Showing posts with label Reading comprehension. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reading comprehension. Show all posts

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Teaching Kids to Interpret Theme: The Limits of Practice

            Many years ago my daughter, Meagan, had a homework assignment. Her literature teacher assigned a short story to read and Meagan was to figure out the theme.

            The theme she came up with: “People do a lot of different things.”

            Needless to say, it doesn’t matter what the story was, that wasn’t the theme. (Though she was a little surprised that I could know that without even reading it.)

            “Meagan how do your teachers teach you to figure out theme?”

            “That’s just it, Dad. They don’t. They tell you what a theme is and I know what  a theme is,  and then when you get the theme wrong they tell you the theme and that is supposed to help you next time. But it doesn’t because that story has a different theme.”

            My goodness...the same method my teachers had used with me!

            Practice alone is not likely to teach kids to identify theme. The same could be said for other comprehension “skills.” No matter how often you are asked to do them, you still won’t be able to without some instruction.

            That’s a problem in lots of schools. Reading comprehension instruction has to give kids opportunities to read and to use the information: to answer questions, to discuss, to source one's writing. But there has to be more to it than that. Instruction should help kids to think about that information more effectively; to remember more if it; to analyze it more deeply.

            Reading practice is important. But practicing what you don’t know how to do is nonsense.

            What got me thinking about that was a review of the Common Core standards for reading. Look what kids are supposed to do with theme by high school graduation: “Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.”

            Man, if we aren’t going to teach kids how to figure out one theme, how will they ever know how to identify multiple themes?

            I did a quick review of books for teachers on how to teach reading comprehension. It is interesting because, if they mention theme at all, they usually only define it and give some examples. In other words, the same instructional method Meagan described.

            In good literature, the characters change across the text; the so-called “arc of development.” Wilbur is a different pig by the end of Charlotte’s Web; and the Elizabeth Bennett at the denouement of Pride and Prejudice is not the same acerbic Lizzy that we start with.

            Kids who can’t tell you a theme, can usually track the changes the characters go through. And, they can tell you whether those changes are good or bad.

            Theme is wrapped up in those changes—and because the best literature tends to have multiple multi-dimensional characters—characters who grow and learn—a story might have multiple themes. That's what Joanne Golden and John Guthrie reported in 1986 (Reading Research Quarterly). When kids empathize or identify with one literary character, the teacher may feel the same about the other. And, then, when the kids identify a story theme, they get graded down for not getting the right one. 

            We need to teach kids to track character changes across a story, to evaluate the value of those changes, and then to construct a potential lesson or theme based on that information.


            Once kids know how to do that, practice is a really good idea. Before they know how to do that, practice can’t help much.


My ILA 2016 PowerPoint: Reading Sometimes Surprises You

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Should I Set Reading Purposes for My Students?

            For nearly a century, leading educators and school textbooks have encouraged teachers to set a purpose for reading. Sometimes these purposes are called “motivation” or they might be stated as questions, “What is a population?” or “What is the major problem the main character faces?”

            It makes sense. We want our kids to be purposeful and such purpose-focused reading leads to higher comprehension, right?

            Not exactly. Researchers (e.g., Richard Mayer, John Guthrie) have shown that, indeed, if you set a specific purpose for reading, students will do a better job of accomplishing that purpose. So far so good.

            However, despite more kids getting correct answers, their overall reading comprehension tends to be depressed.

            How can that be? Well, when you focus so specifically on a particular idea you are likely to get it, but that leads you to ignore the rest of the text message—lowering overall comprehension. You learn what you focus your attention on, but focusing on only a part of the text distracts attention from the rest.

            I was reminded of all of this while doing a French lesson this week (I’m finally taking a class). The assignment required me to listen to a series of audiotaped messages and to pay special attention to the numbers in the various messages (e.g., prices, addresses).

            I’m struggling to understand French by ear, so what I found myself doing was focusing so heavily on recording the correct numbers, I wasn’t comprehending the messages at all. I’d know they were talking about 10 somethings, but I honestly had no idea what. Frankly, I didn’t need to know 10 whats, I just had to know 10, so I found myself losing track of everything else.

            I suspect that if this happened to me when I was in elementary school, I probably would have been fine with it. Ignoring the message is the fastest and most certain way to accomplish the assignment—though it isn’t great for learning language or reading.

            To truly be a successful comprehender, I needed a different mental set for this activity. I needed first to try to understand the messages, and then to try to remember or go back to figure out the numbers. When I took a breath, ignored the numbers for the moment, and just tried to understand what the French speakers were telling me, I did much better. (And, at my age, since I really do want to learn French, I did just that even though it took longer. I’ve learned a thing or two since I was 12).

            My successful, but foolish, initial approach to this comprehension assignment made me wonder how common such purpose setting is in reading lessons. I typed purpose setting and reading comprehension into Google. There were some irrelevant pieces that talked about different purposes for reading (entertainment, learning, etc.), but for the most part there was an extensive amount of guidance advising teachers of the importance of either setting specific purposes for reading or teaching kids to set their own specific purposes. Clearly, these experts haven’t read the research on this misguided instructional practice.

            If you want kids to skim a text to locate a particular answer and you don’t care whether they understand the story, article, or chapter, then, by all means, give them specific purposes for such searching. However, if you are giving a purpose to guide reading comprehension, then be as non-specific in your purpose setting as possible (e.g., read to find out what happens in this story, read to find out what this author has to say about global warming, read to see if you can retell this later).


            Yes, it is a big mistake to give a reading assignment that includes completing the comprehension questions at the end of the chapter—unless you don’t care whether the students read the chapter or not. Kids tend to aim at efficiency—getting the assignment done as quickly and with as little effort as possible—not learning. Don’t be surprised if they accomplish what appears to be the teacher’s purpose: coming up with answers to those questions rather than reading the text to try to understand the author’s message.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Teaching Reading Comprehension and Comprehension Strategies

Teacher question:  In terms of teaching comprehension to grade 3-5 students, what is the best way to help the readers transfer the strategies they are taught so they can be independent, self-regulated readers?

Shanahan's response:  If you want to teach reading comprehension strategies to on-grade level students between the ages of 8-10, we have a pretty good idea of how to do that successfully. The teaching of strategies is a good focus as well, given the large amount of research showing that strategy instruction can be beneficial.

However, before we get to strategies, I’d like to take a couple of (what I hope will be useful) detours. For example, lots of times kids in the upper elementary grades are struggling readers. Research suggests that the vast majority of those kids will require additional phonics. I might only be willing to invest a small amount of instructional time in phonics with on-level readers during these grade levels, but if I don’t with the strugglers, they’re screwed. For those kids, a focus on reading strategies is okay, too, but only in the context of those kids getting the instructional support they need (obviously if they can’t read the words easily, they won’t have the cognitive space to focus on text meaning.

What else do we need to worry about with kids in this age range? I would invest in fluency instruction—having kids reading and rereading relatively difficult texts aloud to make them sound like English. Many schemes for doing this have students answer some questions at the end of each reading, and I think that’s a reasonably good idea. Either way, that kind of fluency practice can have a big impact on reading comprehension.

I would also invest a lot of time in vocabulary learning. The research is pretty clear that we can teach high value words effectively enough to improve comprehension and the same can be said for teaching morphology (the meanings of the roots and combining forms, suffixes, and prefixes). Build up kids’ knowledge of word meanings and you’ll usually improve their comprehension.

The same can be said for some other aspects of language. Teaching kids how sentences work; activities like sentence combining and sentence reducing can help kids work out sentence meaning. And, teaching kids how to recognize and make use of cohesive links is powerful, too (like getting kids to figure out what the pronouns refer to).

Anything else? Indeed. I would make sure kids are doing a lot of reading in the classroom. That can be in the reading books, but it can also be in social studies and science materials as well. The point is kids need to read a lot and there should be more to this than just “dumb practice.” It matters if the texts focus on valuable information, and that we make sure kids learn that information. The more they know about their world, the better they are likely to do in reading.

Finally, I would make sure that kids were writing about what they read. In the grade levels that you asked about, research suggests that having the kids write various kinds of summaries is a pretty powerful way to build reading comprehension.

Those lengthy detours aside, in that context, I would definitely teach comprehension strategies. The way I think of strategies most basically is that give readers some tools they can use independently to make sense of what they read.

Several strategies confer an advantage: teaching kids to monitor their comprehension and if they are not understanding a text to take charge and try to fix it; teaching kids to read text and to stop occasionally to sum up for themselves what the text is telling them (and to go back if they aren’t getting it); teaching kids to ask themselves questions about what they are reading and to go back and reread if they can’t answer those questions (kind of a discussion in the head); teaching them to look for a text’s structure to figure out what the parts are and how they fit together (story mapping is the most common example of this support). There are some others but those are the ones with the most research support and the biggest payoff. (And, teaching kids more than one strategy makes a lot of sense too—apparently different strategies help students to solve different problems, so having multiple strategies is beneficial).

Research suggests that the best way to teach these strategies is through a gradual release of responsibility approach. That is, the teacher starts out explaining the strategy and what its purpose is, then demonstrating it or modeling it for the kids (show them how—explaining it as you go).

After a demo or two, then have the kids try to use the strategy under your supervision. For example, tell the kids that you want them to practice summarization. Ask the what kinds of things you did in the demo—when you stopped, what kind of information you tried to include, what you did when you couldn’t remember something important. Initially, the teacher does much of the work, with the kids mainly following teacher directions. “Read the first two pages. That’s a good place to stop because on page 3 there is another section.” Then when they get there, perhaps asking some questions: “What was this about?” What was the most important thing the author told you? What other information is important?”

Once kids can answer those questions, it is a good idea to start to withdraw support (this is the real “we do it”). “We’re going to read this chapter. What would be a good place to stop and sum up? Why that point? When we get to this point, what do I usually ask you?”

As kids take over more of the process, you might have them work in smaller groups, with the teacher sporadically moving around the groups to monitor their success and to remind them of the steps. Perhaps you could give kids different responsibilities (one child might lead the discussion of stopping points, another might be responsible for asking the group members to remember the most important point, etc.).

Finally, have the kids try this out individually. They can take notes on the process and then engage with the teacher in a discussion of how well the process worked. Of course, if kids struggle with any part of it, you can go back to earlier steps to make it successful. Some programs do this with multiple strategies, all at one time, and others teach the strategies one at a time, adding them together as you go (both approaches work—but I find the latter to be simpler and easier to teach). You can usually teach a strategy well in 3-4 weeks if you have students practicing with lots of different texts.


Throughout that entire process it is important to vary the texts. Summarizing a newspaper article is different than summarizing a story, and both are different than a science chapter. Make sure that the students are learning not only the strategy, but the content of the texts too. Finally, remind the kids from time to time to use their strategies or engage them in strategies discussions.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Close Reading and the Reading of Complex Text Are Not the Same Thing

          Recently, I was asked to make some presentations. I suggested a session on close reading and another on teaching with complex text. The person who invited me said, “But that’s just one subject… the close reading of complex text. What else will you talk about?”

          Her response puzzled me, but since then I’ve been noting that many people are confounding those two subjects. They really are two separate and separable constructs. That means that many efforts to implement the so-called Common Core standards may be missing an important beat.

          Close reading refers to an approach to text interpretation that focuses heavily not just on what a text says, but on how it communicates that message. The sophisticated close reader carefully sifts what an author explicitly expresses and implies, but he/she also digs below the surface, considering rhetorical features, literary devices, layers of meaning, graphic elements, symbolism, structural elements, cultural references, and allusions to grasp the meaning of a text. Close readers take text as a unity—reflecting on how these elements magnify or extend the meaning.

         Complex text includes those “rhetorical features, literary devices, layers of meaning, graphic elements, symbolism, structural elements, cultural references, and allusions.” (Text that is particularly literal or straightforward is usually not a great candidate for close reading). But there is more to text complexity than that—especially for developing readers.

          Text complexity also includes all the other linguistic elements that might make one text more difficult than another. That includes the sophistication of the author’s diction (vocabulary), sentence complexity (syntax or grammar), cohesion, text organization, and tone.

          A close reader might be interested in the implications of an author’s grammar choices. For example, interpretations of Faulkner often suggest that his use of extended sentences with lots of explicit subordination and interconnection reveals a world that is nearly full determined… in other words the characters (like the readers) do not necessarily get to make free choices.

          And, while that might be an interesting interpretation of how an author’s style helps convey his meaning (prime close reading territory), there is another more basic issue inherent in Faulkner’s sentence construction. The issue of reading comprehension. Readers have to determine what in the heck Faulkner is saying or implying in his sentences. Grasping the meaning of a sentence that goes on for more than a page requires a feat of linguistic analysis and memory that has nothing to do with close reading. It is a text complexity issue. Of course, if you are a fourth-grader, you don’t need a page-long sentence to feel challenged by an author’s grammar.

          Text complexity refers to both the sophisticated content and the linguistic complexity of texts. A book like, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a good example of sophisticated content, but with little linguistic complexity. It is a good candidate for a close reading lesson, but it won’t serve to extend most kids’ language. While a book like “Turn of the Screw” could be a good candidate for close reading, but only if a teacher is willing to teach students to negotiate its linguistic challenges.

         The standards are asking teachers to do just that: to teach kids to comprehend linguistically complex texts and the carry out close reads. They definitely are not the same thing.