I have been contemplating the topic and content of this blog on every mountain trail and pathway I traveled this summer – and I am fortunate to say my contemplation covered multiple miles! It was a glorious summer and I hope you can say the same – heat and all!

Reading comprehension is a stimulating topic for us to consider. This blog explores comprehension with you, down pathways and up a few difficult mountain trails, into territory you may not have considered before. There is a wealth of comprehension research out there that is waiting for you to discover and possibly review from previous study.

What does it take to READ with comprehension? Well, of course decoding must happen first, and hopefully decoding and simultaneous connection to meaning, with these processes, decoding and language comprehension, happening automatically, working in sync. So, let this discussion of comprehension rest firmly on our understanding that we must include daily decoding instruction to ensure that our students are accessing the written code.

What does it take to TEACH reading comprehension? It takes a deep understanding of how written language works, of how academic language is different than spoken language so that we can build our students’ understanding of the written word, its organization, and its structure. To teach comprehension requires a deep understanding of how to guide students to think about what they read as we teach how to connect ideas and synthesize information while reading.

The Layers of Comprehension

Let’s talk through the layers of comprehension as if we are planning a reading comprehension lesson. The first layer sets the foundation for all of our planning. It will guide us in the decisions we make before reading, during reading, and after reading.

Layer One – Establish a purpose for reading. What do you want your students to come away knowing and able to put into words after they read? What will you guide your students to THINK about while they are reading? Studies show that long after the reading is over, the information students recall is directly related to the purpose that was set for reading.

Do: Set a purpose for reading – make sure the purpose is meaning related, not simply the application of a ‘strategy.’ Meaning related example: Understand that cultures differ and are defined by their food, clothing, and family/community relationships.  Compared to a non-meaning related example: Apply compare and contrast. While it is true that you may lead students to the goal of reading, the purpose, by asking them to compare and contrast cultures, the purpose you set, based upon the meaning of the passage, will guide your instruction.

Layer Two – What is your students’ background knowledge for the topic and the concepts presented in the reading? As you consider this, be aware that students’ background knowledge includes understanding how the text is organized, its structure – especially for expository texts.

Think About and Plan: What structures did the author use to organize the content? How will you help your students understand the structure to help them organize the information as they read?

How will you quickly and efficiently set the stage and stimulate their background knowledge for the reading? You don’t need to spend a lot of time here – let’s get to reading as soon as we can!

Here is a great guide to expository text structures, their associated vocabulary terms, and graphic organizer examples for each.

Layer Three – Is there any vocabulary that students would benefit from hearing and using before reading?

Do: Choose just a few terms from the passage to use in your introductory comments about the passage. What terms are presented within context that will help students determine a sense of meaning? Guide students to verbally reason their thinking about word meaning based on context. Will technical terms need additional clarification other than what the author provides?

Use this vocabulary organizational tool to help you gather, sort, and determine which words to spend time teaching before reading and quickly during reading.

Layer 4 – Are there any inferences that students might not make, especially inferences that contribute to the comprehension goals?

Do: Locate these inferences and be prepared to ask pertinent questions that will lead students to make the crucial inferences. Or, be prepared to model your own thinking, make your thinking visible to your students to demonstrate how to connect ideas and provide the missing information.

Layer 5 – What writing exercise will lead students to put into words what they have learned?

Do: What better way to circle back around to the set purpose for reading, than to ask students to put into their own words what they have learned. We know when we are asked to write about what we have learned, we learn that information at deeper levels. Make sure to ask student to rehearse orally what they will write before they write. Hearing others’ ideas, and sentences can be very helpful for your students with developing language skills.

 In Closing – Comprehension Strategies

The meaning of comprehend is “to understand the nature or meaning of; to grasp with the mind.” We know that any number of us can read a passage and will come away with a similar understanding, hopefully the understanding that the author intended. But we also know that each of us brings a little something unique, connections to our personal experiences, to the meaning we grasp. This synthesis results in what is called the Mental Model, or what will be our enduring understanding.

Each of the layers you just read about includes some aspect of language that is overlooked by our determination to teach comprehension strategies. Comprehension strategies are important, they differentiate between several varying and important ways in which we cognitively consider text as we strive to synthesize information, as we strive to “grasp with the mind.” Use the academic language of comprehension strategies; model the application of those strategies. Make your lessons stronger by doing this within the context of getting to the gist of the purpose for reading.

I hope this blog has been helpful and that when you plan your next lesson, you will have a heightened awareness of setting a purpose and focusing on that purpose as you consider structure, vocabulary, inferencing, guiding questions, and your students’ final writing exercise. You are going to create powerful lessons!