Comprehension Strategies Across Space and Time
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.
Consider See Think Wonder, a visible thinking routine from Harvard’s Project Zero. Prior to teaching a theme or unit of study, the teacher posts a meaning-rich photograph on the classroom Smart Board. The photograph captures the important concepts and questions of the theme. Students are encouraged to look closely at the picture. The teacher asks students to describe what they see. Their comments are captured on a large piece of paper. Next, they’re asked, “What do you think about that?” And finally, “What does it make you wonder?”
See Think Wonder is both an activity and a strategy. As an activity, it helps teachers stimulate curiosity and set the stage for learning, build a bit of background knowledge, and gather some formative assessment data. Later, when mastered by students and put to use while reading, it becomes a strategy that activates prior knowledge, summarizes, and promotes the asking and answering of questions. The ultimate result is an increase in comprehension.
The most effective comprehension strategies are ones that exist across space and time and See Think Wonder certainly fits that bill. I know teachers who use it in their reading class. I know others who use it in their science class. I know first grade teachers who use it and I know fifth grade teachers who use it. In West Virginia, I met an entire elementary school staff trained to use the strategy.
Other comprehension strategies that work well across space and time, and that speak to summarizing, activating prior knowledge, and/or asking and answering questions, include:
- Somebody Wanted But So Then, a summarizing strategy that can be used in reading or social studies. When it’s scaffolded appropriately, it works in grades 1 to 6.
- Linda Hoyt’s Sketch to Stretch, a visualizing strategy that activates prior knowledge and also teaches some summarizing. It can be used in math, reading, science, or social studies in grades 3 through 6, and it’s a lot of fun!
- Stop Light Questions, a pared down version of Taffy Raphael’s QAR (Question-Answer Relationship), applicable to all content areas and many grades.
When strategies are used across space and time, students practice them multiple times over many years, thus increasing the chances that they will independently use them in generalized ways. Instead of taking time every year to review the strategy, teachers can use their time to teach depth and variation. In the end, a few well-chosen strategies focus meandering, tumbling thoughts, giving readers a chance for greater learning.
Mark Weakland is a Pennsylvania-based literacy coach and consultant. The author of more than 50 books for children, two teacher resource books, and a number of award-winning music projects, he just finished work on his newest project, Super Spellers, available this fall (Stenhouse, 2017).
Mark is a featured speaker at KSRA Conference in Hershey, PA this October. Visit his website (www.MarkWeaklandLiteracy.com) and follow him on Twitter @MarkWeakland.