Have you ever caught yourself reading a paragraph or news article, and realize you haven’t a clue what it is about? You automatically say the words in your head, but your thinking is somewhere else. This still happens to me on occasion.
Meaning breaks down for our early readers for many other reasons. Often the text is just too hard in terms of word accuracy, lack of word recognition techniques and/or fluency. Sometimes the content or vocabulary is unknown to them, or connections to prior knowledge are just not there. And sometimes, like me, their thinking is somewhere else too.
We often use the term “ strategies” when we talk about reading comprehension. Lately I have switched to “Thinking Actions” to talk about what readers might (or might not) be doing. The use of the term “strategy” has become mis-leading and a catch-all phrase for any kind of learning activity. Thinking actions refers to how we might extract, construct and create meaning of the text we are reading. I want my students to notice and choose what they are thinking about while reading. And take action when they need help to find meaning.
There are many ways to describe, instruct and assess reading comprehension that have influenced my teaching over the years. I have rarely adopted any specific instructional method with fidelity, but instead have adapted several methods to evolve into something that makes sense for my learners.
Currently, I am using a Notice and Name type of response with my readers, while in tutoring conversations, conferences or writing/drawing activities. Dorothy Barnhouse and Vick Vinton explain in What Readers Really Do:
“…you’ll frequently see us orchestrating scenarios for students that let them experience the work readers do, then naming that work explicitly after they’ve actually done it….This is important because research has shown that students retain knowledge they construct and uncover better than knowledge they hear or even see demonstrated…”
Students are asked, “What do you notice? What are you noticing?” before, during or after reading. Readers are asked to talk about what they are reading and thinking. Over time, the type of responses suggested below are co-constructed; allowing future reference ideas, choice and directed promoting as needed (e.g. describe one of the characters). Students “own” the list and are proud when a different type of response is added. Recently, one of my students shared, “Dr. Seuss writes cuckoo!” This was added to our Writing Idea list, but we also added the word “humour” with the idea that writers sometimes want to make us laugh.
Through explicit modelling, scaffolded prompting and direct teaching, students become aware of all the possibilities that readers might use to talk, think, wonder, write, draw and represent their understanding. I want students to understand that sharing our ideas about reading enhances their own meaning and the comprehension of others.
The quality of these reader responses is also developed over time, using simple open-ended prompts such as “What makes you say/think that?” Students are expected to add detail, reasons and examples to their “noticings”. Co-constructing this criteria is accomplished through modelling, think alouds and student exemplars.
All readers have moments when comprehension breaks down. Our ultimate goal is to ensure our readers know when meaning breaks down, and what they can possibly do to establish comprehension.
For my reading moments of “not having a clue”, I often just need to take a break or ask, “Do I really want to continue reading this material right now?” I then think to myself that this is what some of our young readers feel like at times. Just saying words… that have no meaning. Not really reading.