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Rethinking Comprehension

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Comprehension is the final of the 5 components of reading.  It is at the top of the pyramid.  It is the ultimate goal of all the other components: creating meaning is what it is all about.  If one of the other components breaks down, comprehension almost inevitably suffers. 

However, it is critical that we do not ignore this component of reading until all the others fall neatly into place.  Comprehension should be modeled, discussed, and taught long before our children are capable, independent readers.   

Metacognition is thinking about your thinking.

The key to comprehension is metacognition.   Without it, the information goes in one ear and out the other.  It doesn’t matter if you are listening or reading; if you do not interact with the information in some capacity, it will not stick.  This happens when you meet someone, but do not remember their name 3 minutes later.  You did not think about it or attach meaning to it. It happens when you read a page to the end and realize that although you read the words, you have no idea what it was about.  No metacognition took place. Therefore, you did not comprehend. 

Some students naturally learn how to think about what they hear and read.  Others do not.  That is where great teaching comes in.  We can teach metacognition by modeling what it looks like when we do it.  This is often called “think aloud.”  We can also give kids concrete examples of abstract comprehension strategies.  Our favorite book regarding this is Comprehension Connections: Bridges to Strategic Reading by Tanny McGregor. 

Two other important factors of comprehension are vocabulary and background knowledge.  Children who are learning English as a second language, or kids coming from environments lacking rich, oral language interactions, often need support in comprehension.  This makes perfect sense.  Without knowing the meaning of the majority of individual words, understanding the meaning of the passage is difficult. Robust vocabulary instruction can help.

Also, children lacking experiences or background knowledge are at a great disadvantage.  They may struggle to visualize what is read because they have never experienced anything like it. Reading about a nature preserve is much easier for a student who has visited one than the student who has never heard of this concept before.  We can boost comprehension by giving our students background knowledge prior to reading.  Showing pictures, videos, or telling stories are all adequate ways to do this. 

There are several things we can do as parents and teachers to help students that struggle with comprehension. 

Our Top 10 List:

1- Teach kids to visualize.  Help them create an image in their head of what they hear or read.  Structure words like color, size, movement, number, shape, and mood can help. Visualizing and Verbalizing by Nanci Bell is a great resource.

2-  Model, model, model.  These are tricky concepts because they take place in our thinking.  Model metacognition for students.

3- Create visual representations of text with graphic organizers.

4- Have students draw pictures or sketch what they hear or read.

5- Limit silent, independent reading for kids that are struggling with comprehension. More practice of inadequate skills will not make them better readers. Explicit, direct instruction is necessary!

6- Bring vocabulary instruction to life.  Teach and talk about words all the time!

7-  Teach kids to ask questions. This is one of the most important comprehension skills.  Kids that are asking questions are thinking! We love the book  Questioning the Author and the ReQuest strategy to boost this skill.

8-  Build background Knowledge for students prior to reading.

9-  Teach kids how to monitor their comprehension.  They should know if they are building meaning and things are making sense or not.  We love the PALS (Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies) Click or Clunk Strategy.

10-  Make sure that comprehension is not lacking due to a deficit in accuracy or fluency.  A child that is struggling to decode a passage is not going to be able to comprehend it well.  If this is the case, focus intervention on foundational skills, but continue to teach comprehension with passages read to the student.

Language Play

Language-based games are also great for building comprehension because they strengthen vocabulary and give time for oral language practice. Building language manipulation and connections is purposeful and play is powerful. Here are a few of our favorite games to strengthen language and vocabulary.

Apples to Apples (Jr.)

Banana Grams


Scrabble Jr.


Catch Phrase

Guess Who



20 Questions


Rory’s Story Cubes


Not Parent Approved: A Hilarious Card Game 

The key to comprehension…

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