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Teaching Comprehension Strategies

What is Comprehension?

Comprehension is understanding the message in the words that are being read. It is the end goal for any reading. Reading the words but not understanding what the words are saying is not really reading at all. Good readers are both purposeful and active, and have the skills to absorb what they read, analyse it, make sense of it, and make it their own.

When should Comprehension Strategy Instruction Start?

Our view (supported by lots of research on cognitive loading) is that while the brain is still developing fluency with decoding the squiggles on the page - that is the reader doesn't yet have an automated word attack system in place - then attempts to impose comprehension strategy use WHILE the reader is reading, clogs the cognitive process and leads to feelings of being overwhelmed and frustrated. For the beginning reader, by all means encourage AFTER reading comprehension of text but allow the reader to just focus on decoding while they are reading until they have developed some decoding fluency.

So ... what are the indicators for decoding fluency?
1. Speed and fluency
The reader should be reading text at a 7-8 year old level (or higher) with reasonable speed and fluency.
2. Evidence of an automatic word attack
At this text level they will be starting to encounter unfamiliar multisyllabic words and should be demonstrating a automatic or semi automatic word attack strategy which allows them to 'read' these words without too much hesitation.
3. Holding on to the information
They should also be showing that they are retaining the literal meaning of the text they have just read. This is not 'comprehension' as such, more that the reader is aware that the words have a message and are making connections to that message. 

All of these indicators are developed in Stages 1&2 of SharpReading.

What does Strategy Instruction look like?

Traditional attempts to develop comprehension revolve around what we call 'Question and Hope...' Once the students have read a passage of text silently, the teacher asks questions that will model the thinking that the good reader should be engaging in while they are reading (For more on this universal approach to comprehension instruction, search Guided Silent Reading).

The assumption is that by the teacher modelling these questions, the reader will learn to do this for themselves, hence our label 'Question and Hope...'  Our own classroom experience with this approach is that there is a very weak transfer of these skills and in fact the reader becomes dependant on the teacher to ask questions that prompt deeper thinking about text.

To develop truely independent ACTIVE thinking while the reader is reading requires a very different approach. SharpReading Stage 3 provides guided reading routines which force the reader to unpack the sentence for themselves as the are reading. This is a scaffolded process which starts with the literal meaning in a sentence and, as the student develops fluency with this skill, builds on literal understanding into analytical and evaluative thinking without interference and prompting from the teacher.


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