These students will greatly benefit from small-group instruction with a focus on deeper comprehension, such as inferring. Above-level readers can also learn to go deeper in their thinking in guided small-group lessons with a focus on comprehension. Work with them on determining importance in nonfiction, understanding humor and deeper plots in fiction, and building background knowledge when they read texts for which they have little schema. I prefer to help kids think more deeply, rather than to keep pushing them through higher and higher reading levels once they are reading on grade level.
I also use writing to help kids comprehend better. Once they can write fluently enough that it doesn’t interfere with their reading, I often have them use sticky notes or graphic organizers to record what they’re thinking to help them retain
those ideas. Sometimes we write a response together after reading. I find that this helps them interact with the text—like having a conversation with the book as they read it.
Possible Focus for Lessons
There are many possibilities from which you might choose a focus during a small-group lesson for comprehension. The National Reading Panel (NICHD 2000) researchers recommend the following kinds of comprehension strategy instruction to help readers become purposeful and active. Good readers use these steps, in combination, to make sense of text:
- Understanding text structure. This is often overlooked in nonfiction but overused as an isolated review, or a check, after reading in fiction. I like to teach students how to think about characters, setting, problem, solution, and beginning/middle/end of a story before and during their reading, as well as after. Likewise, teaching them how to identify nonfiction text structures, such as cause and effect, description, question and answer, and time order and sequence, can improve their comprehension of nonfiction.
- Asking questions. This comprehension strategy helps students learn to generate and ask inferential questions to propel their reading forward.
- Answering questions. It’s important to teach kids to answer questions about the details and inferences of the text. I am careful to focus more on thick questions that require deeper thinking and have potentially layered responses rather than thin questions that require only one-word answers.
- Summarizing. This is tough, since it requires kids to first have basic comprehension and also determine which ideas are most important. Here, we focus on helping readers learn to identify and remember the main things from the text read. While reading, students who use these steps improve their comprehension as they interact with the text.
- Using schema/making use of prior knowledge. This is often a good place to begin with comprehension instruction. Students make use of their personal experience and schema (background knowledge) to help them understand what they are reading. They often do this before reading as they preview the text as well as during their reading.
- Visualizing/using mental imagery. As they read, kids who best understand form vivid mental pictures. They often see, hear, taste, smell, and feel what’s going on in the book. “I feel like I’m in the book with the characters” is how one third grader described this to me. Visualizing improves understanding and helps children remember what they read. In addition, students can be taught the following to increase comprehension:
- Monitoring. It’s important to learn to stop and reread when your mind wanders or meaning breaks down. Successful readers think about their thinking and are aware when it’s not working so well.
- Inference. Many teachers throw up their hands in frustration on this one. Students can be taught to think through modeling and expecting that they can and will infer. I’ve found it helpful to build on their knowledge when teaching inference. When you can help kids connect what they know to what the text says, they can begin to infer.
- Graphic organizers. I like to use these as tools for thinking. When students have trouble comprehending, I often show them how to use graphic organizers as reminders and recording devices for what they’re thinking. Graphic organizers can help to “hold” their thoughts while they’re reading.
- Deeper meaning. This includes higher-level thinking, including generalizing, determining importance, synthesizing, and analyzing what was read. Use of quality questioning will help push kids’ thinking deeper.