Top Tips for Teaching Comprehension

With thanks to Dee Reid, co-author of On Track English: Reading Comprehension. Visit our CPD training page to attend one of Dee’s webinars on spelling and comprehension.
 

‘Reading is boring because you don’t do anything.’

Ever heard a child in one of your classes say something like that?

Lots of children think reading is boring because they perceive it as just being about decoding the words on the page. They are not aware that good readers are not just saying the printed word they see but are also activating the comprehension processes in their brains to unpick the clues in the text the author has placed for the reader. Children who can decode but not comprehend will not do well in the end of Key Stage 2 Reading Comprehension test (or in many other challenges the curriculum might throw at them).
So, what do we want children to be doing when they are reading?

We want them to be text detectives.

What do text detectives do?

  • Think about what they already know about things that are mentioned in the text

  • Make predictions about what will happen next

  • Visualise the pictures the author is creating with words

  • Read between the lines to get to understand things the author only hints at

So, how can we get all children in our classes to be text detectives?

Simples! By explicitly teaching the skills of prediction, visualising and making inferences!

Children don’t get better at comprehension by doing dull comprehension activities where they read a passage and then answer questions on it. Often children can do so-called ‘comprehension tasks’ without really enhancing their level of understanding about what the text is telling them.

So, how can you explicitly teach comprehension skills?

Children are much more likely to comprehend while reading if they are interested in what they are reading, but a busy teacher cannot always provide texts and books that have immediate appeal to all 7-11-year-olds (if we did, all the books in the classroom would have to be about sport or the supernatural or famous people!).

Good readers tune in to what they are going to read, before actually reading

As adults we get to choose what we want to read whereas, apart from independent reading, children only get to read what we tell them to read. That doesn’t always make for an enthusiastic response from the class. But don’t lose heart! Here are 3 easy-to-use and successful strategies which draw on prior knowledge to foster children’s interest in any text (and enhance their comprehension).

1. Word association

Before reading a text with a group or the whole class, tell them either the title or the key theme of a book that they are going to read and challenge them to jot down whatever comes into their minds when they hear it. Remind them it must be an instant response.

For example, ask them for their associations with the word: Cheat.

This might produce some of the following responses:
trick                       scam                      match fixing       loaded dice
cheat codes in a computer game               to break the rules

Share the range of responses the word has triggered in children’s minds.

Next, tell them a little bit about the word ‘Cheat’ for them to see how their association might link (or not link).

For example,

  • ‘Cheat’ is the title of a story.

  • The main character is a boy called Danny.

  • In the story there is an art competition.

  • What do you think happens?

What are the advantages of introducing a text in this way?

  • The Word Association activity gets children’s minds actively engaged in the theme of the book. 

  • Children are tuned in to what the book might be about. They are primed to comprehend.

  • The activity creates an interest in the book (even if their word association is not an aspect of that word explored in the book’s theme).

  • Children are eager to read to find out what happens in the story.

Children who are actively engaged in finding out what happens in a book are going to be good comprehenders.

2. Prediction

Another way to engage children’s attention (and thereby enhance comprehension) is to ask the group/class to make some predictions about the information in the text before you/they read it.

For example, before reading a text about tigers you could ask children to predict:

  • Are tigers bigger than lions?

  • Can tigers swim?

  • How fast can a tiger run?

Tell children to work with a partner and to guess the answers to those questions. It’s important that these are guesses. Nobody expects children to have answers to these questions at their fingertips.  Then, give them the text to read. (NB Check that the text does actually provide answers to those questions!)

Once children have made predictions, they are motivated to read the text to find out if their predictions were correct, so they read with commitment and accuracy. It also makes the facts of the text stand out on the page. So, for example, if a pair of children have predicted that tigers can’t swim and they read ‘Tigers are good swimmers and can swim up to 6 kilometres’, that fact will leap out of the page at them and prompt a reaction along the lines of ‘I never knew that!’.

3. Using K-W-L charts

KWL stands for:

What do I Know
What do I Want to Know
What have I Learned

Using these charts is a great way to get children to tune into a topic or theme before they start reading.

First of all, pairs of children jot down what they already know about the subject (e.g. Roman Gladiators fought with swords and shields). Each pair should then share and compare their notes with others.

Next, each pair should write down 3 things they would like to know about Roman Gladiators (e.g. Did the gladiators fight animals?).

The text is then shared with the group or class; ‘facts’ children thought they already knew are confirmed (or challenged) and answers to their specific questions are sought.

This makes reading very purposeful for children and helps keep them focused (they should complete the ‘What have I Learned’ statements after reading.)

Good readers visualise

After we’ve got children tuned in to the key themes in a text, the next thing we need to help them to do is to visualise as they read.

Some children naturally create pictures in their heads as they read the words on the page. But not all children do this! We need to demonstrate visualising techniques to help children construct mental images as they read.

When reading to or with children, model the process of creating an image. For example, after reading aloud a passage about a wintry scene, talk to the group/class about the pictures it created in your head.

For example, you could say: I can picture the snow falling softly and I can hear the icy wind blowing. It makes me feel cold just to read about it. Then read on a little more and invite children to share the images the words have created in their minds.

Drama helps children to visualise

Another great way to help children to visualize as they read is to use drama. This doesn’t need to just be the timetabled drama session in the hall. Just be more spontaneous, and if you think a group is not engaging with a text try a drama technique like freeze frame in the classroom.

What to do:

  • Select a key scene from the text.

  • Tell groups of children to position themselves to recreate the scene as a photograph.

  • Then take a photo of the freeze frame and project it on the whiteboard.

  • Invite children to talk about why they are standing/sitting as they are, and what is going through their minds. For example, children might say:

I’m the mum just getting up from my chair because I’ve heard the loud banging on the door and I’m going to open it, but I’m scared because I don’t know who it is.

I’m one of the children and the loud noise has frightened me and I am about to start crying.

We are the soldiers at the door. We have banged loudly on the door. We have been told to make the family leave the house, but we feel bad about being so aggressive towards this mother and her children but we are only following orders.

Good readers use textual evidence to draw inferences in a text

What is ‘reading between the lions’? (as one boy said to me!) sounds much more interesting than ‘reading between the lines’ doesn’t it?

Some children are OK at basic comprehension – who did what, when, etc. – but they miss the details in a text which require them to make meanings just from clues left by the author. Making inferences is crucial to comprehending texts. We can teach children how to make inferences by getting them to ask questions of the text.

There are two main questions readers should ask themselves:

Question 1:  What do I already know about this? (information gleaned both from prior reading and life experiences)

(Of course, if you’ve been doing your ‘prior knowledge’ activities: Word association; Prediction; KWL charts - see above - your class will be really good at this!)

Question 2: Why might it be important to the plot that I am being told this?

Let’s think how that works in practice. Perhaps as readers we have been told that a character in the story (let’s call him Jason) is being bullied, but when his mum asks Jason if things are going well at school he doesn’t tell her about the bullying.

As readers we should be questioning:

  • Why is Jason not telling his mum the truth?

  • What does it tell us about Jason that he is not being honest?

  • What does this tell us about the relationship between Jason and his mum?

There are lots of possible answers to these questions (and only one answer will be the one that the author will eventually give us) but the active asking of the questions tunes us in to the character’s motivations and so we will pick up subtle hints about how the character feels about being dishonest to his mum.

For example, in the text, Jason might say:

“No worries, Mum. Everything is fine.”

But the author might add: ‘said Jason brightly, taking care not to catch his mum’s eye.’  

This is the vital clue that Jason doesn’t like lying to his mum.

Maybe he answers ‘brightly’ because he doesn’t want his mum to worry. He’s trying to put a brave face on things.

Maybe he doesn’t want his mum to look directly at him as she might see that his cheery response is not matching the anxiety in his eyes.

Unpicking these subtleties is the work of Text Detectives - to get to the heart of the meaning behind the words and between the lines.

You can model this process of asking questions of the text when reading with a group or the class. For example, you could ask:

Why has the author used the adverb ‘brightly’?

Why does Jason not want to catch his mum’s eye?

The key thing is that you model what a good reader does. That way all the children in the class can appreciate the unseen processes going on in our brains when we comprehend texts. And, with any luck, they will realise that our little brains are in fact very busy indeed, and that we are doing quite a lot when we read!

So, to sum up, there are lots of fun ways to encourage children to be meaning-makers as they read and to make them more sophisticated comprehenders. The best thing about these activities is that children love to do them. And anything that seems like fun is a great way to learn.

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Looking for a resource to help with reading comprehension? Find out more about On Track English: Reading Comprehension here.

                                         

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English and Literacy

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