by Mark Weakland
The other day, while playing through the Lennon and McCartney song Across the Universe, two lines captured my attention: “Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box. They tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe.”
It’s definitely a great sixties lyric, evocative of the mind-expanding ethos of the times, and for some reason it set off a small avalanche of thoughts about literacy in my brain. First, a text-to-self connection: the lyric reminded me of a few students I’ve taught over the years. Next, a thought about how difficult it can be to lead students, whose thoughts “meander like a restless wind,” to a deeper comprehension of the texts they read. Finally, feeling grateful that effective comprehension strategies have been identified, and we can bring them to students.
Over the past three years, as I’ve read studies and articles and as I’ve listened to literacy gurus speak at conferences, I’ve learned that three categories of strategies are especially effective at leading students to greater comprehension: activating prior knowledge, summarizing, and asking and answering questions. In addition, as I’ve worked with teachers in elementary schools, I have learned that when a handful of already effective strategies are applied across space and time, literacy strength is built within a system. In other words, when multiple teachers in multiple content areas across multiple grade levels employ a few well-chosen comprehension strategies, the literacy program of an entire school is made stronger.