How to make reading comprehension instruction engaging with ideas from the book Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst
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The Problem With Reading Comprehension Questions
The book was thick and heavy with a dark blue cover. The print was small and the pictures were scarce. My 5th-grade-self sighed as I mustered up the motivation to finish one. more. reading. comprehension. question. This was the weekly ritual. Why do I remember how heavy the book was and how tedious the task seemed, but I don’t remember any of the stories?
I don’t blame my teacher. I’m sure that he was doing the best he could with the materials that he had.
Fast forward to reading instruction in my own classroom: My students enjoyed reading new stories together. They loved acting stories out. They lit up when telling me a related story from their lives. But the reading comprehension practice questions…eh, those brought on a lot of heads-propped-up-on-palms and calling on kids who weren’t that excited to participate.
As teachers, we need kids to understand what they are reading. Unfortunately, traditional comprehension questions listed in basal readers can be incredibly dull.
What People Love About Reading
Take a second to think about times that you’ve really been engrossed in reading. When I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, it changed the way I looked at my food and what it takes to get it from the far reaches of the earth to my table. When I read Scott Westerfield’s Uglies with my daughter, it changed the way I thought about beauty standards and conformity. When I read a recent article about gun violence in America, it changed my understanding of motivations behind mass shootings.
In each instance there is a commonality: change. The reading experiences that engage me the most are the ones that change me.
Our students are not too young to have similar experiences when they read. We can transform our reading comprehension practice by showing students how books can change them.
Taking Comprehension Practice from Dull to Meaningful
A hot phrase right now in reading instruction is “text-dependent questions.” These are questions that require students to find evidence in the text in order to answer them. In Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters, the authors interview several students about their feelings on reading. When one child asks if he likes to read, he responds, “I did when I was little. Now it is about ‘Do you know your reading level?’ and ‘Can you show me the evidence?’”
Think about it: we’re asking kids over and over to go back and extract information from text. But for what? To write an answer on the page and turn it in? But what does it mean to them in their life?
What if we turned reading comprehension on its head and asked kids to connect with text FIRST and then support with text evidence second?
A Powerful 3-Question Frame Work
Kylene Beers and Robert Probst have suggested a framework of three questions that guide students toward seeing what a text really means to their own lives.
The questions are listed here but definitely check out Disrupting Thinking for a complete understanding:
- What’s in the book? – Ok, so this is the one we’re already good at as teachers. When you teach kids to identify character traits, use text features, or follow the arc of the plot, you’re helping them identify what is in the book.
- What is in my head? – What thoughts are awakened while reading? Students compare the text to what they already know. They may be surprised or their original thinking may be confirmed. They may develop skepticism for what the author is saying based on their prior knowledge.
- What is in my heart? – What feelings are awakened while reading? Students examine what the book helps them learn about themselves or others. Maybe the text changes how the students think about the world. Students consider how their actions or feelings will change as a result of reading the text. (There’s that word again…change.)
How can this possibly fit in with all the other strategies I’m already teaching?
Think of the three questions above as umbrellas under which other reading strategies fall.
You teach kids to visualize what they are reading so they can understand what is in the book (the first question in the framework). You teach them to activate their background knowledge so that compare the text to what they already know (the second question). You teach kids to make connections between the text and themselves and the world (the third questions).
You don’t necessarily need to teach more strategies, just connect the strategies you are teaching to identifying what’s the in the book, what is in their kids’ heads, and what is in kids’ hearts. If you’re like me, you may need to adjust so that you’re asking “head” and “heart” questions and not just “What’s in the book” questions.
So what about text evidence? Students should still be finding text evidence but not for the sake of extracting information. They should find text evidence to support a connection they made, something they disagree with, or something that changed their thinking. Beers and Probst describe this as moving from extracting to transacting.
How to Start Implementing Right Away
*Emphasize to students that reading is not about calling out words or answering questions on a test. Reading can change how we understand things and how we act.
*Encourage kids to be responsive to the thoughts and feelings awakened by a text. Make time for these thoughts and feelings to be shared.
*Make sure your comprehension discussions and tasks include practice with all three of the questions above, not just the first one. Instead of asking only “What does this text say?” also move to “What does this text say to me? How does it change my thinking or understanding?”
*Give students a chance to talk about text with others. If everyone is making connections between the text and themselves, it is enriching to hear the connections and perspectives of others.
*Make sure students know that they don’t have to agree with a text. They can question the text.
*Keep in mind that not every text will change a reader. Sometimes a text confirms what the reader already thinks. There is still a thinking and connecting process that goes on to identify that the author and the reader think the same thing.