Reading comprehension strategies for parents, teachers, and tutors to use with first graders
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Don’t Get So Busy With Decoding that You Forget This
In a school hallway lit by fluorescent lights, I sat across a desk from a student. The tip of my pen hovered over a testing booklet as she flawlessly read line after line from a passage.
I didn’t have to mark one mistake, but my satisfaction was premature.
“Can you tell me about what you just read?” I asked.
“Um, well, there was this kid… and he, um… he was doing something…”
I gave her some think-time, gently prodded with, “Is there anything else?” and then gave up.
Anyone listening to this girl read would think that she was a rockstar! She could decode all kinds of words, but let’s be honest: if a child doesn’t take anything away from what they’re reading, what’s the point?
When teaching beginning readers, don’t get so busy teaching decoding skills that you completely neglect reading comprehension.
Help students build up their reading comprehension skills by including the following strategies in your instruction.
1 – Use Pictures to Infer
Pictures in decent books for new readers really are worth a thousand words. A lot of the story is told in the pictures because the words have to be simple. This creates the perfect opportunity to practice making inferences.
Making inferences means taking what is in the book and combining it with what you already know to create a deeper understanding.
Help children use pictures to make inferences with questions like these:
- Can you see what the character is about to do?
- What does the picture tell you about the character’s feelings?
- Does the picture show you what caused that to happen?
- What can you see in the picture that the character doesn’t notice?
2- Look for the Lesson
Authors write to share an important message. They package that message in a text. We read to find the message.
In many fiction books, the message is a lesson or a moral that we might want to apply in our own lives.
Train children to be on the look-out for a lesson as they are reading fiction books.
The lesson might be revealed through:
- what a character learns
- how a character changes
- how the problem in the story is solved
- the last couple sentences of the text
To be fair, some fiction is written mainly to be silly or to create imagery, but many fiction pieces do have a lesson.
3 – Connect to Background Knowledge
Here’s a crash course in learning theory:
People organize what they know about a topic into a structure called a schema. You can think of it like the brain being a filing cabinet and each schema is a different folder.
When a person gets new information, they compare it to related things that they already know. They try to fit the new info in somewhere. It’s like putting a new paper in the folder.
Kids have better luck understanding new information if you activate their schema first. It’s like helping them open up the right folder.
The picture above shows a checklist that gets kids thinking of situations where they might already have experienced ice. This prepares them to read a passage about how ice forms.
Activating background knowledge, or schema, might sound like this:
- What do you already know about [topic]?
- What are you still wondering about [topic]?
- What does this remind you of?
- Talk with a partner about a time that you [topic].
4 – Notice Characters’ Feelings
Have you ever tried to teach kids to pick out important information? It’s hard, but I’ve found a helpful trick for fiction text:
Teach kids to notice the characters’ feelings.
Characters’ feelings can be clues about:
- the problem in the story
- how the character is changing
- what the character has learned
- cause and effect relationships
That’s a lot of mileage you get out of one strategy! Sometimes an author makes it easy and says how a character feels. Other times, kids will need to look for feelings clues in the things characters say, the illustrations, and the characters’ actions.
5 – Look for Common Structures
When kids know what to look for in a text, they are much more successful in understanding what they’re reading.
For fiction texts, teach students that there is a common story structure. In the beginning, they’ll be introduced to the characters and get an idea of the setting. Then a problem or challenge will come up. After that, the character will take on the challenge. In the end, the problem is resolved.
Once they know this, they can see the “future” of their book, or, they can guess what they should be looking for next.
You can do the same with nonfiction text structures. Nonfiction text usually follows one of these structures:
- compare and contrast
- cause and effect
- problem and solution
After looking at the title, the cover, and the first part of the text, students can pick out the structure. Then they know what they should be looking for in the remainder of the text.
Teach kids common text structures and they can pick out the important parts of a text.
For increased reading comprehension, teach kids to:
- use pictures to infer
- look for the lesson
- connect to background knowledge
- notice the characters’ feelings
- and look for common text structures
For reading passages and fun activities that boost reading comprehension for new readers, check out The Big Book of Reading Comprehension Activities, Grade 1.
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