Here’s My Reading Comprehension Journey…

Child reading

This will be the fourth and final part of what has turned into an unintentional series of posts on reading comprehension and close reading. Here is what we have covered so far:

In this post I would like to take a look back on my reading comprehension journey, and the different stages I “experienced” during my time as a classroom teacher.

Stage 1: What’s reading comprehension?

I started my full-time teaching career as a third grade teacher for a half-year. Interestingly enough, during this time I didn’t know reading comprehension actually “existed.” When students struggled to understand what they were reading, I simply encouraged them to reread and try harder. In my mind, students who had problems were not trying hard enough, and understanding would come with increased effort…The less said about this stage, the better.

Stage 2: The questions at the end of the story

After teaching third grade for a half-year, I made the transition to fourth grade (where I would stay throughout the remainder of my time in the classroom). As I made this shift, all of the elementary school teachers in my district were provided with Harcourt Storytown. (And, although we may currently have issues with basal readers, back then it made pretty much everyone happy.)

For the next three years, the majority of my reading comprehension instruction was your typical, “Read the story and then answer the questions.” In fact, after my first year teaching fourth grade, a good chunk of my summer was spent coming up with “end of story questions,” such as these, for every major story in Storytown. In my mind, by getting all of this work done over the summer, I would barely have to plan for reading comprehension instruction during the school year.

However, as Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels point out in Comprehension & Collaboration (and unbeknownst to me at the time), “Comprehension is not about answering those literal questions at the end of a story, chapter, or textbook section. Comprehension is not about spitting out facts and filling in blanks. Comprehension is about understanding.”

I should also point out, my guided reading instruction took place with the use of the leveled readers (3 levels) that came with Storytown.

Stage 3: Chapter books are introduced

About a month into my third year as a fourth grade teacher, one of my students, Kevin, asked why they weren’t reading from chapter books (other than during independent reading and shared reading). Roughly two weeks after he made that comment I had shelled out a few hundred dollars of my own money on Ebay, and the classroom was complete with a bookshelf full of book sets, both classic and current. From that point forward, chapter books were used in place of the Storytown leveled readers.

Stage 4: Teaching to the strategies

I read Mosaic of Thought prior to my fourth year teaching fourth grade, and then Strategies That Work prior to my fifth. For me, it would be an understatement to say these books were transformational. While Mosaic of Thought made clear what proficient readers do while they are reading, Strategies That Work gave me the tools (and lessons) to make these necessary instructional shifts in my classroom.

So, for about two school years, these explicit reading comprehension strategies served as the basis for my reading comprehension instruction: monitoring comprehension, activating and connecting to background knowledge, questioning, visualizing, inferring, determining importance in text, and summarizing and synthesizing information…But, if you were to have walked into my classroom and asked my students what they were learning, the chances are they would have named one of the strategies; this is a problem, which I covered in-depth in Parts 2 and 3 of this series. 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. The strategies in and of themselves are not the “end-game,” but rather the north star is always a deeper understanding of what is read.

Stage 5: Deeper understandings, guided reading, literature circles

Looking back, it wasn’t until my sixth year teaching fourth grade (and my final year in the classroom) when I “got it” with my reading comprehension instruction. And, even then, there is so much I would do differently if I were to return to the classroom as a teacher. Here are the three main points worth mentioning:

  • The students still learned the explicit reading comprehension strategies, but they did not serve as the focal point for instruction and learning. Once it was clear students were familiar with the strategies, we continuously worked towards leveraging them to dive deeper into what we were reading, mostly through the use of thinking routines, discussions, and open-ended written responses. (I have shown this resource before, but I love the comprehension continuum from Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels, in which the strategies aren’t located as the “final step” but rather in the middle.)
  • Guided reading took place with complex texts, which I generally found on Newsela and then distributed according to students’ abilities and interests. As students worked through these texts, they naturally called upon close reading strategies because they were needed for comprehension. According to Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey, “Texts selected for close reading typically range from a few paragraphs to a few pages. These texts are sufficiently complex to withstand multiple readings and challenge readers’ thinking and understanding.”
  • While guided reading took place about four days a week, students engaged in literature circles every Monday and Friday. For an in-depth look at what this learning looked like, refer to this article – (Almost) Paperless Literature Circles – which I wrote for Edutopia.

In the End

While these five stages don’t encompass all of the reading that transpired in my classrooms, they should provide a solid idea of how I progressed in regards to reading comprehension, close reading, guided reading, and literature circles (and also how there was still room for improvement as my formal teaching career came to an end).

Nonetheless, what is most important now is that I leverage my experiences, both good and bad, for the benefit of the students and teachers with whom I am currently working as a curriculum supervisor.

What do you think about my reading comprehension journey? Tell me about yours!

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