Leading educator Diane Snowball says teachers need to deep dive with students and strategise to improve reading comprehension.
Diane is a regular on The Teacher’s Tool Kit For Literacy podcast, and again joined literacy expert Sharon Callen on Episode 66 to talk about how teachers can maximise student comprehension.
One of Australia’s most respected teaching mentors, Diane said avoiding ‘superficial knowledge’ means going beyond simply asking students questions in a test based on recall and quickly finding information. Instead, teachers need to thoroughly engage with students and ask strategy-based questions while they’re reading to truly discover their comprehension abilities.
“It’s very strange that the way of assessing comprehension across Australia at the moment is with the NAPLAN test, and yet it really just asks questions for the children to answer. And yet, if I really want to find out about a student’s comprehension, I need to listen to them read and then I need to find out if they’re actually using these specific strategies. Then if they’re not, I’ve got to specifically know what it is they don’t know about so that I can help them improve,” Diane said.
Diane revealed some of the main strategies teachers can draw questions from in order to dig deeper with their students. These strategies come in no particular order and aren’t necessarily required to be used at the same time. However, different combinations can become useful even in different parts of the same text.
“There’s setting a purpose for reading and predicting using prior knowledge. So to use an example, I had a friend’s daughter in secondary school who was told by every subject teacher that she didn’t comprehend easily. So I listened to her read and spoke to her about what she was reading to find out what was going on. So I was actually interested in asking things like, did she predict what was going to be in the text both before she read it and while she was reading it?” Diane said.
“Then there’s inferring, and that comes up all the time where teachers say their kids don’t know how to do that and so I’m going to talk more about that today … and if I was with a student, i’d look at what sort of inferences they’re making, and I’d watch out for where they would need to make an inference in order to understand.
“Also questioning. So this is the reader asking questions of themselves or of the text while they’re reading. It’s not someone asking questions before or after the reader is reading. There’s also monitoring your own understanding, clarifying where you think you’re losing meaning and using some sort of strategy to fix up your misunderstandings, or realizing that you need to do something else than what you’re doing, because what you’re doing is not working.
“Then we have visualizing and forming visual representations. So what I mean by visual representation is I could describe for you how a chicken lays an egg in words, or I could draw a diagram. So that would be a visual representation of that text. And it would show my understanding of that because I can do a diagram of it.”
Diane touched on the importance of content knowledge and ensuring that students actually understand the topic of the text.
“I had a girl who was reading a class novel about Vikings. And when I asked her what was she picturing while she was reading, she really was very doubtful about what she was able to picture. And we discovered that she absolutely knew nothing about Vikings. She did not know when the Vikings were around, what they did, what their normal lives were, how they dressed etc. So none of that background knowledge was there,” Diane said.
“So it was extraordinarily difficult for this girl to understand this novel. And it really brings up that issue where it may well be that she’s actually able to use those comprehension strategies, but for this particular book she can’t because she doesn’t have enough background knowledge about the topic.”
Asking questions about vocabulary knowledge will also reveal whether students are ‘pretend reading’, or reading without processing and understanding what’s happening.
“The other thing I would ask this girl is the meaning of particular words in the book. Anything that was to do with Vikings she had no idea what the meaning of the word was, but I also discovered there were some very simple words like mound, as in a mound on the ground. So by going deeper with that, I found out that her vocabulary knowledge was really quite minimal. And I wondered about it because she was a bright girl, supposedly was reading a lot, but I think that might have been a lot of pretend reading. And there were a lot of other things that were causing that to happen.”
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