This is a frequent comment from teachers about students who are outstanding decoders, yet who can’t recall information or plot details, let alone analyze literary elements, draw conclusions using details, or evaluate the arguments an author presents.
Basic comprehension means that students can read a text and recall specific information. For your students to be able to accomplish this reading task, they need sufficient background knowledge about the topic so they can connect what they know and understand to new information and ideas. Background knowledge includes an understanding of vocabulary and information related to the text’s topic.
To support this first level of comprehension, you might have to provide students with opportunities to enlarge their prior knowledge and vocabulary. Before plunging into a unit of study, it’s important to discover how much background knowledge students have by asking them to discuss or write what they know. If students know a lot about a topic, then proceed with the study. If they have little background knowledge, reserve time to build it.
One easy and timesaving way you can enlarge students’ background knowledge is to put the task into students’ hands. Have them work with a partner or small group and access, on a computer or tablet, photographs, video clips, and websites to view, reflect on and discuss together. Then ask students to share what they’ve learned with a larger group or the whole class. You should preview and select sites for elementary students; middle school students can be taught to evaluate sites and then explore them on their own, which leads to a great diversity of information.
Placing responsibility for building prior knowledge on students actively engages them in the learning; working with peers makes the learning social. This student-centered approach increases engagement with the task and enhances retention of content.
Once your students have some basic background knowledge, they should be able to read and recall information from a text, as long as the text is at their instructional level. Now it’s time to provide opportunities for students to use this information to move deeper into the layers of meaning in a text. Deep reading is analytical and includes inferring, finding themes, selecting important ideas, and identifying text structure and author’s purpose, then linking these to themes and big ideas. Three strategies can support your students’ ability to think about and analyze information: (1) Modeling and Guided Practice, (2) Collaborative Independent Practice, and (3) Scaffolded Practice.
1. Modeling and Guided Practice. During each unit of study, use a read-aloud text to model how to apply two to three of the key reading and writing standards based on your state or district requirements. Transform these instructional read alouds into interactive, guided practice sessions by asking students to turn-and-talk and apply a strategy you’ve modeled to a different section of text.
2. Collaborative Independent Practice. Once students have practiced a strategy with your guidance, invite them to work collaboratively, discussing an instructional text with a partner. This collaborative conversation serves as the dress rehearsal students need prior to writing about reading. Both you and partners can pose interpretive questions—questions with more than one answer; discuss photos, text features, or illustrations; or apply a strategy practiced during an interactive read aloud.
Short partner conversations can develop and clarify diverse ideas as students raise and probe questions about a text’s meanings. When two to three minutes of talk precedes writing, the thinking needed for a quick informal response has begun. Moreover, when you invite students to explore and discuss ideas through talk, you demonstrate how much you value students’ thinking.
3. Scaffolded Practice. By listening to students’ conversations and reading what they’ve written about a text, you will be able to determine those who require additional support to use information to analyze texts. Meet one-on-one or with small groups for five-minute practice sessions and re-teach strategies that confuse students, gradually releasing responsibility for the thinking to students.
To transform word-caller-readers into students who can truly comprehend and analyze texts, a crucial first step is to offer students opportunities to build their prior knowledge. The most efficient, research-based way to do this is to foster independent reading, for the more students read, the more background knowledge they acquire. Make sure that you set aside time to show students how to self-select “just right” books that interest them, so they will read widely and develop the skill to deeply comprehend texts.