If you visit my site often, you might recall a story about my first year teaching second grade. I had a student in my classroom who could decode any multi-syllabic word I put in front of her. I was tending to routines and procedures the first week of school, but by the second week, we were well into content that I would consider beginning of 2nd grade material. I gave my students a fluency passage, and we were going over how to time our reading, how to count errors, and how to record words read right.
I wasn’t surprised when this particular student finished before everyone else. I saw it as an opportunity to spend a little one-on-one time with her, and ask her some questions about the passage she just read.
I asked her about the characters, setting, and problem/solution in the passage. She had no idea. She was looking at me like I was from a different planet.
Prior to teaching second grade, I had taught kindergarten. After seeing the blankness in this child’s face, I knew at that moment that teaching emergent readers to decode and recite passages as fast as possible is worthless if they do not know what they are reading.
You might think, “You should know this!” It’s true…I should have. But, I, like many early childhood teachers, was pressured to get my students to read and write their sounds. I was pressured to teach them to blend, segment, and memorize their sight words. By the end of the year, we had test scores posted on walls with this data. My evaluation included a discussion of this data. Reading comprehension was not emphasized in kindergarten. Even if we did reading comprehension activities, it was NOT emphasized like phonemic awareness was.
Is phonemic awareness important? You bet it is! But I guess my point is…so is comprehension. In order for children to not plateau with their reading scores in 2nd and 3rd grade, (we all know it happens) we must start putting more of an effort to integrate comprehension during our reading block, and throughout the day.
Here are some practical ways you can help your emergent readers build their comprehension skills:
1. Understand the importance of background knowledge.
One of the most important things we can do as teachers is access background knowledge in students. This is especially important with our English Language Learners. We have to be aware of the language and cultural difference that may lead to different experiences. There are many different ways to help students to activate their background knowledge. Think about the text you are about to expose your students to, and how it might relate to something they have already experienced. One of the most successful ways I am able to do this is by talking about an “experience” that happened to me. When I do this, I get students raising their hands to share their experiences. The more prior knowledge that you can help your students to activate, the more they will be able to connect and comprehend the text.
2. Use metacognition when modeling reading and teach it explicitly to your emergent readers.
Metacognition is a fancy word for thinking about thinking. As adults, we often have to stop ourselves to analyze what is happening in the text. We do this without even realizing it. We need to teach our kids to stop and think about what the author or illustrator is trying to tell us. Kids need to recognize when something they are reading does not make sense, and they need to go back and “repair” their misunderstanding. Students need to see this process modeled out loud. It does take time, but they will pick up on it, and start using it on their own.
3. Familiarize your students with different text structures.
Text structures are expository texts are organized. Some examples of text structures might be cause and effect, problem solution, and compare and contrast. Text structures help students make sense of new concepts by retaining, recalling, and summarizing information they have just read. By understanding different text structures, students become more proficient in both reading and writing.
4. Plan for text dependent and higher-level thinking questions.
The key do doing this is to plan ahead. You might think that you can think of these questions on the spot, but it will never be as good as if you planned ahead. I found that when I spent 5 minutes writing my questions down for the next lesson during my prep, I would never have to worry about scrambling to come up with good questions during the lesson.
5. Develop fluency.
Regardless of how much we want to push this aside, if students are thinking about the sounds, or putting together syllables in a word, there is no way they are going to be able to make sense of what they are reading. We want our students to be proficient in their reading fluency so eventually they don’t have to think about reading and/or making meaning of words and phrases. Sometimes this can be difficult because there are so many components that go into fluency. I have always wanted a way to practice fluency while focusing on one phonics rule at a time.
Eventually, I couldn’t find anything out there I liked, so I created my own passages with targeted phonics skills for each passage. Each passage has a story with the targeted phonics skill. In addition, it includes higher-level and text dependent comprehension questions for each passage. Be sure to use the link below to learn more and see if this is a good fit for your classroom as well!
6. Allow time for dramatic play.
Either your school supports it, or they don’t. Regardless of your administration’s stance on the issue, dramatic play is vital to early childhood development, and can play a huge rule in emergent literacy skills, including comprehension. Dramatic play provides an optimal learning environment because students are not stressed or pressured to perform in any way. There are so many ways to integrate dramatic play to the literature you are using in your classroom. One of my favorite dramatic play activities was to have the kids act out the read-aloud or story they read. Having the students use their entire body to act out the story gives them the opportunity to use the part of the brain that is is necessary for reading comprehension.
Summarizing is the ability to take large chunks of the text and reduce it to only the key points and ideas. When students summarize, they are focusing on the gist of the text and not the small details. Having your students practice the skill of summarizing helps them to internalize the key points of the text they read. This helps them to better understand and comprehend what they are reading.
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