Comprehending Reading by @mrnickhart

What I think about…reading

I’m proposing a model for teaching reading grounded in the various books that I’ve read. The examples will be for a fiction text but I think the principles apply to teaching non-fiction too.

Reading model

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Nick Hart and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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Some principles

The first principle to be mindful of is that the teaching of reading is not the asking and answering of questions about a text: that’s testing comprehension.  Sure, asking and answering questions is an important part of developing comprehension – it’s one way we get children to think hard about what they have heard or read – but there is much more to it than that.  Any reader constructs a mental model of the content of what they have read – we don’t usually remember text verbatim without rereading many times and deliberately trying to remember it word for word. Poor comprehenders construct weaker, less detailed and perhaps outright inaccurate mental models whereas good comprehenders construct more accurate and elaborate ones.  One goal of teaching reading then is to ensure children construct good mental models of what they have read. I’m making the assumption here that children can decode fluently and focus solely on the development of language comprehension.

Simple view of reading

Good readers combine word recognition with language comprehension to be able to decode the print and understand the language it yields. Once fluent in decoding, it is depth and breadth of vocabulary and general knowledge that contribute to comprehension and so the teaching of reading must develop vocabulary and background knowledge.

Developing reading comprehension

Poor comprehenders share many similar characteristics which we need to understand and use to drive the teaching of reading.  Poor comprehenders:

  • have limited general knowledge
  • have a limited knowledge of story structure or don’t relate events in a story to its general structure
  • have a narrow vocabulary and don’t know the meaning of important words
  • read too slowly, without fluency or enough prosody to understand the content
  • focus on word reading without focusing on content
  • make incorrect pronoun references
  • don’t make links between events in the text
  • don’t monitor their own understanding of what they’ve read
  • don’t see the wider context in which the text is set
  • don’t build up a secure understanding of the main events in a story
  • misunderstand figurative language

When it comes to vocabulary, we can’t teach every word or phrase that children might not know and neither should we. If we do, not only would it be incredibly time-consuming but we’d also greatly reduce the experience that children have of deciphering meaning from contextual cues. Some words and phrases need to be taught explicitly before or during reading while others can be learned implicitly during reading.  Either way, if children are to master the language, they must think hard over time about its use.  Put the dictionaries away and don’t start off with ‘Who knows what x means?’  These are both particularly inefficient uses of time and are ineffective.  Instead:

  • Model the use of the word in its most common form
  • Use an image (this post from Phil Stock is excellent)
  • Act it out
  • Model other common uses
  • Explain word partners (for example, if teaching the word announce you often see make an announcement together)
  • Show various forms of words including prefixes and suffixes
  • Show words that are similar to and different from the focus word

Lemov (Reading Reconsidered)

That last bullet point is not the same as using the synonym model for teaching word meaning.  Telling  a child that melancholy means sad robs them of the beauty of shades of meaning because it is similar to, not the same as sad.

Memory is key. We remember what we think about, so part of teaching reading needs to be giving children plenty of spaced practice in remembering word meanings, general knowledge, events from the text and details of the characters that are crucial to developing a sufficient mental model of the text. It could well be the case that a child who has shown poor understanding of a text is not unableto comprehend it, they just can’t remember what’s necessary to comprehend. Regular low stakes testing of key knowledge from the text is a strategy to ensure this retention and readiness to mind.  Joe Kirby’s knowledge organisers are very useful for this and here’s one I made for Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. 

Stage 1 – oral comprehension

Prepared reading, or providing a brief structural overview, ensures that no child hears the story without some prior knowledge.  In the first instance, read aloud or tell children the story. Capture their interest. Retell it, perhaps in different ways.   Lemov, in Reading Reconsideredidentifies different types of reading and here I’d go for what he calls contiguous reading – reading without interruption from start to finish, experiencing the text as a whole.  It may be sensible to teach the meaning of some words that are crucial for overall understanding of the text but not too many at this stage.  I’ve compiled some thoughts on introducing texts and teaching vocabulary here.

What have children understood?

Clearly it is tricky for teachers to know what children have understood and by asking questions all we really know is whether they are capable of comprehending, not whether they actually comprehend independent of us. Before any specific questioning, it would be useful to get an idea of what they have understood by asking them to tell you about what they’ve just read. The decisions they make about what they say (or write)  reveal what they think is important and you can also judge the accuracy of their literal and inferential comprehension. Aidan Chambers’ Tell me gives advice on developing this in a slightly more structured way whilst still retaining the importance of open questioning.

The key to this stage of reading is the focus on oral language comprehension.  Difficulty decoding should not be a barrier to children experiencing and understanding age-appropriate texts.  Lemov puts this beautifully:

Low readers are often balkanised to reading only lower level texts, fed on a diet of only what’s accessbile to them – they’re consigned to lower standards from the outset by our very efforts to help them.

Lemov (Reading Reconsidered)

This is one of the reasons why I’m in favour of the whole class teaching of reading and not the carousel type ‘guided reading’.  Listening to texts and using open questions to prompt discussions ensures that the focus in on language development in a way that is not restricted by poor decoding.  Having said that, those children who are not decoding to the standard expected will still need some sort of intervention running concurrently to this so that they catch up.  The benefits of focusing on oral language comprehension have been shown in the results of the York Reading for Meaning Project, written about in Developing Reading Comprehension by Clarke, Truelove, Hulme and Snowling and here.

Stage 2 – modelling the reader’s thought processes and shared reading 

The information that teachers can gather from the open questioning in stage 1 then focuses modelled and shared reading on specific parts of the text. The teacher can model the reader’s thought processes, and get children thinking about the tricky bits. This isn’t simply reading the text from beginning to end; reading will be interspersed with commentary, explanation or making links to general knowledge.  Lemov calls this line by line reading, with frequent pauses for analysis and allowing the teacher to show children that good readers think while they read in order to achieve an acceptable standard of coherence.  As children get older and texts get longer, teachers can’t lead shared reading of the whole text, so by initially earmarking sections that children are likely to misunderstand and by using information gathered from stage 1, shared reading can be focused on addressing misconceptions.  Again, Lemov puts it succinctly:

Shared reading mitigates the risk of misreading.

Lemov (Reading Reconsidered)

I’d expect children to then read the text independently, drawing on what they’ve heard from the teacher’s modelling and all the oral language work. Children should have the opportunities for multiple readings of at least the tricky bits.  These bouts of reading become iterative: children build layers of understating with each reading.  For those children whose decoding is weak, they can be directed to smaller extracts, practising decoding and fluency with a text that they should have a decent understanding of following all of the language work.  It’s important to continue to get children thinking about new words that were taught in stage 1.  If that vocabulary is to be reliably internalised, they’ll need multiple interactions.

This is also an ideal point to make some links to non-fiction that can supplement understanding of the fiction. Questioning that involves deliberate comparison between the fiction and non-fiction complements understanding of both.  For example, if reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, spending some time on books or extracts such as below will significantly aid comprehension.

Non fiction links

Written responses

Writing is thinking, and to paraphrase Lemov in Reading Reconsidered, not being able to record their thoughts about what they’ve read on paper does not make them invalid, but children are at a significant disadvantage if they are unable to craft an articulate, effective sentence explaining what they have understood.  To this end, returning to those original open questions and working with children to refine their responses and write them effectively is a valuable use of time.  The teacher can model scanning the text for the part needed to refine an idea, or to check a detail, and then children should also be expected to behave in that way.  This post by Lemov makes very interesting reading on that topic.

Stage 3 – targeted questioning

It’s standard practice to ask questions of a text after it’s been read but a great deal of care needs to be taken in choosing or discarding already written questions, or in writing them ourselves. Questions need to be text dependent, otherwise what we’re really doing is getting children to activate general knowledge. An example of this, from Understanding and teaching reading comprehension by Oakhill, Cain and Elbro, is:

Where does Linda’s pet hamster live?

  1. In a bed
  2. In a cage
  3. In a bag
  4. In a hat

The possibility of guessing the right answer here would tell the teacher very little of the child’s ability to comprehend text and so asking questions where understanding is dependent on what’s written or what must be inferred from the text is a must. Doug Lemov espouses the importance of text-dependent questions in Reading Reconsidered.

When designing questions, teachers must also use knowledge of the characteristics of poor comprehenders in order to model corrective thought processes and to ensure children think in a way that helps them to comprehend more reliably.  For example, we should give them plenty of practice in working out to what or whom pronouns refer.

The education system we work within requires examinations to be passed which then provides opportunities.  Preparing children for success is morally imperative. Write questions in the style of SATs questions about the text, model the thinking process behind successful responses and give children practice doing just that.

Stage 4 – fluency and prosody

Don’t misunderstand – children should be supported continually to read fluently with appropriate intonation and expression. It’s just that to do that well, a reader needs to understand the text. At this stage, that should be the case. Reading for fluency and intonation using a text that children know very well should yield great results and not only that, it provides another opportunity to glean previously missed understanding.

So there it is. A model for teaching a text that moves from oral to printed comprehension; general to specific questioning; and oral to written responses, all the while practising fluency and developing language.

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