What Is It?
We read in order to get meaning from text and to enrich our understanding of the world. Although teachers promote reading comprehension strategies at the primary grades in elementary school, it is during the intermediate grades that students can become truly proficient in comprehension. By this time, most students have learned to use essential word recognition or decoding skills more automatically, freeing energy for understanding what they read. In grades 4-6, students still need instruction on how to decipher multisyllabic words and need to learn new vocabulary, but for the most part, students should possess relatively complete decoding strategies. Thus, at the intermediate grades, comprehension moves to the foreground.
A primary way in which we comprehend is by making connections between our reading and our past experiences. Making connections allows us to attach or "Velcro" our reading with information gained through firsthand and vicarious experiences. Reading comes alive when we can see these connections. Teachers can help students make connections by tapping into students' knowledge, cultures, lifestyles, lives, and their relationships with peers and adults.
Fluent readers are continually interacting with the text as they are reading. They ask themselves questions such as "Does this make sense?", "What might happen next?", and "How is this similar to something I already know?" In short, they are monitoring their reading. Reading comprehension breaks down when things do not make sense to the reader. Competent readers realize when comprehension breaks down and then use appropriate fix-up strategies, such as re-reading a sentence or paragraph. Teachers can model all of these aspects of expert reading and facilitate students' self-monitoring and fix-up strategies.
For both narrative and expository texts, intermediate-grade students also benefit from comprehension instruction using graphic aids such as story maps, chapter grids, character maps, time lines, and cause-and-effect charts. These graphic organizers serve as visual prompts to help students understand expository text, recognize and appreciate the structure of narrative text, and see how authors craft their work. Later, as students gain self-reliance with these text structures, teachers can also encourage students to devise their own graphic depictions of text.
It is important for intermediate-grade students to explore complex topics that may not have single answers. As students mature, they are able to grapple with many issues and multiple points of view that their younger schoolmates are unable to grasp; this transition takes place in the intermediate grades. An author's intent, for example, is not something that students can easily discern unless they have been taught to look beyond the literal meaning of the text. Newspaper editorials are a prime example of how authors can influence readers' judgments by expressing a point of view. Grades 4-6 are an optimal time for teachers to stress the importance of finding evidence in the text that supports or refutes students' interpretations.
To boost reading comprehension with this age group, effective teachers routinely incorporate comprehension strategies and activities, such as reciprocal teaching, book clubs, and Question the Author. Reciprocal teaching is an activity that can help students comprehend text, particularly expository text. Teacher and students take turns leading a dialogue concerning sections of a text. They engage in four activities: predicting, questioning, summarizing, and clarifying the text. First the teacher models and scaffolds these activities, then gradually allows the student group to conduct them.
Teachers can organize book club activities as student-led discussion groups. Each book club is composed of four to five students, heterogeneously grouped for reading level, gender, or verbal ability. Students remain in these book clubs throughout a unit, reading the same book or different books on a shared theme. The books are age-appropriate and sufficiently complex to support in-depth discussion. Within book clubs, students discuss ideas that emerged from their reading, airing their questions and related personal experiences. Teachers reinforce norms for appropriate behavior in book club discussion, such as listening with respect, building on others' ideas, debating and critiquing ideas, assuming leadership, and following another's lead.
Question the Author (QtA) is an activity that usually involves five basic questions:
Implications for ELLs
In grades 4-6, English language learners (ELLs) still require instruction and practice in phonemic awareness, phonemic segmentation, and decoding words. However, instructional time should also include an age-appropriate focus on deriving meaning from text. Effective teachers provide explicit discussion of how to make connections to text.
ELLs' prior knowledge may not always match that required to make sense of particular texts. Effective teachers are on the alert for language and content that may require explanation. They also select books that will build upon culturally diverse students' backgrounds, languages, knowledge, and experiences.
Some ELLs have a primary language that shares cognate or sister words with English. These pairs of English and Spanish words are cognates: observe/observar, anniversary/aniversario, respiración/respiration, and monument/monumento. Some cognates, such as stomach and estómago or azure and azúl, are more similar in their written forms than in spoken forms. However, ELLs also need to watch for false cognates, words that resemble each other but do not share meaning: for example, actual (real or genuine in English) and actuál (current or contemporary in Spanish). Some ELLs routinely recognize cognates and use them as a resource for comprehending English text. Other students are not aware that their knowledge of their home language can be such an asset in reading English. Effective teachers help students capitalize on their home language to learn English.
Strategies for Supporting ELLs
Recognizing cognates can boost reading comprehension. Effective teachers discuss cognates and cognate recognition with English language learners (ELLs) who speak and read Spanish, Portuguese, French, and other related languages. Teachers have students keep lists of the cognates they encounter. Teachers access and provide cognate lists, such as the one found in The ESL Teacher's Book of Lists (Kress, 2002), for their own and students' reference. As teachers preview reading materials to look for words and concepts that may require preteaching, they also scan for cognates that can serve as resources for students from certain language backgrounds.
To make the hidden cognitive processes of reading and writing more accessible to ELLs, effective teachers orally narrate their own comprehension strategies.
Teachers say things like:
In addition, graphic organizers are excellent devices for scaffolding ELLs' reading comprehension and ability to monitor their own comprehension. Graphic organizers such as story maps and cause-and-effect charts visually represent categories of information necessary for comprehension. Attempting to fill in a story map can help ELLs articulate their understanding of the story and identify gaps in comprehension.
Teachers model how to fill in a chart about a story by saying things like:
For this example of expository text, teachers might say things like:
Glimpse of the Classroom
Today, Mrs. T. is reviewing the types of connections that her fourth-grade students have been looking for as they read their assigned and self-selected books.
She points to a chart. It reads:
She encourages students to see connections between what they read and their own lives. She discusses how students can find relationships between the book they are reading now and texts that they have read previously. She challenges them to think about how ideas from their reading are relevant in the world outside books. She tells them that it is the most difficult connection to make but often the most interesting.
Next, Mrs. T. reads passages aloud to demonstrate various connections to text. She reads a passage from Patricia MacLachlan's book Sarah, Plain and Tall, which mentions dandelion seeds blowing in the wind. For her, this recalls a childhood memory--her father's taboo against blowing on dandelion seeds because they would spread more dandelions. She makes a text-to-text connection between this book and Laura Ingalls Wilder's book Little House on the Prairie.
One student, Courtney, shares two connections that she has made. In her response journal, Courtney wrote her reaction to Roald Dahl's book Mathilda, which is about a smart girl whose parents don't notice her. Courtney reads what she has written, "Sometimes I think my parents don't notice me." When Mrs. T. asks if anyone else has ever felt that way, other students raise their hands. Courtney then connects the nickname Sugar Plum that Mr. Wormwood uses with the same name on a candle in her house; because of this, she thinks Sugar Plum is a silly name.
Mrs. T. asks the classroom aide, Mrs. S., to share the connections she has found. Mrs. S. talks about the similarities between the Harry Potter books and movies and the Star Wars movies: Both have young heroes in training with special powers, wise old men, sidekicks, and evil forces. Now that they have reviewed the kinds of connections they can make while reading, students begin to select and read books during free reading time.
Questions to Think About