What Works for Comprehension Instruction
If you were to ask me what is one thing you can do to help students develop comprehension if you could only do one thing, I would say read with students and talk about what you read. Although that would be an exceptional beginning, it would not be enough, nor is it the only strategy for helping students develop their comprehension. And, quite frankly, it would be rather boring to do only that.
When we consider the definition of comprehension and the instructional principles for comprehension, we see that a variety of strategies will be effective.
6 Sample Strategies for Comprehension Instruction
- Graphic Organizers
- Retelling & Summarizing
- Pre-questioning and Prediction
- Comprehension Self-monitoring
Discussion: Discussion is the number one strategy for helping students improve their comprehension, and I will address it in much greater detail later.
In brief, discussion is the opportunity to share ideas and information, listen to others’ ideas, support or oppose those ideas with reasons, and ask and answer questions. Participating meaningfully and constructively in a discussion requires a student (or anyone!) to maintain a respectful attitude, to focus on the topic and not the person, and to demonstrate no small amount of humility.
The two most important things to remember about discussion are as follows.
- Students should be encouraged to discuss with each other, as opposed to simply answering the teacher’s questions. The teacher’s questions may lead to discussion among students, but answering questions without follow-up discussion is assessment, not instruction.
- Questions, both the teacher’s and the students’, need to address the multiple levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy or Depth of Knowledge. The who, what, when, where, why, and how types of questions are the lowest level of discussion, not only because they focus on recall rather than comprehension but also because they lead to right vs. wrong answers and not interpretation. (More about this later.)
Graphic Organizers: When you read, your brain makes categories of details and facts, mental links between various disparate bits of information, groups of similar types of information, pathways representing order and sequence, and connections between words and approximate meanings. This is how your brain makes sense of so many details and so much information. This is what brains do, and they are typically very good at it. But they need help. How should the information be connected? What is the similar information? How should information be sequenced? And so on.
We can use graphic organizers to help our brains collect, sort, categorize, and connect information in a useful manner. The basic principle is this: we organize the information graphically to learn how to do it mentally. This is brain training. Obviously, as we become adult readers with strong reading skills, we do not need to do this, although many people may take notes or make outlines while reading. (I do this sometimes if I am having difficulty understanding technical or highly conceptual information.)
The other value of graphic organizers is that they serve as communication tools for sharing one’s ideas with other people. You can use them to present information (for example, graphs) and to focus and organize your thoughts as you speak about a topic (for example, flow charts).
Graphic organizers come in many different forms. A quick Internet search will provide you with many samples. As you consider which types of graphic organizers you want students to create or complete, first consider what purpose they will serve and what you want students to learn. Once you determine the learning objective, then select the type that will be most useful. Do not select graphic organizers because they are pretty or fun. Select them because they are appropriate for the learning objective.
Sample learning purposes
Example graphic organizers
sequence of events
relationships between people
order of steps and options
relationship between ideas
compare and contrast opinions or perspectives
Students can create or complete the graphic organizers on their own or together. If they work on them alone, then they should do one of two things as a next step:
- compare them with other students’ graphic organizers and, through discussion, create a common graphic organizer on which they can agree, or
- share them in small-group discussion to help present their ideas and to understand other students’ ideas.
The one thing they should not be asked to do is to turn them in to the teacher for grading: it has no value for helping students strengthen their ideas or improve their comprehension.
Retelling and Summarizing: You may have heard the adage that the best way to learn something is to teach it. Retelling and summarizing are two ways that we apply this adage to comprehension instruction. These two skills are related, but they are different.
Retelling focuses on content information. When students retell text, they have to recall key facts and ideas, and they have to put them in sequence. They also have to distinguish between important and non-important information. (For example, retelling the story of Homer’s Ulysses would include important events that took place at each island he visited on the way back to Greece.)
Summarizing focuses on concepts. When students summarize text, they have to think about the themes, purposes, intentions, categories of information, as well as key information that demonstrates those concepts. They also have to group information into broad categories that encompass a collection of facts and information. (For example, a summary of Homer’s Ulysses would discuss that Ulysses visited multiple islands on the way home to Greece and ran into serious trouble at each one that only he could solve through bravery, cunning, and luck.)
Retelling is a challenging skill, but summarizing is even more difficult. For younger students, learning to retell the content may be sufficient. A common retelling task for students is to have them relate the story, information, or key information in a certain number of words, 50 to 200 or so. As students get older, however, and can start exploring themes and concepts, they should begin working on summarization skills.
Design activities that require one or both of these skill sets, such as writing or discussion. Students may need to reflect on the text first, such as through using a graphic organizer. Additionally, to assist in this process, consider asking specific questions about the text and have students include their answers in their retelling or summary.
Most importantly, retelling and summarizing require an audience, whether one person or many. After students retell or summarize, they should participate in follow-up discussion with other students, perhaps with some specific questions from you to help guide the discussion.
Writing: When students write about what they have read, they have to recall and reflect on the information, and they have to figure how to communicate their ideas clearly. These are all important steps for developing comprehension.
You can approach this instructional strategy from many different perspectives, such as asking students to write their impressions in reading journals, to respond to open-ended questions, or to develop a theme and write about it. Younger students can do this, too. For example, you can ask them to draw the scene that they think is most interesting. The point of writing as an instructional strategy is for students to reflect—and communicate—on the text.
Writing can be a solitary task, which makes it incomplete as a strategy for developing comprehension. After students write, they need to share or present their ideas to other students for discussion, feedback, and constructive criticism. I would also recommend that before students write, they also engage in collaborative work, such as developing a graphic organizer of ideas to include in their writing piece. Ultimately, writing as an instructional method, needs to be embedded in a broader, collaborative set of activities.
Pre-questioning and Prediction: “What do you want to know? What do you think is next?” These are two powerful questions to ask students as you help them develop their comprehension skills. To answer either of these questions, students have to think critically about what they already know, whether about the author, the information, or the characters. They have to look for patterns in the text and make an evaluation of the author.
The follow-up instructional activities are based on similar questions. “Were your questions answered?” “Did you learn what you expected?” “How accurate were your predictions?”
Answering these questions is sophisticated, but students of all ages can do it. The most important benefit of asking these questions is to help students to develop the habit of asking them when reading alone.
Comprehension Self-monitoring: Of all the skills students need to improve their comprehension, self-monitoring is the most important. I discussed self-monitoring in the section on comprehension sub-skills, so why is it also here under strategies?
For every instructional activity in which students are reading, you want to include specific points for students to stop reading and assess whether or not they understand what they are reading. Students need to develop the habit of questioning their own understanding, which means you have to keep providing opportunities for students to ask, “Do I understand what I am reading?”
Often, the first time a teacher can gauge a student’s comprehension is during some form of assessment, such as a quiz. This is too late. If asked, most students can state whether or not they are understanding the text. The problem is that students might not stop to consider their understanding, and they forge right ahead to get to the end. The teacher needs to help them ask the question for themselves.
There are many ways to do this. Of course, if students are reading aloud, you simply stop them and ask “What do you think that means? What do you know about [blank]?” You also need to include opportunities to monitor their understanding during other types of comprehension activities. For example, when students are creating graphic organizers, they can leave blanks for unknown information, include questions they want answered, or create a T-chart of information they understand and don’t understand. If students are retelling or summarizing, orally or in writing, you can have them include a list of “things I don’t understand.”
As you can see, comprehension self-monitoring is not a strategy that you use by itself. It is a strategy that you embed throughout the other strategies.
Sample Activities for Comprehension
Most of the comprehension lessons you plan will incorporate more than one strategy (and they should all include comprehension self-monitoring and discussion). For example, if you have a writing activity, you may have students “pre-write” by collaboratively developing a graphic organizer, and you may follow the writing activity with discussion or a follow-up written piece in which students discuss how their ideas compare with other students’ ideas.
The sample activities below generally correspond to a single strategy, but a well-designed lesson will have students perform several activities to address multiple strategies.
Sample Activity Types
group brainstorming and decision making (e.g., nominal group technique)
discussion board / forum
T-charts for comparison
cause and effect charts
Retelling & summarizing
gallery / book walks
group-generated choral read
response to higher-level question
discussion board / forum
Pre-questioning and prediction
KWL chart (know, want to know, learned)
T-chart for questions and answers
posing research questions to other student groups
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