Beyond the What and How of Reading Comprehension Strategies

Since I started teaching, my reading instruction has centered around the teaching of reading comprehension strategies in a reading workshop structure.  I have been lucky enough to teach in two school districts who have been committed to teaching kids how to be better readers and not just teaching kids to read the books we pick for them to read.

When I began teaching fifth grade, I thought I did a pretty good job of teaching my students about what good readers did.  I knew the research. I knew that it was clear that good readers were able to make connections, predict, infer, visualize, question, determine importance and synthesize. And over the years I gathered, what I thought to be, some pretty inventive ways of teaching kids about WHAT these strategies were.  I did the lesson where we looked at items that were found in a person’s bag and made inferences about that person based on what we saw. We looked at compelling images and asked thick and think questions. We read poems and then drew the images that came to our minds.

At some point in my teaching career, I realized that I had to do more than just teach my students WHAT the reading strategies were. I had to also teach my students how exactly to use these strategies as they read. So I did more work to make my own thinking visible and to break down these complex strategies so that my students could actually see HOW to use them. In this way, I thought that my students would be more likely to use these strategies as they read independently.

And it worked. My students would do what I asked them to do. If we were working on making inferences and I asked them to look in their own books for places where they could infer, then they would do it. They would come back at the end of our reading workshop ready and eager to share their inferences with me.  If we were working on questioning and I asked them to find places where they could ask thick questions in their own text, then they would do it. Again, they would be happy to share with me and with the class how they had done exactly what I asked them to do.

Except something was missing.

In the past few years I realized that while my students were giving me what I asked for, while they were complying, they weren’t actually using these strategies in any meaningful way. The primary purpose of their use of these reading strategies was to complete an assignment. I knew I wanted more than that.

So I started to think about what was missing. Why wasn’t I seeing what I wanted to be seeing? Why weren’t my students using these reading strategies to actually dig deeper into their texts and why weren’t they using them in a way that went beyond the texts they were reading? Obviously I hadn’t taught them something.

And that’s when I realized. I never really stopped to teach my students the purpose of all of these comprehension strategies. I taught them to ask good questions, but we never really talked much about WHY they should ask questions as they read. I taught them to make all sorts of different types of inferences, but we didn’t spend much time talking about what there was to gain by making inferences as you read.  There was a lot of talk about the WHAT and the HOW of reading comprehension strategies in my classroom, but not nearly as much time was spent talking about the WHY of reading comprehension strategies.

So this past school year, I made a commitment to think, for myself, about the purpose for using each of the reading strategies in my own life. I had to start there. I had to understand why I was using these reading strategies before I helped my students to understand why they should use them. And as I did the work in my own reading life I started to see the reading strategies in a really new way.  Suddenly it was about more than skills that I had to teach my students. Instead it was starting to turn into a responsibility that I had to show my students how they could use these reading strategies in order to allow reading to transform their lives and their understanding of the world.

Once I did the work of thinking about these strategies for myself, then I was ready to bring that new understanding to my students. And all of a sudden the reading strategy instruction in my classroom took on a new life. A life of meaning and of purpose. And because I thought about how I used these strategies in my own life outside of the classroom, my instruction became more authentic and therefore more useful to my students. It was no longer just about completing an assignment, now it was about reading to make our own lives better and to make our understanding of the world better.

With each reading strategy that we focused on, I tried to show my students not just what the strategy was or how to use the strategy, I also tried to explicitly teach WHY we would use these strategies in the world. Here are some of the ways we looked at the strategies in the past school year:

CONNECTING: When we read, we make connections to our texts SO THAT we can feel less alone in the world. We make connections to our characters and to the real life people that we read about SO THAT we can feel a sense of community and know that we are not the only ones feeling what we feel or experiencing what we are experiencing.  When we read, we make connections to our texts SO THAT we can better understand the lives of people whose lives are vastly different than our own, but with whom we still share commonalities.  When we read, we make connections to our texts SO THAT we can build empathy for people who are different than us and treat people that we meet with more compassion and understanding.

VISUALIZING: When we read, we visualize SO THAT we can better understand what life is like for our characters or for the people whose lives we are reading about. When we read, we visualize SO THAT we can build empathy for others and better understand what drives them to make the choices that they make. When we read, we visualize SO THAT we can experience, with all of our senses, the difficulties, struggles, joys and experiences of people whose lives are different than our own. When we read, we visualize SO THAT we can better understand the things that we have little experience with ourselves.

QUESTIONING: When we read, we ask questions SO THAT we can check for inaccuracies and bias. When we read, we ask questions SO THAT we can think about whose voices are being heard and whose voices are not being heard. When we read, we ask questions SO THAT we know what else we need to know in order to really understand what our text is saying. When we read, we ask questions SO THAT we can read critically and think about more than just what is written on the page. When we read, we ask questions SO THAT we can begin to think about perspectives other than own and wonder about how others view the same text we have read.

INFERRING: When we read, we infer SO THAT we can understand the social commentary that an author is trying to make and decide whether we agree or disagree with it.  When we read, we infer SO THAT we can understand what an author or a text is trying to teach us. When we read, we infer SO THAT we can understand how a character’s or real life person’s life and background impact the way he or she is acting or feeling or the choices he or she is making.  When we read, we infer SO THAT we can understand the intended and unintended messages that are being sent to us through a text and then fight back against those messages with which we do not agree.

SYNTHESIZING: When we read, we synthesize SO THAT we can put together multiple perspectives on a single event in order to more fully understand the complexities of that event.  When we read, we synthesize SO THAT we do not rely on one single story to help us understand an entire group of people or country or time in history. When we read, we synthesize SO THAT we can correct our own misconceptions as we gather more information.

This is just a short list of some of the real world purposes that we looked at this past year for using some of the reading comprehension strategies that we focus on in fifth grade. What was important to me is that I helped my students to see that these reading comprehension strategies were about more than just better understanding the text they were reading. These strategies were really about better understanding the world we live in.  That had not been coming through in my previous years of teaching.

My work with this has only just started and I am eager to continue working on finding real meaning and purpose for each of the reading comprehension strategies so that my students will start to see them as more than something that their teacher is forcing them to do.  I would love to hear any ideas on how YOU have helped your students to see the purpose of these strategies in your own classrooms.

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5 thoughts on “Beyond the What and How of Reading Comprehension Strategies

  1. This is such a thoughtful and progressive way to look at comprehension strategy instruction. We know that kids who receive strategy instruction do better as readers. Jess makes us realize that kids who know strategies may make big contributions in the world because they have a way to codify and share their thinking!

  2. Love this! Brilliant! When are you going to write your book and go on tour giving workshops so I can learn even more? Seriously, really well done. I am going to print these out and put them into my readers notebook to remind me to continue to do this important work in my mini-lessons.

    • You are unbelievably kind. There will no be books or tours from me. I will be busy chasing around my two year old and doing the best I can for the kiddos in my classroom. But if my thinking through things can help anyone else out in some small way, then I feel incredibly lucky. I am excited to hear about all the things that you discover while trying to push your thinking on these strategies as well. Thanks so much for the kind words.

  3. Pingback: Resources for More Authentic Reading Comprehension Strategies | HonorsGradU

  4. Pingback: Teaching Determining Importance As More Than Just a Skill on a Checklist | Crawling Out of the Classroom

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