Moving Students from Basic Recall to Analytical Comprehension

 //  Dec 7, 2015

Moving Students from Basic Recall to Analytical Comprehension

“Comprehension” is a word that teachers use all the time: Jake’s comprehension is weak; Talia can’t comprehend nonfiction; David comprehends everything he reads. In this blog, I’ll look at recall, the basic step in comprehending a text—a step that provides readers with information that enables them to determine important details, infer, identify themes, and analyze a text’s meanings. And I’ll provide ideas for helping students move from recall to those more sophisticated reading strategies.

Recall Is Basic Comprehension

A common sense belief I always share with teachers is that it’s pointless to ask students to read and reread a text they can’t learn from—a text at their frustration level. Recall implies that the learner is able to decode the text, and understand and remember the information. That can only happen when the student has enough background knowledge and the text is close to his or her instructional reading level.

Classroom Snapshot: Tasha

Recently, I administered an Informal Reading Inventory (IRI) to Tasha, an eighth-grader. Before plunging into the assessment, we spent time chatting about her interests, and she volunteered this statement: “I hate reading. I suck at it.” Her reasons were logical and on point. Reading three years below grade level, and required to read and reread grade level texts, she said: “If I have to read again and again and can’t understand it, what’s the point?” She shrugged and added, “I get nothing from it.”

After completing and analyzing Tasha’s IRI, I suggested two actions that could improve her reading:

  1. Have her read and learn from material at her instructional reading level—preferably books she chose. Not only would she recall information, but she would also be able to practice inferring, determining importance, identifying themes, and at the same time enlarge her vocabulary and background knowledge.
  2. Accelerate her reading stamina and achievement by having her self-select books for independent reading. Researchers Richard Allington and Steve Krashen agree that 40 books a year can enlarge a student’s vocabulary and background knowledge, build fluency, and most important, develop a love of reading that will sustain Tasha.

Scaffolding Suggestions for Recalling Details

  • Have the student reread if the book if it is at his instructional level.
  • Place the student in a book in which he or she has enough background knowledge to recall its details.
  • Find another book that’s more accessible.
  • Have the student reread a few paragraphs, and then stop to think and check his or her amount of recall. If recall is solid, have the student read on. If it’s not, have the student reread or close read.

Moving Students From Basic Recall to Analytical Comprehension

You can move students beyond basic recall to analyzing texts by using the three strategies that follow: determine importance, make logical inferences, and identify themes. In addition, when you use these reading strategies, you’ll move students beyond recall to high level thinking:

  • Use your read aloud text to explicitly model how you apply the strategy.
  • Set aside time for guided practice as you circulate to offer students’ support, answer questions, and acknowledge what’s working. 

However, it’s also important to note that with skilled readers, reading strategies work in teams. For example, I can infer and determine important details at the same time. Or I can compare the protagonist to antagonists and settings. To help students understand, apply, and absorb reading comprehension strategies, teach them one at a time initially—and gradually move toward showing students how to integrate them.

Determine Importance

This strategy applies to fiction and informational texts. With fiction, good readers decide the events, conflicts, and decisions that are significant and can explain why. Determining importance also helps them understand literary elements, such as protagonist, and genre, such as science fiction.

With informational texts, good readers separate nonessential from essential information. They set a purpose for reading because it helps them focus their efforts on specific, essential information.  As they read and reread, they also figure out the information and vocabulary that are important to helping them infer and understand themes. 

Classroom Snapshot: Mikel

Paul Green gives a group of fourth graders a short article on the Amazon Rainforest and asks them to set purposes for reading by studying the two photographs and captions and by reading section headings. Here are two purposes students offered: Read to find out why deforestation is bad. Read to see why the Amazon Rainforest is needed for fresh water. Paul explains that having different reading purposes will make their discussion richer.

However, while Paul circulates among students as they read, he notices that Mikel does not have a purpose written in his notebook. Mikel says, “I never set a purpose. I read it.” Later that morning, during independent reading, Paul meets with Mikel and has him read a different article without setting a purpose and then reread it after setting a purpose. Then he asks Mikel, “Which reading helped you figure out key details?” Mikel grudgingly agrees that setting a purpose helped.

Scaffolding Suggestions for Determining Importance

  • Help students set a purpose for reading for informational texts.
  • Help students set a purpose for reading fiction. For example, a purpose for reading Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins could be to monitor the problems Gilly, the protagonist, faces in the first three chapters. . 
  • Ensure that students understand the diverse subgenres of fiction. For example, a purpose for reading The Giver by Lois Lowery might be to explore what makes the book a dystopian novel.
  • Model how you set purposes by reading aloud. First, set a purpose: To determine the structure of folk tales.  Then, as you read, think aloud and pinpoint the essential details that help you meet your purpose.

Make Logical Inferences

To infer from text, students first have to understand what an inference is: an unstated or implied meaning. Making inferences that are logical means students have to use details in texts they are reading as support.

Inferring is a strategy that you should model many times during the year because it is difficult for most students to grasp, absorb, and apply to their instructional and independent reading. From my experience, with practice, inferring becomes automatic for most students between eighth and tenth grade.

Classroom Snapshot: Sam

Sam, a fifth grade student is reading Ruby Bridge’s Through My Eyes and experiencing difficulty inferring from the text. His teacher switches gears and invites Sam to use details in the book’s photographs to infer. Once Sam shows that he can infer from photos, his teacher moves him to text and says: “Words and phrases in the text give you details similar to what you saw in photographs.” She supported Sam by selecting words and phrases and inviting him to infer. Then she provided an inference and asked Sam to find supporting details. The teacher gradually released responsibility for inferring to Sam until he could apply the strategy on his own

Scaffolding Suggestion for Making Logical inferences

  • Invite students to make inferences based on events in their daily lives. For example, they can infer the temperament of a dog from its behavior or the mood of a friend or sibling from his or her words and actions.
  • Think aloud and share your inferring process using a read aloud text.
  • Have students make inferences based on photographs and illustrations in books.
  • Help students transfer inferring from events in daily life, photographs, and illustrations to inferring from text details by first providing them with target words and phrases and asking them to infer. Have students practice with you and/or a peer until they can work independently.

Identifying Themes

Themes are tough for readers to identify because, like inferences, they are unstated.  But by using informational text details and literary elements students can identify themes that not only apply to the text they’re reading but also to other texts. Here are three steps that can help students pinpoint themes in fiction and nonfiction:

  • Identify the big idea or general topics in the text and talk and/or write about them.
  • In fiction, explore what characters do and say that relate to that big idea or general topic. In nonfiction, explore information and details that relate to that big idea or general topic.
  • Create a theme statement that expresses the author’s message about the big idea or general topic. Encourage students to avoid using character’s names or the names of places mentioned in a text. An effective theme statement applies to people, characters, and ideas across texts, not just the text in hand.

Classroom Snapshot: Ricardo

Ricardo, a sixth grader, can name specific characters and places in the book he’s reading, but he can’t use the information to state themes. His teacher, Ms. Krieger, meets with Ricardo on three separate occasions for five minutes as the rest of the class reads independently. Her plans include modeling how she uses what characters say and do to arrive at a theme and discussing her process. Then, she’ll provide Ricardo with a theme and have him find the details in the text that support it.

Scaffolding Suggestions for Identifying Themes

  • Have students watch a video and identify its theme. Then ask them to talk about how the same strategy can be applied to a text.
  • Give students the details from a text that they need to identify a theme and have them compose a theme statement.
  • Show students how you pinpoint a general topic in fiction and link it to what characters do and say. Then model how you use the information to compose a theme statement. For example, the general topic is the pain and anger that a child experiences when he realizes his parent commits evil acts. In The Giver, Jonas feels shock, intense anger, and deep pain when he watches, on video a feed, his gentle and nurturing father kill a “newchild” who doesn’t meet the growth standards of the community. To transform the father’s unspeakable action into a theme, the reader has to think beyond Jonas to all young adolescents: Disillusionment occurs when an adolescent sees that a beloved parent is capable of evil.
  • Pair up students who have read the same text and have them work together and identify one to two themes.
  • Work backwards: Give students a theme statement and ask them provide the text details that support the theme statement.

Document Teacher-Student Conferences

A five-minute, one-on-one conference can support a student’s needs; one meeting might be enough, but more likely, you’ll need two or more meetings.  It depends on the extent of the student’s needs and the level of the instruction you’re providing.

You can schedule a series of conferences over several days while the rest of the class reads or writes independently. Keeping conferences short and focused allows students to practice a strategy over several days and provides the time students need to absorb how the strategy works and how well it’s working for them.

Hold these five-minute conferences in a quiet place in the classroom. Use a small table or use an extra student desk and meet away from other students to ensure privacy.  I recommend documenting these conferences using a form at the end of this blog. The filled-out form provides a record of what you planned and what you and the student discussed, practiced, and accomplished. It can also inform the focus of future conferences and teaching decisions.

[begin reproducible]

Five-Minute Intervention Conference Form


Directions:  Complete this conference form and use the information it contains to inform your practice. Store in the student’s assessment folder to consult later as necessary.


Focus the conference topic:

Points to discuss with the student:

The kind of scaffolding I’ll try:



Note important comments the student made:

My observations of the student:

Negotiated goal for the next conference.

Date of the next conference:

[end reproducible]

Learn more about scaffolding by exploring Laura Robb’s book, Unlocking Complex Texts.