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Two Huge Reasons to Emphasize Consistent Reading Comprehension Strategies

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Currently in my district at the elementary level, we are in the process of strategically moving away from our basal reading program. We’ve already “cut out” its writing component, as this year we’re hitting the ground running with Writing Workshop and the Units of Study. Also, we’ve begun the process of designing our own reading comprehension instruction with the assistance of Reading with Meaning, Strategies That Work, and Notice & Note (both fiction and non-fiction).

A component of these reading comprehension modifications involves exploring the use of consistent strategies throughout elementary and middle school (grades K-8): monitoring comprehension, activating and connecting to background knowledge, questioning, visualizing, inferring, determining importance in text, and summarizing and synthesizing information. These strategies, which are from Strategies That Work (and many other resources), are “the first recommendation in the IES Practice Guide from the What Works Clearinghouse on improving reading comprehension.”

In addition, we’re looking at leveraging the Notice & Note signposts (both fiction and non-fiction) to have students dive deeper into the strategies (and texts) in grades 4-8. And, if you’re not familiar with the signposts (and you should be), just follow the previous two links to see how they apply to both fiction and non-fiction.

Now, while the idea of consistent strategies may sound neat, organized, and impressive, I believe it’s important to be able to specifically articulate why this is the path we’re considering.

With these thoughts in mind, here are two huge reasons to emphasize consistent reading comprehension strategies (and signposts) across your grade levels.

1. Less Time Learning Strategies, More Time Diving Deeper

In Comprehension and Collaboration, Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels tell us, “Explicitly teaching comprehension strategies remains one of the key principles of reading achievement, and the flexible use of comprehension strategies allows readers to hurdle the background knowledge gap when reading challenging text.” The key word here is flexible. Other than when students are initially learning the strategies (or when they’re provided a brief review at the start of the school year), the strategies should generally not be taught in isolation. For example, when was the last time you picked up a book and said, “This time I’m going to infer!”

Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey echo this sentiment in Rigorous Reading, “We believe there is a danger in teaching comprehension strategies in isolation of one another, which was a mistake commonly made in the past.” They go on to cite Fountas and Pinnell:

These strategies are not linear in that first you engage one then another. In fact, reducing complex systems to a list…probably oversimplifies reading. Teaching strategies one at a time and telling students to consciously employ them, one at a time, may actually interfere with deep comprehension and make reading a meaningless exercise.

In short, the goal is for students to leverage the strategies and signposts flexibly and almost subconsciously to develop deeper understandings of what they read. To hammer home this point of strategies and signposts not being the “end-game,” take a look at this comprehension continuum from Harvey and Daniels and ask yourself where the strategies are located.

Think for a second…In many schools and districts, teachers “waste” a great deal of time, for one reason or another, reteaching (entirely or partially) what students were taught the year before. When this practice becomes the case with reading comprehension strategies and signposts, we squander time that could be spent diving deeper into texts. However, if teachers can completely rely on one another, and they know the strategies and signposts are consistent across the board, a quick review may be all that is necessary and then more time could be spent on strategic reading.

Finally, we shouldn’t underestimate the benefits of common language, especially at the elementary level. In reality, many schools and districts are probably already using consistent strategies (or close to it), but slight variations in their “labels” exist due to teacher/administrator preference, the specific resources being used, etc. Often times it only takes a little bit of tweaking to get everyone on the same page and to produce noticeable benefits. These small tweaks can be the difference between, “Um, I’ve never seen that before!” and “We already learned that last year, let’s move on!” Once again, this moving on could lead to getting the most out of the time that is spent on reading comprehension instruction.

2. Everyone Should Be Teaching Literacy

In any classroom in which students are reading, some form of reading comprehension is also taking place. And, if students are still learning to read and possibly struggling with their comprehension, then reading comprehension instruction also needs to be happening. However, this is easier said than done, especially when students work with multiple teachers throughout any given day. For example, if a student from another Language Arts class is having problems with reading during science, the science teacher could potentially respond by: ignoring the problem, hoping the other teacher fixes it; attempting to help the student, even though he/she may not be “qualified” to do so; or, successfully assisting the student with strategies inconsistent with what’s being used in Language Arts. All three outcomes are common, and also not ideal.

Nonetheless, if all teachers are leveraging the same strategies and signposts, everyone wins. Fisher and Frey tell us, “Close readings are not exclusively for English teachers; close readings should be conducted in any class in which complex texts play a role.” Additionally, while strategies can be called upon during close reading, they are also used all the time, even when we’re not reading strategically. (For example, think about how you might subconsciously visualize while reading Harry Potter…Think about how you are probably activating and connecting to your background knowledge while reading this very blog post.) So, if reading is taking place in your classroom, you should be prepared and qualified to have your students learn to read, and not just read to learn, especially if you’re working with students who read below grade level…As a side note, think about how much time teachers can free up during science, social studies, and other content areas (possibly for inquiry-based learning) by having students immerse themselves in content-related non-fiction reading comprehension during Language Arts time.

Finally…In Notice & Note Nonfiction, Kylene Beers and Robert Probst discuss the difference between content area literacy skills, “which are literacy skills that can be applied across a variety of subjects,” and disciplinary literacy, which represents the way material is read within the context of a given subject or field. To explain the significance of disciplinary literacy, the authors go on to cite the work of Tim and Cynthia Shanahan who reveal (amongst other examples) that scientists, mathematicians, and historians will all (1) summarize texts in different ways, and (2) greatly vary in opinion when considering the importance of who authored a text…Although the strategies may look different across subject areas, they’re still there in some way, shape, or form.

In the End

With all that is taught on a daily basis, it is easy for the strategies (and signposts) to get lumped in with everything else and lost in the shuffle. For example, as a fourth grade teacher I was given a basal reading series, and looking now at a random lesson from this resource it calls for the teacher to teach and assess, all in about a week: reading comprehension, character’s traits and motivations, synonyms and antonyms, vocabulary, and declarative and interrogative sentences. When I was in the classroom, it took much longer than it should have for me to realize all of this content didn’t deserve equal treatment, and much of it could have been taught through reading comprehension.

What we need to do for our students is to essentially place a magnifying glass or spotlight on reading comprehension strategies by (1) emphasizing the same strategies no matter the resources in front of us, and (2) making sure these strategies are consistent across grade levels and subject areas. In the end, students will have more opportunities to engage in close reading (which should be appropriately balanced with various forms of non-strategic reading), and all teachers will be on the same page in regards to how to best meet the needs of their students.

What are your thoughts on the reading comprehension strategies? In what ways have you seen them successfully leveraged in classrooms, schools, and/or districts?

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I am the Supervisor of Instructional Practice K-12 in the Salisbury Township School District (1:1 MacBook/iPad) in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I am an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Certified Teacher. My passions are inquiry-based learning and quality professional development. I blog about these topics at rosscoops31.com. Also, I regularly engage in speaking, consulting, and presenting. I have conducted keynotes, speaking engagements, and workshops ranging from 15 minutes to all-day. A list of what I have previously offered, and testimonials, can be found on my blog.

When I am not educating or going to school, I enjoy eating steak and pizza, exercising, reading books, and playing on my computer…Please feel free to connect via email, RossCoops31@gmail.com, and/or Twitter, @RossCoops31.

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Guest Thursday, 20 October 2016