Effective Literacy Teaching and Learning for all Students

Unit 14

An overview of comprehension and the influence of vocabulary, fluency and decoding

This unit includes a great deal of reading and classroom practices about extremely important topics that affect students' literacy across all domains and at all year levels. If the content is new to you it could take months and even years (according to researchers) for the suggestions to be a natural part of your teaching practices. So allow yourself plenty of time to learn about this content while you may also continue with other units about conferring.

The teachers in the film clips in this course were assisted in their professional learning about comprehension by the use of the CD-ROMs Snowball, Diane et al. (2005). Teaching Comprehension: An Interactive Professional Development Course (CD-ROMs Levels P-2, 3-6, 6-9) These CD-ROMs include several other film clips of teachers modelling the teaching of comprehension. They were also assisted by coaches and consultants so try to work with a team who can assist your learning about the teaching of comprehension over a period of time. You could continue with other units in this course while simultaneously learning more about comprehension.

Regardless of the age group you teach, comprehension strategies need to be taught using a range of fiction and factual genres which are at the appropriate levels of difficulty for your students. This happens over several months. If students are familiar with the strategies they need to be revised each year as texts become more complex.

Go to: Comprehension Overview

Print the document and ask some colleagues if they would read this document with you. Form an informal discussion group to work through the document gleaning a deeper understanding of comprehension.

Decide how you might make the most of the discussion. Some suggestions are:

  • Each person could take responsibility for an aspect of the document and lead that part.
  • Each member could come to the group discussion with questions or confusions to be discussed.
  • The group could make a chart of what is known about comprehension before reading the document and then revise it after reading the document.
  • Share some ways you are each teaching comprehension strategies in whole class Read-aloud and Shared Reading, in small groups such as Guided Reading groups and in Independent Reading. Review these ideas after reading the document.

Note that in the article Comprehension Overview there is a link to an online document about the teaching of comprehension. This document is foundation reading about comprehension theory and practice so it would be worthwhile for you and your colleagues to read and discuss the content. It refers to the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model of teaching and to the main comprehension strategies, as well as giving information about routines such as Reciprocal Teaching. These are all discussed further in this section and other parts of this course and several film clips show teachers and students conferring about the comprehension strategies.

The article Comprehension Overview also refers to the relationship between comprehension and decoding, vocabulary and fluency. Reflect on this information in relation to your own teaching and consider what you need to learn more about. These issues are also dealt with later in this section of the course and also in Section 8: Fluency.

The final point in the article deals with developing students' world knowledge. This is absolutely essential work in every school, but actual and vicarious experiences may be limited. School and year level planning must focus on how students' world knowledge will be increased.

To read more about the main comprehension strategies go to: Main Comprehension Strategies.

Read the document and consider how you can build in the teaching of these comprehension strategies during your Literacy or English sessions and throughout the day in other domains. Remember that you need to base your teaching and learning on the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model to ensure you provide explicit demonstrations of each strategy and work collaboratively with your students using each strategy, before expecting independent use by students. As there are several comprehension strategies and routines to teach your students this will occur over a long period of time, especially if you are not already familiar with them.

As you teach the main comprehension strategies you could develop a chart for each strategy with your students, capturing some of the explicit language of each strategy.

To view Diane Snowball in a webcast, explaining the comprehension strategies and showing film clips of classroom teaching, go to the website of Curriculum Services Canada. Go to 'Webcasts for Educators' then to 'Webcast Archive'. The webcast is Effective Instruction in Reading Comprehension. Scroll to 'Streaming on Demand' and view the part with Diane in the Effective Instruction section. In the right-hand sidebar of the webcast page you may also like to open documents such as 'The Reading Process' and 'Questions to Promote Metacognition'.

If you think your students have problems with comprehension, you can assess that during your reading conferences by just probing with requests such as ‘Tell me what that was about.' and asking questions such as 'What were you thinking about while you were reading that?' You should also ask questions specifically related to the main strategies, such as:

  • What were you visualising while you were reading?
  • What did you predict this was going to be about and what clues led you to predict that? What evidence did you find to support or change your predictions?
  • What questions were you asking yourself while you were reading this? What were you wondering?
  • How did the text structure help you to read this?
  • What is a summary of the paragraph/section/chapter you have just read?

Some students may not even be aware that competent readers do these sorts of things while they are reading because no one has ever demonstrated those processes for them.

To find out if students are monitoring their own reading to make sure that they understand what they are reading, ask questions such as:

  • Were there any parts of the text that you didn't understand? Where were they? What did you do about this?
  • What strategies do you have to deal with any text that you do not understand?

If the student does not have suitable strategies to restore meaning you could demonstrate how to do this and record this student as one who would benefit from some Guided Reading sessions about the topic.

Hannah, who you saw interviewed by Diane in Unit 4, conducts a reading conference with Eve where she concentrates on the comprehension strategy of Questioning, and does some work with Eve on difficult vocabulary. She questions Eve on her understanding of some words using context clues and the pictures in the text, helping Eve to seek meaning in her reading.

Go to Film Clip:

Newport Lakes PS: Prep Reading Conference with Hannah Beckman and Eve

Go to Film Clip:

Monmia PS: Yr 4 Reading Conference with Lana Devlin and Michael

Although you have looked at this film clip in a previous unit you may like to view it again now because the focus of the conference is on one of the comprehension strategies, predicting using prior knowledge. As you listen to the conference, think about the teaching that has occured in this classroom in Read Aloud and Shared Reading for Michael to be so knowledgeable about how he is using connections with other texts and with his own life to make predictions about the text he was reading.

When a comprehension strategy has been taught to the class it's a good idea to focus on this during conferences at that time. This provides you and the students with feedback about the learning so that you can know how much more class teaching may be required and/or who may need further support in Guided Reading sessions. It also helps you to establish goals for individual students in their Independent Reading.

Go to Film Clips:

Taylors Lakes SC: Yr 7 Reading Conference with Michelle Nowak and Samantha

and Taylors Lakes SC: Yr 7 Reading Conference with Michelle Nowak and Duke

View conferences focusing on summarising and Taylors Lakes SC: Yr 9 Reading Conference with Lisa Wilson and Sean

View a conference dealing with text structures and features. Note how the usual conference structure was used by both teachers and how the focus of the conferences obviously linked to work being done by the class. When you are working on a particular strategy with your students you could focus on this strategy in many of your conferences.

You may decide that you wish to find out more about teaching comprehension from the following recommended websites:

When applying each of the comprehension strategies while reading, students will find that they actually use several strategies at the same time. For example, using text structure helps readers predict what a text will be about and also helps a reader to know what aspects are important when summarising. Apart from this natural integration of strategies, there are some specific routines that researchers have found to be helpful for overall comprehension of the text.

Teaching all students these routines, when appropriate in their reading development, assists their comprehension and the discussions they have about texts, but they are also important to use when some students are having difficulties with reading. For example, the routine Reciprocal Teaching has been found to improve the comprehension of even the most struggling readers and the routine Directed Reading-Thinking Activity(DR-TA) is exceptionally helpful for students who need assistance with predicting/confirming/changing predictions etc. throughout an entire text. So these could be used as a follow up to what you find out in reading conferences.

Go to the articles Reciprocal Teaching and Routines Involving Several Comprehension Strategies and skim through them to have an overview of their content. Select one of the routines to become knowledgeable about- one that you think will benefit your students and suit your current teaching plans.

For example:

  • If your students are familiar with predicting, questioning and summarising you could introduce them to Reciprocal Teaching.
  • If you are teaching students about predicting introduce them to DR-TA.
  • If you are working on questioning, introduce them to Question-Answer-Response or Questioning the Author.

Be sure that you know how to use these routines properly before you introduce them or your students will not benefit from the experience. Obviously vocabulary knowledge affects a reader's comprehension. When you are conferring with students check their understanding of words and phrases in the texts they are reading. It may well be that a student having difficulty with comprehension is actually having trouble with the vocabulary and therefore cannot apply comprehension strategies such as predicting, visualising and summarising.

So you may need to check if the student knows the meaning of specific words in the text and also ask questions such as:

  • Did you notice any words that you did not know the meaning of? Which word(s)? What did you do when you realised this?
  • What strategies do you have for dealing with unknown words?

If the student does not have suitable strategies to figure out word meaning you could demonstrate how to do this and record this student as one who would benefit from some Guided Reading sessions about this topic.

  • Go to the document Vocabulary Research and read the article to fully appreciate the impact of vocabulary knowledge on each student's learning and why all teachers need to be effective teachers of vocabulary. You will also find out about the best ways to increase students' vocabulary.

Note the definition of 'vocabulary' as knowing the meaning of a word not just recognising the word and be sure that the meaning of the word is the focus of your vocabulary teaching. Consider the implications of the research and discuss these with colleagues.

Also note that most vocabulary is learned incidentally through repeated exposure to a wide range of vocabulary in context of meaningful literacy experiences. This highlights yet again the importance of the students having maximum opportunities for Independent Reading of rich literature and for daily experiences such as Read-aloud and learning about the world through exposure to varied rich resources.

Go to the document Teaching Vocabulary to find details about how vocabulary needs to be taught. The following information is provided, with extensive details about how to plan for each of the components.

Extensive research about the teaching of vocabulary leads us to know that effective vocabulary teaching and learning has four major components:

  1. Provide rich and varied language experiences
  2. Teach individual words (focus on tier 2 words)
  3. Teach word-learning strategies (roots, word parts, related words, etc)
  4. Foster word consciousness (model and encourage a genuine interest in words)

The teaching of vocabulary is a school-wide issue so work firstly with your teaching team and then as a whole school to decide how you will plan for the vocabulary teaching your students require, ensuring that vocabulary is a major part of your literacy curriculum and is part of your weekly planning.

As there are four major components of vocabulary teaching for you to deal with you could decide which components you feel you are adequately dealing with and which components you need to add to your curriculum and teaching practice. Then devise a plan to achieve this, perhaps implementing one component at a time so that you are not overwhelmed with the changes.

Continue to refer to the document Teaching Vocabulary and other resources listed in that document to learn about how vocabulary can be effectively taught and learned.

If you are working with students who begin their school lives with a limited vocabulary make sure that these students are given every opportunity to increase their vocabulary extensively through multiple rich literature, both fiction and factual, using print and non-print resources will help you achieve this.

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Effective Literacy Teaching and Learning for all Students