How can it be that we're already into the second half of the school year? I was eager to get back to the reading lab after a relaxing winter break with my family. I hope you all had a chance to relax, too! 

Today I have some thoughts and resources to share on the topic of comprehension. In my last post, I mentioned that the checking initial placement process alerted me to a student—let’s call him Connor—whose average comprehension score was 60% correct. Another student—let’s call her Lucy—was averaging 72% correct. These scores don’t fly in my reading lab. What’s the point of reading if not to comprehend? I want to see all of my students averaging 80% correct (4 out of 5 questions) or better on their first attempt at answering the questions.

I watched for my first opportunity to work with Connor and Lucy. I wanted to observe them while they worked and talk with them about their question-answering strategies. So, the next day, I sat down next to Connor as soon as I noticed he was working on the questions. (Remember when we rearranged the desks into a horseshoe shape to solve the over-practicing mystery? This is another reason that configuration comes in handy. I can see all the screens from wherever I’m standing in the room.) Connor selected an incorrect answer and was about to click next, but I stopped him. I asked him to show me his answer in the story. He looked up at me, clearly surprised. “Did you know that every answer can be found in the story?” I asked. He didn’t. So, I explained to him that the answers are all right there—either on one specific line in the story (detail question) or in several parts of the story that the reader needs to connect. Connor seemed uncertain, so we did every question together and I helped him find the answers in the story. That’s all it took. Since that day, Connor has had 100% comprehension on all but one story. If only every comprehension problem could be solved so easily!

Now it was Lucy’s turn. I saw her answer a question incorrectly and, like Connor, I asked her to show me the answer in the story. She too was surprised, but for a different reason. “You mean I can look back in the story?” she asked. “Yes, Lucy, not only can you look in the story, but you must look in the story to find the answers!” I replied. I told her that even people like me, who have been reading for over 60 years (could it really be that long?) have to look back in the story to answer questions. Nobody can remember everything they read! Lucy seemed very relieved and finished answering the questions—using the story as a source of information. Though she is not answering her questions with 100% accuracy yet, she is doing better now that she’s taking the time to look back at the story.

When I checked in with Lucy a couple days later, I noticed that she was still having trouble with the word-in-context question (question #3). She was answering this question quickly, without looking back at the story. I see this issue all the time. Many students fail to consider the “context” part of the question. “Oh, I know what ground means,” they think—and they select “soil or earth” instead of the correct answer, “finely crushed,” which is the meaning of the word in the story. To correct this problem, I teach the kids that they have to read the sentence the word is in, plus the sentences before and after it. “You need to read all three of these sentences to clarify what the word means,” I tell them. They’re impulsive and want to quickly click through to get to the next story—but they need to slow down and find the meaning in the context of the story. I tell them that when they can control the impulse to speed through their work, they become better readers and better test-takers.

Connor and Lucy were pretty easy on me this time. All I needed to do was remind them to slow down and look back at the story. Usually, when a student is having comprehension issues, I have to go deeper into teaching the skill of answering each question. Years ago, a Read Naturally teacher worked with my colleagues to put together a resource for exactly this purpose. It provides helpful tips and strategies for teaching each question to students who are struggling. Click here to download it for free. Our website also contains some wonderful, well-researched information about teaching comprehension, which you can find by clicking here.

One final word on comprehension: One of the beauties of Read Live is that the program gives instant feedback. The kids know right away if they’ve answered the questions correctly or not. We insist that they go back and correctly answer any questions they initially got wrong. This way they’re accountable for comprehending the story. And, like I said in the beginning, that’s the whole point of reading. In my lab, we make a big deal of 100% comprehension on the first try. It’s the ultimate goal—and celebrating that achievement motivates all the students to try harder to reach it.

Speaking of motivation… In a future post, I’ll talk more about this and other strategies that motivate students to do their best work. I’ve noticed they typically seem to need an extra boost in early spring! Stay tuned.