Saturday, February 17, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Reading Comprehension, Part 3, Talking and Writing After Reading

In part 1 of this three part series on reading comprehension, I discussed what the teacher can do to help students develop the background and disciplinary knowledge needed for comprehension before reading. In part 2, I discussed the strategies teachers can teach students to use while they are reading. In part 3, here, I will take on what teachers can do after the reading to develop readers' comprehension of text.
.
Typically, post-reading activities focus on questioning to assess student understanding, but while questioning students may give the teacher some idea of what readers have understood and what they have not, it does not develop student comprehension. It does not help students become better comprehenders. What research has consistently shown does improve readers' ability to comprehend is discussion and writing after reading.

Frameworks for Discussion

First I think it is important to define what is meant by discussion. Most of what we call discussion in schools is actually recitation. Recitation involves students responding to the teacher and the teacher responding to the individual student and then directing a question to another student. While students get to talk, the teacher is at the center and all information flows to and from the teacher. In discussion, the teacher may indeed initiate, but the students not only respond to the teacher, but to each other, building on the contributions of the other students in the class as well as providing evidence for what they say from the text. The role of the teacher then becomes to facilitate and redirect the student discussion and to add needed insight when appropriate.

With this definition of discussion we can look at two useful frameworks for class discussion: Questioning the Author and Discussion Web.

Questioning the Author

Questioning the Author (QtA) was developed by researchers Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown at the University of Pittsburgh. The key concept behind this instructional design is that good comprehenders of text work to figure out what the author of the text is trying to communicate to them. Through a series of generic queries teachers lead students to collaboratively examine the text, section by section, with a focus on the author's message. Queries differ from questions because they are open ended, with multiple possible answers and because they encourage talk rather than one right answer. Here are some possible queries.
  • What is the author trying to say?
  • What is the author's message?
  • What is the author talking about?
  • This is what the author says, but what does the author mean?
  • How does this connect with what the author already told us?
  • Does what the author said make sense?
  • Has the author said this in a way that is clear to you?
  • Did the author tell us that?
  • Did the author give us the answer to that?
Implicit in the QtA process is that both the reader and the author are responsible for comprehension. It is the reader's task to determine what the author is trying to say, but it is the author's job to write clearly so that readers can understand, to write a text considerate of the reader. I have discussed this concept of considerate text in a previous post here.

You can read more about implementing QtA by reading Beck and McKeown's book Improving Comprehension with Questioning the Author or check out this brief overview in Reading Rockets to get you started.

Discussion Web

A discussion web is a great way to get students talking to each other to gain a fuller understanding of a text. The procedure works best with a text that is either ambiguous or controversial in nature that allows students to view an argument form two sides. I have often used it successfully with poetry and with persuasive essays, but any text that allows students to view the text from more than one angle will do.


Discussion Web Procedure:
  • Choose a reading that will elicit clearly defined opposing viewpoints.
  • Prepare students for reading by activating background knowledge, eliciting predictions, introducing vocabulary.
  • Read selection aloud or have students read independently
  • With the students, identify the main question addressed and have all write the question on the Discussion Web graphic organizer.
  • Divide the group into pairs. Have the pairs determine at least three reasons in the text that the question could be answered yes and three reasons the question could be answered no.
  • Combine the pairs into groups of four and have them compare their evidence and add to their worksheets. 
  • The group of four must then work to write a consensus conclusion based on the evidence in the text and on their worksheet.
  • A spokesperson for the group can then present their viewpoint to the class as a whole.

Integrating Reading and Writing

Novelist and Essayist Joan Didion has famously said, "I don't know what I think until I write it down." The same could be said for all readers. Research has consistently shown that writing about what we have read enhances our comprehension of what has been read. Instruction in reading comprehension is simply more effective when it is combined with writing. When readers struggle with reading comprehension, we can help to support them by including writing as a part of our reading comprehension instruction. In fact according to research, these two things have a symbiotic relationship. Reading comprehension instruction improves writing and writing instruction improves comprehension.

The Double Entry Journal

One tool that is particularly valuable for enhancing the comprehension of fiction texts is the double entry journal. Despite what has been said by the chief architect of the Common Core ELA standards, David Coleman, "Nobody gives a shit about what you think or feel about your reading", teachers should care very much how children think and feel because in communicating these things the children are developing their ability to comprehend text and express their understanding. 

The double entry journal is one framework teachers can use to tap into student thinking about the text. In a double entry journal a notebook page is divided into two sides. The left side is used for jotting down key information from the text including summaries, key events or details, quotations, vocabulary, etc. The right hand side is used for student reflection on what has been read including the reader's reactions, thoughts and feelings, discussion of the author's message, interpretations of meaning, all backed up by evidence from the text. 

As with all useful strategies, the good use of the double entry journal must be modeled by the teacher several times and then the students must be supported in their developing ability to use the journal. If students struggle with the concept, additional modeling and support may be required. Exemplar double entry journal pages created by the teacher, should be displayed as anchor charts in the room.


Unsent Letters

Unset letters is a strategy that I have found particularly effective in helping students synthesize their understanding of complex issues in reading in the content areas. Unsent letters sets up a role play scenario where the student plays the role of a petitioner writing a letter to the editor or a letter to a historical figure, or even a letter to the school principal in which they explain their understanding of an issue from their reading and ask the imaginary recipient to take some action. Students demonstrate their understanding of the reading through their communication.

An unsent letter requires accuracy in reading, imagination, interpretation, and critical thinking. They are particularly effective when students are reading about controversial topics in science like the environment, pollution, water quality or in social studies such as racism, war, Manifest Destiny, etc. As with all strategies like this, the teacher should model unsent letters and closely guide initial efforts to help student perform their best with the strategy.


When students are asked to convert thought into spoken or written language, they must reflect on what they have read, process it, and make it their own. By helping students talk and write about their reading, we are greatly improving their chances of understanding and retaining what they have read.