Comprehension Strategy Instruction… What Do You Think?

Dear TWRCrs,

Some of you may know that I have just begun teaching an online course in the master’s program in teaching reading/language arts. Familiarizing myself with the university’s website and all the new tools has kept me extremely busy this week.

I even made my first screencast video using Jing. (That was really exciting!) If you are interested in learning more about it, take a look at these great video tutorials from Russell Stannard.
The other instructor of the course uses Screencast-O-Matic and we have been trying to figure out which one is better. If you use any screencast video software, I would love to hear your thoughts about pros and cons.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, because I don’t have the energy to write a new post this week. Fortunately, I ran across a comment I wrote way back on November 1, 2009 in response to reading comprehension strategy instruction. It was probably one of the first comments I posted on the Internet. Although my reply is a bit off topic, I put a lot of effort into it and think it is worthy of reposting to this blog. It was originally posted in the “All About Teaching Reading” group on “The Educator’s PLN” Ning.

I would love to dialogue with you about the TWRCs I shared in this comment. They definitely deserve further exploration. Here is my comment in its entirety:

Hi Melanie,

It’s so nice to hear about successes and excitement in the classrooms from both you and Dodie. I must admit that teaching comprehension is the area in reading where I am the least confident. I have heard and read about strategy instruction misuse and it shaped my thinking. I will admit that when I first began teaching strategies, I was on strategy overload. Here is an article from Choice Literacy that talks about this point: By no means am I trying to deter anyone from using strategy instruction, but I think it is an important read.

P. David Pearson, a leader in the comprehension field, said at our local reading association conference that clarifying is the most important strategy. I agree and I think kids who struggle have the most difficulty with this because they are not used to reading making sense to begin with. In addition, I’ve found they don’t even understand the word “clarify.” To get them to understand that, I always taught them that “clarify” means “to make clear”. To exemplify, I would say a sentence such as, “Go get it.” Then I would ask my students, “Is that clear?” They would say, “No,” and I would ask, “Why not?” They should reply, “It’s not clear because we don’t know what ‘it’ is.” Obviously, this is clarifying at the sentence level, but I think it is best to start small.

I have read a lot about how students struggle with anaphoric references (like in my previous example with “it”) and I really trained students to look out for when writing did not make sense. Strugglers need to know that sometimes writing does not make sense because the writing itself is unclear. In other words, it’s not them; it’s the author. My students delighted in sharing how they could make the writing clearer than the author could in some cases. Making things clearer also transferred over to their writing (to some degree) which was a treat to see. I would so love to see more research on anaphoric references. Maybe I spent too much time with it, but watching the changes in their comprehension makes me think it was time well spent.

Another thing I did which I think was successful was teaching my students that good readers “TWRC” (think, wonder, reflect, and connect). For the most part, kids understand these words–reflection being the hardest. The “wonder” is really the questioning in strategy instruction and I think it is also another important part of comprehension because when we wonder, we think deeper and those wonders lead to better learning. After reading a passage with the group, I would make them all share a wonder. In the beginning, their wonders were things like, “I wonder if he has a brother,” “I wonder when is his birthday.” In other words, their wonders were very superficial. I would model deeper wonders and let them know that good wonders do not usually have answers. When sharing mine, I would have to remind them in the beginning that I was not looking for an answer, but that I was just wondering. After much modeling, it was such a delight to hear their well-thought out wonders. It was also a delight when their peers would say, “Oooooh! That’s a great wonder!”

In regards to activating background knowledge, I also found it necessary to remind students that we all have knowledge in our head that is accurate and inaccurate and that when we read about new things, we must decide if what we read confirms our existing knowledge, or if we need to refine our existing knowledge. Struggling kids seem to believe that everything they “know” is true. We also discuss considering the source when altering existing knowledge.

Making inferences is another thing strugglers have a lot of difficulty with and I wish there was more research on this. One thing that stands out in my learning path was when I heard that, “Authors imply, therefore readers have to infer.” It is a continuous thing we do in everything we read. Anaphoric referents require it. Young kids do it with body language. It is everywhere! Taffy Raphael’s work really influenced me here. She said that a discovery she made was that many struggling readers either thought that answers to questions about what they read came from the book, or from their head. They did not seem to realize that they could come from both (inferential thinking). I love her Question-Answer-Relationships (QAR) and I often used this with them. I think this positively affected their comprehension in a big way. It took me a while to get the hang of how to teach it, but boy once I did; I saw a huge difference in their ability to answer questions correctly. I will upload the chart I used.

Lastly, I plan to attend the International Reading Association convention this year and I plan to take the comprehension strand, because as I’ve said, I do feel this is my weakest area in teaching reading, which is sad since comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading! Oh, and to get them to understand what “comprehension” meant, I would refer to the Spanish equivalent, “Comprende?” They loved it and it seemed to sink in. It amazed me that 4th, 5th, and 6th graders did not understand the word “comprehension” before this.

Note: I hope you read the Choice Literacy article. I think it is a very important read.

My questions for you: How do you feel about comprehension strategy instruction? Have you noticed that teachers are spending too much/too little time teaching comprehension strategies? If you had to pick four words to remind students of the most import things they need to do in order to comprehend what they read, what would they be?

As always, I would appreciate it if you could take a second to rate this article on a scale of one to ten using the stars below.

TWRC on! :)

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  • Pacrapacma

    I found a great book this summer to teach reading comprehension that makes sense. I’m using information from the book with my own children and a student I tutor with reading. One piece of advice I’m following is to model my own thinking while reading to children and encourage children to share their thinking. I’m including a link to a post I made about this book.
    Here’s an example of a tutoring session using this book.

  • Julie Niles Petersen

    I haven’t read that book yet, but I have heard great things. I am glad it is helping you have success with your own children. I imagine it will help with your tutee, too. Sharing thinking and wonders is so important!
    P.S. Have I told you lately how much I love your enthusiasm for teaching reading? I really do.

  • booklover3

    I really liked the way you had your students practice looking for what exactly did not make sense to them when they were reading, and how they could make it clearer. I think teachers do not spend enough time teaching students how to work through a text in this way in order to better comprehend. Instead, it seems like when something is unclear to a student the teacher will explain it to them in their own words and then move on. Using your method, however, would definitely improve a student’s literacy because they learn how to make meaning for themselves instead of relying on the teacher for the answer. I think teachers need to spend more time teaching comprehension strategies such as this one instead of just hoping students will be able to figure it out on their own.

    • Julie Niles Petersen

      Thank you for taking the time to write and for bringing up very good points, booklover3. Teaching students to be better comprehenders is a very challenging, but important task. Getting students–especially struggling ones–to understand when they are confused and to know (and be able to use) different ways to resolve their confusion is important.

      Many struggling readers have low standards for coherence–meaning they are okay with it when text does not make sense. I came across that term (and the pursuit of coherence) when I was researching inference skill. Knowing that not all students pursue coherence to the same degree really influenced my work with struggling readers.

      I imagine that if you repeatedly could not figure out what a text means, you would be quick to give up on trying to make it make sense. So, once we show them how they can resolve confusion, it seems that their standard for coherence should increase, right? I think many strugglers think that good readers read the words and “get it”–they do not realize that good readers are TWRCing a lot as they read to resolve confusions.

      If you want to read more about the pursuit of coherence, here is a good article: >a href=”,%20Oakhill.pdf” target=_blank”>”Acquisition of Reading Comprehension Skill” (Perfetti, Landi & Oakhill, 2005)

  • Melissa Taylor

    I think it’s essential, for all readers – not just the struggling ones. It’s important to stay with a strategy for a good length of time — weeks and apply it to all areas of thinking. You don’t just infer in reading but in science, writing, social skills, and so on. I could actually go on and on – I think it’s critical to make strategy thinking clear so our students can be reflective learners and thinkers.
    Strangely enough, I wrote a post about strategies today.

    • Julie Niles Petersen

      Dear Melissa,

      When you say “it’s essential for all readers,” I’m inferring that you mean comprehension strategy instruction. (Gotta love that anaphora!) I agree–all students can benefit from strategy instruction–especially if it is thoughtful. (See Choice Literacy article I linked to in my post)

      Students also need to have wide knowledge of the world and of the word. If they do not have that, none of the regular comprehension strategies will help them make appropriate inferences and their comprehension will suffer. Yes, we make inferences all the time–sometimes they are logical and sometimes they are not. Students need to be able to tell the difference.  They also need to know that when what they read does not make sense it could be because they are missing some background knowledge. They need to know it is okay to say, “I don’t get it!” They also need to know how to figure out the missing pieces of information so they can make the inference and say, “Ohhhhh! I get it now!”

      Have you seen the video, “Teaching Content IS Teaching Reading? It is one of my favorites. Here is a link:

      Thank you so much for sharing your post. I found some great resources there! I agree that it’s critical for learners to be reflective thinkers. I would also add that they should wonder and make connections. Hence, the acronym “TWRC” (think, wonder, reflect & connect). :)

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment on my blog!