One thing that makes reading instruction extremely complex is the fact that reading is typically seen a private activity. In my classroom, however, I want my students to feel comfortable talking about what they're reading, how well they're reading, and what problems they may face throughout the reading process.
In my four previous posts, I talked about how I work with my students to better monitor their Speed, Accuracy, Phrasing, and Expression while they're reading. And, I've share how we keep the conversation "open" about What Makes Good Reading.
As we move into the multifaceted task of monitoring and measuring Understanding, we must have an "honest" conversation about the problems that many young readers face in this part of the reading process. This is one conversation that often makes students feel uncomfortable, ashamed, and even embarrassed as I unfold some difficult truths about their reading habits. I begin by asking my students these questions:
How do you know you Understand what you're reading?
How do you know you're "getting" it?
Their responses vary, but every time I ask these questions, a few things always seem to come up:
- Knowing what the words mean.
- Being able to picture what I'm reading.
- Imagining what's happening in the story.
- Summarizing what I've read.
This shows me that kids know what Understanding is supposed to feel like. In my experience, though, many are not equipped with the skills they need to monitor/adjust their reading when their Comprehension breaks down. Because reading has been so "private" for them in the past, many students don't even realize they have problems with Understanding, or they don't know what to look for. For some, they're so overwhelmed in decoding words that trying to make sense of them seems impossible.
I then share from my experiences as a college student who thought I knew how to read well. But when I was required to read 150-200 pages a week from textbooks clearly much higher than my reading level, I struggled with some of the very problems they may be facing right now.
Problems with Understanding
- Skipping words you don't know.
- Reading faster than you can process the details of the text.
- Not connecting details to ideas.
- Not rereading when you need to.
I then talk about how frustrating it was for me those first couple of years of college because I would spend hours trying to figure out what the words on the page meant. Because I didn't know how to fix my problems in Comprehension, I remember very little from texts I couldn't connect with, much less understand very well.
To provide my students with ways they can monitor their own Comprehension, I share the criteria I want us to follow. Notice how closely these guidelines match the answers students give each time I ask them how they know they're comprehending.
- Know what the words mean in context.
- Follow events in a story.
- Follow the writer's ideas.
- Reread when something doesn't make sense.
- Summarize what I have read.
I display this criteria where students can see it, and them to copy these notes into their reading journals. Once we have these guidelines in place, I move onto a series of questions that allows students to follow these guidelines while holding them accountable for making sense of what they read.
As readers, we have to know what to do as the words go by. Our Understanding comes from what happens to those words as they enter our brains. I teach my students how Read Like Readers by introducing them to the Read Like a Reader (RLR) questions I want them to begin practicing with their first book.
One question at a time I model the Read Like a Reader questions for my students. With my current book they would go something like this:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling.
QUESTION: I wonder? What if? Why? How?
I wonder if Harry Potter will ever be able to communicate with his parents.
VISUALIZE: Images I see... The scene I can picture the clearest is...
The scene I can picture the clearest is Harry's confusion when he reaches the train station in London, and he can't find the Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.
INFER: I think the author wants me to know... The author didn't actually say.... but I think... Things seem...
The author, J.K. Rowling, doesn't actually say that Harry Potter is powerful, but I think he is more powerful than even he's aware of. It seems like it's going to take him a long time to figure out how to use his powers in ways that are for the greater good--for people who have been bullied like he has.
CONNECT: This part reminds me of... My life... The world... Other texts...
When Harry receives his Nimbus Two-Thousand, I was reminded of the time when someone bought me a long-board for my birthday. It was a custom design in my favorite color (orange) with "The Real Deahl" painted in white. Like Harry, I was completely surprised by such a generous gift.
FEEL: Which parts did you have an emotional connection to? How did YOU feel when you read this part?
As I read about Harry's second Quidditch match, I was extremely worried for him. I feared that he might be injured by one of his teachers or competitors. I was anxious to read through this part quickly so that I could find out if he was okay.
EVALUATE: Was this good? Why? Why not? What would make it better?
I confess that I didn't want to jump on the Harry Potter bandwagon, but this book really is good. I like it because J.K. Rowling's vivid descriptions help me picture what happens to Harry from the time he leaves the Dursley's house to his experiences at Hogwarts. I also like it because Harry's an underdog, and I often root for the underdog. Mostly, I like it because the story is suspenseful, I can't wait to read what's going to happen next!
CONCLUDE: What are my final thoughts, observations, conclusions about this text?
Right now I'm on page 228, and I want to finish this book today! I believe that Harry Potter is going to get caught in a place that is off limits, and he's going to have to face a horrible consequence. In having read this much of the book, I can see why millions of people have come to love this series. Following Harry Potter's adventures is exciting and makes for a fun read!
Holding Readers Accountable for Their Understanding
Done quickly, I can get through a set of Read Like a Reader questions in one class period. But rather than rush through all of them at once, I typically show students how to answer one type of question and then give them time to practice. Then, we move onto the next type of question and so on. However, I like to cover at least 2-3 Read Like a Reader questions in one class period.
I first introduce the RLR questions to my students, I have them answer a complete set every 20-25 pages (or every chapter, whichever is easier for them to remember). I also have them include the page numbers or chapters with each answer (as applicable). As I conduct reading conferences, the page numbers (or chapters) allow me to go back and take a look at the text to double-check a student's comprehension.
In skimming through a student's answers, if I see a problem, I'll have the student practice the RLR question(s) with me in a reading conference. I've found that I typically spend a lot of time working on the more difficult questions like Infer, Evaluate, and Conclude.
At first, I want my students to answer the Read Like a Reader questions in at least one complete sentence. If they only have a one-sentence response, I'm okay with that. However, I do tell them that the more thought they put into an answer, the better their Understanding of the text will be. I've seen students respond with lengths that vary from one sentence to short paragraphs to long paragraphs.
We also do a lot of whole class and group sharing with the Read Like a Reader questions. I literally take pictures of these journal entries, or have students place their journals underneath my document camera for their peers to see. I also show samples of journal entries that include the RLR questions completed by former students so my current students can see the variety in how these responses can "look" and sound. Showing students a variety of examples on a varied ability levels gives them something to connect to. Plus, we can then evaluate these varied entries for their content and quality.
Teaching my students how to monitor their Understanding in a more practical, process-oriented approach with the Read Like a Reader questions allows them to develop the very habits good readers use every day-- habits they can practice in class, on their own, and at their own pace. They work well because they encompass the Understanding criteria I want my students to follow.
While the Read Like a Reader questions are only one way to measure Comprehension, I've found that my students buy into them because they're individualized (to each student's ability level), they're manageable, and they encompass the very habits skilled readers do automatically. Their simplicity is a part of their appeal.
What I like best about the Read Like a Reader questions is that we can use them with any text. My students and I have used them with novels, non-fiction, poetry, literature, real world texts like the fine print in cell phone bills, and controversial laws like SB 1070. Because these questions are universal, I'm not saying to my students, "Here are the questions I've created (or a publishing company has created) that I expect you to answer correctly." Instead, I'm saying, "I've shown you how using these questions will allow you to figure out what the text means. Show me how you're using them to make sense of what you read."
For more on Understanding and Read Like a Reader, see: READING ALLOWED: Making Sure the First “R” Comes First.
Portions of this article are © Copyright 1995-2012 by Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., and are used by permission. For more information, and free teaching materials, visit www.ttms.org or contact Margot Lester at firstname.lastname@example.org.