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Part Four of our Four-Part Series: Helping Students Improve Their Reading at Any Age 


Comprehension is really what reading is about - understanding, relating to, and having the ability to share the information learned. Comprehension is the point of reading. 

There are many ways to build comprehension. In fact, implementing all of the things we’ve talked about so far and building all of the other areas of reading will help your students build their comprehension skills. 

Remember, first, that whenever possible students need to use multiple methods when interacting with information in order to truly understand it. They need to see, say, hear, think, and do (doing refers to movement - it can be accomplished by writing, drawing, or moving the body in a memorable way, and attaching movement to a word). Use as many of those modes as possible when students are learning something new. 

Here are a few ways to do that: 

Taking “Notes”

If used in the right way, notetaking can be used at any level for increased comprehension in any content area. 

Many students can draw or represent information in other ways that are meaningful to them. However, some students have a  hard time actually writing out notes, and it’s particularly difficult in early grades to hear, process, and use all the systems involved in thinking out how to write those thoughts on paper and follow through with the actual recording.

Visual notetaking is not new, but it has gotten a lot of attention recently (some call it illustrated notes or sketchnotes). This may require a little bit of modeling and guided practice at first, but some students will run with it, especially those who struggle with traditional notetaking like the Cornell Method.

Some students neither draw nor write to record thoughts or ideas. For these students, you can offer pre-cut blocks of information or clip art that relates to the information and have them simply keep track by checking off the information as they go, or gluing the supplied representation in order. This can accomplish the same thing as writing or drawing in the “doing” part of “see, say, hear, think, and do”. 

One successful way to have students take notes is to provide each one with a blank sheet of copy, manila, or construction paper. Have them fold it in half with the longest sides touching (like a “hot dog”), then fold it the short way 4 to 6 times. This will create rectangles which students can label according to sentence, paragraph, concept, or idea.

Within each rectangle students can record the following information depending on what they are learning in order to create a sort of “map” they can follow to then retell or summarize the information: 

  • information about characters or historical figures
  • vocabulary - unknown words, words they’ve learned, interesting words, verbs, nouns, adjectives, sensory words, etc… 
  • dates and important events

    Another form of notetaking can be adding to vocabulary journals. Students can also cut and paste direct quotes from the text on one side of the notebook, then practice summarizing, finding main ideas and supporting ideas, or using graphic organizers to classify and compare the information. 

    Students who struggle remembering what they have read may find annotating their texts particularly helpful. This can take many forms: underlining important information, circling key or unknown words, writing questions in the margins, or even drawing little symbols (like hearts when characters fall in love or tombstones when a character dies). One of our writers encourages students to have a dialogue with their novels to help keep them focused, writing things like “this reminds me of when my sister…” or “LOL” or “I hate it when she does that!”.

    The goal of notetaking, besides providing themselves with a map to the learning they’ve been doing, is to hone mental visualization skills. As notetaking skills become more personalized and centered on the student’s individual memory needs, they’ll also be able to hone their memorization skills. 

    When taking notes, remind students that brains love color and organization. Use those elements well and teach students how to use them. 

    Multiple Readings

    Most people have a “one and done” mentality when it comes to text, but studies prove that multiple rereadings improve e aspect of reading, including comprehension.

    Have students read text more than once. Allow them to read a text three times, recording the time it takes to read the text with each reading. When they do this, they can instantly see improvement. They will be more fluent, they’ll struggle less often with new vocabulary by the third time, and they will understand the information better.

    Many teachers allow students to record themselves reading, then check their own fluency by playing the recording back while comparing their voice with the words on the page. There are a lot of fun apps that can be used with silly voices or fun filters so students are really engaged in their own reading.

    Whenever possible, the teacher can pull students aside and listen to them read, recording which words were mispronounced or misunderstood while timing the student. 

    Seeing their time improve with each reading and finding their understanding strengthened with each reading is so helpful for students. They work harder, often without even realizing it, and form excellent studying skills by practicing these routines across content areas. 

    Another helpful thing is to allow students to pre-read or skim words before they officially start reading. Have them write down any words they are unsure about either pronunciation or meaning and help them with those words before they start timing themselves.

    If they think they’ve mispronounced a word or don’t understand it in context when playing their own reading have them ask for clarification. 

    Welcoming conversations about pronunciation and vocabulary will improve comprehension levels significantly. 

    Creating, Asking, and Answering Comprehension Questions

    Why use premade worksheets when forming questions is helpful for building comprehension? Have students supply questions to try to “stump” each other. Allow them to create games for each other to quiz classmates on their understanding of the text. Students may even start taking notes or annotating text to remind themselves of questions they want to ask their classmates. 

    Students are often more likely to come up with high-quality inference and higher-level thinking questions when they are hoping to create difficult questions. Teachers could even save the best questions and post them as the next class’s “question of the day” or bell-ringer. Consider posting question stems to help students who struggle with creating questions. Questions stems could also be used to promote or encourage varying levels of questioning and also.

    Questioning, comparing, and contrasting are all strong building blocks for comprehension. Teach students to ask themselves what the author’s intended purpose was in creating the text. Remind them to always search their memories for any prior knowledge they already posses to make the new information fit in with what they already know. This makes the information far more accessible in their memories.

    Effective Practice for Adolescents with Reading and Literacy Challenges, Editors Lou Denti and Gilbert Guerin has the best reproducibles for building comprehension skills. This is where we got the idea for the notetaking page in the fifth paragraph of the section on taking notes. Our writers use it all the time across all ages and content areas, and students find it useful.

    There are a lot of other great resources in that book, too. 

    Orthographic Awareness

    Orthographic awareness is the expanded and sophisticated version of phonics, phonemic awareness, and graphonemic awareness. The complexities of conventional spelling (both recognizing and producing) are defined within this area, but orthographic awareness is extended to incorporate more of the written forms of language systems. 

    Other important factors are the specifics of the directionality of letters (and numbers), letter order, and combinations of letters, but it extends to capitalization, hyphenation, punctuation, and whole-word recognition. These are things taught from pre-k to twelfth grade and reviewed again in college, and yet teachers still struggle with them.

    It’s important for all educators to be well- versed in requirements for handwriting and letter formation, spelling, capitalization, hyphenation, and punctuation themselves so that teachers in every area are closing in these communication gaps and reinforcing the importance of proper usage. Students need to be reminded of these language requirements and guided to adhere to rules of language in e context possible. 

    Just as no ELAR teacher would accept homework done incorrectly because the student miscalculated length or number of assignments due to a mathematical error, or accept a report on a historical figure that is inaccurate, teachers of other subjects must also incorporate elements of language instruction into their instruction and requirements.  

    While it’s not necessary to take points off for each error or present lectures on grammar or punctuation elements, it would greatly help students for teachers of all subject areas to leave a time for corrections. 

    When students are presenting written assignments, requiring them to write a first draft, edit and revise their work until all corrections are made, and submit a perfected final draft would be an excellent step in the right direction.

    Having anchor charts and other resources for students to use would also be helpful, not only for students but for those teachers who find themselves struggling with these areas. Making orthographic language a consistently approached skillset at e age and in every content area is an excellent (and necessary) way to increase comprehension and ability to communicate about subject matter in e area.   

    Oral Language Skills

    Oral language skills are divided into two main areas: morphological awareness and syntactic awareness. 

    We discussed something similar to morphological awareness when we discussed vocabulary, so these two areas overlap some. When we talk about the knowledge of base words, prefixes, and suffixes in regard to vocabulary, we don’t specify the precise areas of morphological understanding, though. The two aspects are the front and back of the same coin.

    Morphological is the process involved in understanding the smallest spoken sounds within the language that have meaning.

    When studying vocabulary, we often concern ourselves with a written connection. When discussing the morphological awareness of those same word parts, we are talking about the combination of seeing, hearing, and then producing the sounds and associating those with meaning or definition. 

    So, for example, when students say “biosphere”, we want them picturing or defining about life-sustaining (bio) areas of earth (our sphere). When students are talking about quadratic equations, we want them to picture “square” (quad) and “equation” (a statement that communicates two things are equal).

    This requires a  sophisticated skill called metacognition (meta = mentality of self; cognition = the act of thinking; so metacognition is thinking about one’s own thinking - you’re doing it right now! Well done!). 

    Students (and many adults) don’t often think about, monitor, or clarify their own thinking. In order to build morphological awareness, they have to be taught to not only think about it, but monitor and communicate clearly about their own thinking. 

    This is an important goal in communication, although it’s a largely neglected area. Many teachers do all the talking in their classes. 

    This is what people are referring to when they say, “the person doing all the talking is the one doing all the learning.” Students have to be speaking in order to learn. Giving them the opportunity to speak with understanding about what their learning is critical for comprehension in every content area and at e age level. 

    The other element of oral language is syntax. Syntax (which comes from Greek and means to “arrange together”) refers to the order and structure given to words and phrases within sentences that provide the clarity needed for the listener to receive the same mental picture the person speaking is creating in their mind. 

    There are lots of elements in syntax that are commonly understood without anyone really realizing that they understand it or why they use it. For example, you’d be unlikely to describe a friend’s puppy as brown, tiny, shivering, adorable, and newborn. You’d arrange the sentence like this, instead: “The puppy is an adorable, tiny, shivering, brown fluffball of cuteness.”

    That’s because there is an understood order of adjectives: opinion, size, physical quality, shape, age, color, origin, material, type, and purpose. It’s likely that you’ve always adhered to these rules, but unless you are incredibly observant or a natural linguist, you are equally likely to be unaware that you’re even doing it! 

    Syntactic awareness is especially important for ELL students as all languages have their own rules for order and structure. 

    A Note on Orthographic Awareness and Oral Language Skills

    For a  long time, orthographic awareness and oral language skills were not considered separate and distinct areas of reading instruction. In the past decade or two, it’s become apparent to reading instructors and linguists that neglecting these two areas as important parts of the English language has been detrimental to the overall comprehension and understanding of the language. 

    Language has begun to evolve without many of these elements, as can be seen in texts and emails especially. While language is a “living” thing and should be evolving, it’s evolving away from clarity and toward a more vague way of communicating and understanding.

    In short, that evolution is a large part of the crisis we’re experiencing in reading education.

    A missing comma or a run-on sentence may seem unimportant to a mathematician, but it may completely change the meaning from “Let’s eat, Grandpa!” to “Let’s eat Grandpa!”, creating cannibals and upsetting families everywhere.

    It’s as important as a decimal or a zero is (I’d much prefer a $1,000.00 check to a $10.00 check, wouldn’t you?).

    It’s good that we’ve expanded our focus to include these elements, and it’s vital that we all work to offer our students this information and encourage them to use it.

    Especially now, here in the U.S.. There seems to be so much misunderstanding and conflict in our lives. Being able to communicate one’s thoughts clearly and concisely is as important as it ever was. Vague language is not good for humanity on the whole as it can enhance misunderstanding and create gaps that articulation and clarity may well find a way to bridge. 

    Language, and reading in particular, is a gift that e student not only deserves but needs to be able to survive. 

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