In the past, many individuals believed that children must learn how to decode before learning comprehension strategies; however, contemporary research contends otherwise. As Gretchen Owocki explains in Comprehension: Strategic Instruction for K-3 Students (2003), “In kindergarten and first-grade classrooms, a great deal of comprehension strategy instruction occurs through listening experiences; over time, children become progressively more able to apply these strategies to their independent reading” (pg. 92). When students learn reading and comprehension strategies simultaneously, they learn that reading serves a purpose and can be used to learn more about the world, themselves, their experiences, and other’s ideas. When one considers this insight, read alouds, shared reading, and guided reading experiences become critical in helping our young students become fluent readers who read for meaning and comprehension. Reading to students provides the perfect opportunity to model the types of comprehension strategies that experienced readers use so easily in their daily independent reading.
Many comprehension strategies encourage students to activate their schema, or background knowledge, to analyze and connect to what is being read: the comprehension strategies of predicting, inferring, monitoring, and visualizing all allow students to use what they know to develop a better understanding of the text. As educators, we need to provide the scaffolding needed to help children make personal connections to text and this scaffolding can come in the form of modeling and questioning. As Gretchen Owocki contends, “Effective comprehenders monitor their predictions as they read … [recognizing] when their predictions are incorrect…” (pg. 95). As teachers read, they can use questions to help their students predict or infer (e.g., “Based on the illustration on the front cover and the title of the story, what do you think is going to happen in the story? Why do you think that?”) or they can use a think-aloud strategy to model the kind of thinking that is appropriate to make solid predictions and inferences (e.g., “I can see that the main characters face is getting red. He must really be embarrassed”). Typically, both teaching strategies occur during read alouds and numerous strategies are highlighted in a single reading session because effective readers use a variety of strategies when they actively engage with text; however, educators usually emphasize one strategy at a time to discuss it in more depth.
Finally, making connections between texts is an important strategy students need to develop. Students can make connections between books that address the same topic, books that approach different topics, or different genres. According to Owocki, “Connections between texts happen when children make associations between any two pieces of written language—and use these associations to build their overall schema for the world” (pg. 105). As teachers discuss stories or factual information with their students, they can encourage students to revisit previous stories to aid their comprehension and understanding of any new information. For example, a few weeks ago I read Michael Catchpool’s The Cloud Spinner, a book that addresses the environmental issue of abusing natural resources, to my third grade classroom. Soon, I am going to read Chris Van Allsburg’s Just A Dream, a book that addresses similar environmental issues, and have the students compare and contrast the messages of each. By comparing and contrasting the message of both books, my students will be able to think critically about the environmental issues that we face today in the context of both stories.