I am not proud of the fact that when I began teaching I thought developing reading comprehension had much to do with following the publisher’s teacher manual. I also thought that in addition to doing everything that was included in the manual, I should have my students complete all of the ditto sheets. I soon learned that there was so much in the manual – plus all of the worksheets – that no teacher could possibly finish everything.
Back then the editors or authors of the worksheets and manuals all seemed to live in the northeast – and I trusted them. I was a rural teacher from Nebraska and assumed that anyone who lived in the northeast was much smarter than I was. I actually believed that whatever was published by a big company must be better for my students than anything I could ever design.
It took me several years to shed my inferiority complex concerning my ability to make decisions about how to develop reading comprehension. I still believe there are good ideas in commercial materials, but I now know that a professional classroom teacher must have an understanding of how to support students in their comprehension of text.
Since those early years of teaching I’ve learned much about the reading process. However, there are still times when I encounter difficulty helping every student make sense of what is being read. I do know that there are several dinosaurs that have become extinct in my teaching. Nocontentknowledgeasarus, Cannedquestionsodon, Nosocialinteractionopus and Paperpencilotops were all practices that were not helping my students comprehend the texts they were reading.
I couldn’t understand the reason why my students in Nebraska understood little of the text they read about oceans and faraway places. I thought I could show a picture of a ship and that would be enough for them to make sense of a story that took place on a ship. The situation was very different when we studied any topic that dealt with farming, such as raising animals or growing corn. When reading about these subjects, their eyes would light up, as they had complete understanding of such things. I learned then that content knowledge about a topic was absolutely necessary if my students were going to understand what they read.
When I began to choose texts that were in my students’ experience range, I had no more glassy eyes. I built content knowledge before studying topics that I realized they would encounter difficulty understanding. I read aloud books and showed videos to prepare them for those topics because I knew those subjects would cause difficulty. I even thought about the prior knowledge of students when I chose books for my classroom library. Whenever there was little reading comprehension, I contemplated my choice of text topic and realized that I should prepare students by building content knowledge.
The canned questions that were in my teacher’s manual were not necessarily bad questions, but they weren’t usually the right questions for my students. Asking questions is an important and necessary part of teaching because with good questions, we help students chunk or connect to what they already know. If we are reading a story that takes place in a skyscraper in New York City and I know the student hasn’t been out of the state, I then ask questions that help the student think about the tallest building he or she has ever seen. Therefore, whenever I ask a question, I’m also searching for a way to help the student access his or her prior knowledge to connect to the text that’s being read. The right question comes from me thinking about what the student knows.
In the early years of my teaching, I was oblivious to the need for students to learn from each other. I thought that it was always better for me to conduct individual conferences when I was struggling to develop comprehension. I learned that I should think aloud and ask my students to demonstrate their thinking for each other. Often what one student said influenced another student to understand the text.
I still believe in conferences but I think that having several students grapple over the same questions, talking out loud about what they are thinking, sharing how they arrived at a conclusion and then talking about why they can’t build meaning is better than having only one student and one teacher with no social interaction. I’m glad that I now know that social interaction between and among students and the teacher is a necessary aspect of learning to think and thus reading comprehension.
I often wondered what some of the paper and pencil and practice activities I used had to do with real reading; but again, I thought I wasn’t to question authorities. I wanted to laugh over some of the worksheets and so-called practice activities I used when I thought I was developing reading comprehension. I soon observed that paper and pencil activities did very little to improve reading comprehension, and usually caused my students to dislike reading. I even had comprehension games that were almost as ridiculous. If my students would have been playing games of logic and using vocabulary-building activities such as SCRABBLE®, they might have really learned something.
What do I think is superior to all the practice activities I did with my students early in my teaching? You know the answer: real reading and real writing. It took me awhile to figure out that when I finished guided reading or a mini-lesson, engaging in self-selected reading was the best practice. The valuable writing/literature connections provided a reason to record thoughts and feelings.
Even now, I still have lots of unanswered questions about the development of logic in students. I also think daily about how I, as a teacher, can support my students in constructing meaning from the texts they read. I’m glad that I view content knowledge and social interaction as essential and am dubious about the questions and paper and pencil activities others write. I’m especially glad that Nocontentknowledgeasarus, Cannedquestionsodon, Nosocialinteractionopus and Paperpencilotops no longer have a place in my teaching of reading comprehension.
Maryann Manning is on the faculty of the School of Education, the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
This article is reproduced in its entirety with permission from the author and Parent Company of Teaching Prek-8, Highlights for Children from Developing Comprehension