Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Literacy Lessons from Teachers College – Part III Reading Comprehension

I recently attended an exciting two-day conference on literacy in the elementary and middle grades hosted by faculty from Columbia University’s Teachers College. Through lectures, readings, discussions, and collaborative group work, I learned a great deal about the implications of current research on literacy assessment and instruction. In this four part series, I am sharing what I learned about phonics, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing with readers of the Yellin Center’s blog!

Nearly every teacher, and many parents, would like to help their students improve their reading comprehension. Making meaning from the words on a page is critical for success in all content areas in school and in nearly every career after graduation. Here is some compelling information about reading comprehension from the literacy conference at Teachers College:

Background Knowledge

Alongside vocabulary knowledge, background knowledge is the biggest factor that influences reading comprehension for readers who don’t have trouble decoding (i.e. sounding out the words). Background knowledge allows readers make meaning from what they read by connecting incoming information with their own understanding of the world.

It’s helpful if teachers provide students with background knowledge but this is not always possible. Luckily, it’s not always necessary, either. Good instructors will help students activate relevant background knowledge, no matter what it is, prior to reading. For example, a text about the hardships of farm life may not resonate with inner city teenagers who have never plowed a field or fed a cow. But those teenagers probably have knowledge that can help them contextualize the passage anyway. For example, those who have kept pets understand the work that goes into caring for an animal, and kids who balance schoolwork with an after school job know what it’s like to juggle multiple responsibilities. Students can be prompted to think beyond personal experiences, too. Perhaps they remember scenes from Field of Dreams and can apply those images of cornfields to their reading. Or maybe they remember reading Esperanza Rising in middle school, which taught them about the labor needed to harvest crops. Students may not realize the value of their prior knowledge, but what they bring to a reading can vastly improve their understanding of it.

jepoirrer via flickrcc
Close Reading 

Close reading is a worthy goal for any instructor, no matter the content area, to select for his or her students. Research on close reading, or reading for a specific purpose, showed that students who did not demonstrate decoding or fluency difficulties were able to make large gains in comprehension. When students successfully read a text closely, they preview the text systematically, taking note of its structure and other relevant information. Then they read and reread carefully, self-monitoring all the while. Next, they reflect on what they’ve read to determine what’s most important. Finally, they synthesize the information and draw conclusions about it.

This complex process takes requires lots of modeling and support (and patience!) on the teacher’s part and practice on the students’ parts. But it can improve comprehension enormously. Some instructional sequences worth checking out are THIEVES (Manz, 2002 – Title, Headings, Introduction, Every first sentences, Visualize and vocabulary, End of chapter questions, Summary); TELL (Cummins, 2013 – Title, Examine, Look, Look); HIP (Hearaver, in Cummins, 2013 – Headings, Introduction, Prediction); and CATAPULT (Zwiers, 2004 – Covers, Author, Title, Audience, Page 1, Underlying message, Look at features, Time/place/important people).

Note that this kind of intensive reading is not necessary for every text. Because the process can be time-intensive and laborious, students must understand that they should reserve these strategies for dense texts that give them difficulty. Effective instructors will help students to understand which texts demand particularly close reading.

Marking Texts

Annotating a text can be a very effective way to improve comprehension. Most students benefit from learning particular ways to do it, however; simply underlining or highlighting can quickly become a passive process, and the results are difficult to navigate when the student returns to the text later. In addition to helping students understand what to underline, teachers can invent their own system of symbols for quick annotation in the margins, such as:
  • Star – Information that seems very important
  • Exclamation point – Something you found surprising
  • Check mark – Something you agree with
  • X – Something you disagree with
  • Question Mark – Something you don’t understand
  • Heart – Something you can connect to personally
  • V – New, important vocabulary word
Stay tuned for the final post in the Teachers College Literacy series, about best practices in writing instruction!

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