Friday, November 4, 2011

Assigning Reading Comprehension vs. Teaching Reading Comprehension

When it comes to comprehension instruction, we have data that says that we spend as little as 2% of our instructional time teaching children how to make meaning.   (Lanning, 11) What we tend to do instead is give students a passage like this:

Some fire is a natural part of the life of a forest.  Fire cleans out dead brush by burning it to ash.  Then animals that live in the forest can find food more easily.  New plants and trees have more room and sunlight to grow.
(From Fires and Floods by Kate Waters, p 11)

And ask questions like:
What is this passage mostly about:
  1. How fires destroy forests
  2. How fires can be helpful
  3. How fires help animals
  4. How fires clear away dead brush

And when children respond anything but answer 2, we conclude that this student does not understand main idea. 

However, foregone conclusions like this are not particularly helpful in helping us make decisions about how to correct the problem.  We are left wringing our hands, wrought with worry over what will happen come April when these students take the ELA.  We know we need to fix the problem but we are all left wondering the same thing: How?

The sample question that you see above actually came from a group of six fourth grade students working together to figure out the main idea of the paragraph about fire.  This group of children had received explicit instruction on what a main idea is and how identifying main idea helps readers monitor text for meaning.  Next they took a look at this paragraph and worked with partners to figure out what it was mostly about.  As they did that, the teacher listened closely and took notes about what they said and discovered that sometimes children were too broad and general when identifying the main idea.  In other cases, she recognized that  students were too specific and pulled details from the story and dubbed them “the main idea.”  And in yet other instances, children relied solely on their background knowledge about the topic to identify the main idea.

The small group structure allowed the teacher a rare glimpse into the otherwise invisible process of making meaning.  In returning to the original dilemma of knowing that there’s a problem but feeling stuck knowing what to do about it, this glimpse provided the answer to the original question of HOW to fix the main idea problem: Responsive small group strategy instruction. If we are to effectively raise children’s reading proficiency, creating situations where children are active participants in their learning is imperative.  We must listen closely to clues they provide about their learning processes and then work with the diligence of Sherlock Holmes to solve the mystery of what is standing in the way of growth.  In the end, good assignments don’t make children better readers but good teaching…wow!  What a difference that can make!

Lanning, Lois A. 4 Powerful Strategies for StrugglingReaders, Grades 3-8: Small Group Instruction That Improves Comprehension. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2009. Print. (Amazon affiliate link)

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