Comprehension of Fiction video by The Jerry L. Johns Literacy Clinic at Northern Illinois University

Traditionally, reading comprehension was narrowly thought to encompass answering some multiple-choice questions after reading a story or reading passage. While this may be one form of reading comprehension, it is not comprehensive and does not take into account the stages of reading comprehension, requirements for understanding different genres of text, or understanding text when read silent versus orally.

Paula, an eighth grade student with dyslexia, cannot manage to answer multiple choice questions unless they are read aloud to her. Christina, a fifth grade student with dyslexia, can accurately answer multiple choice questions for passages up to the tenth grade level, though she cannot tell you what she’s read. This page focuses on strategies to enhance reading comprehension, beginning with selecting something to read, and ending with how the reader integrates text into her knowledge base and demonstrates that knowledge. Multiple ways of reading and demonstrating knowledge will be discussed for a variety of learning styles.

We have written this so that you can share the information directly with your students.

Before You Read

Pick a book

To become a reader, you have to be able to pick a book. This skill is not often a part of Language Arts curricula; as a result, many students with dyslexia do not know how to select a book. What criteria should they use? How easy it looks? How big the font is? Explicit instruction for choosing a book (even if it is for a report or from a book list) is often needed. A variety of book genre vocabulary is necessary for this step: self-help, auto-biographical, fantasy, science-fiction, teen-fiction, historical fiction, mystery, romance, etc. On-site instruction (in front of a bookshelf, in a library or bookstore) is advantageous. The student should receive guidance through the following considerations:

  • What are my interests? Do I want to read about one of these topics?
  • What genre would I like to try?
  • Where is that located in the library/bookstore?
  • Does the title and summary on the cover appeal to me?
  • Is there an author or book that I have enjoyed in the past?
  • Who can I ask for recommendations?
  • If I open up and read a few pages of the book, does it capture my interest?

Preview

Imagine that someone hands you an already open book and asks you to read it and do what it says (demonstrating comprehension) and it looks like Greek to you. You are going to look at the title and chapter names, boldface words and tables to try to at least figure out if you are looking at a car manual, theology reference book, or Farmer’s Almanac. Previewing a book gives the reader a chance to fit the information into a meaningful context. This helps her to bring all of her previous knowledge and schemas to the task in order to predict what she will read.

If the student had the opportunity to pick her own book, she has had the opportunity to preview it. Modeling the previewing process with verbal mediation is often an effective means of teaching this skill. For example you might say, "Let’s see, this book is called East of Eden by John Steinbeck. It’s a long book, but the chapters look pretty short. There is no table of contents and the chapters don’t have names, just numbers. The back cover says that Salinas Valley and River are in California. That must be where the author is from or where the story takes place. Oh yes, it’s where the story takes place. The front flap says that this story is about two families as they farm the land and raise their children out West. The characters’ fate re-enacts the fall of Adam and Eve and the sibling rivalry of Cain and Abel. (While flipping through the pages) This looks pretty readable. There’s lots of description and dialogue."

After modeling and verbally mediating the previewing process, ask your student to do the same. You may wish to have another group member jot down a list of key words as your student previews the text and verbally mediates this process. Writing down key words can demonstrate active listening, facilitate memory, and serve as a guide for the subsequent pre-reading tasks. If your student is going to be reading non-fiction or a portion of a textbook, point out relevant parts of the book, such as the table of contents, index, chapter title, section headings, boldface words, tables, pictures and captions, etc. It may be valuable to teach your student how to use the features of the book to skim. You may tell her, "The goal of skimming is to move your eyes quickly through the text to get the gist or main idea of what you will be reading. You may also want to skim the book when you are looking for a specific answer to a question."

Previous knowledge

Activating previous knowledge is an essential ingredient in building reading comprehension skills. It allows the new information "to stick" to the older information and be more easily recognized, understood, and remembered. Initially, this may be a separate step for your novice readers; however, with practice this skill may be incorporated into the previewing process. Ask your student what she knows about the themes, topics, and setting of the text that she just previewed. If you or a student wrote down a list of key terms (i.e. Salinas, CA, sibling rivalry, Cain and Abel, the Fall, Adam and Eve, and farming) refer to it now. You may use an open-ended ("Tell me what you know about these topics?") or more directive format ("Have you ever traveled out West? What do you think they are referring to when they mention ‘The Fall of Adam and Eve?'") to find out what your student knows about these themes/terms.

Predict

Making a prediction about the book is a way of building reading comprehension before even commencing with the book. You can help your student form a more complete or accurate prediction using the following techniques:

  • Include several of the key words in the prediction.
  • Incorporate the world knowledge and personal experience from the previous task.
  • Put the prediction into a complete sentence.
  • For a story, include the characters and a problem in your prediction.
  • For non-fiction, include a person/object, action, time, and place (if applicable).
  • Write this prediction down and then modify it as new information is acquired. Talk about the value and limitations of predictions (you may wish to use the analogy of a weather forecast that is not 100% accurate, yet very valuable; it is continually updated when new information is attained).

Make this activity fun by contributing predictions yourself. Make some that are in "left-field" and some that are more on-target. Ask the students to rate and improve your predictions. Heighten the student’s anticipation by saying, "Let’s see if you’re right about that!" You could even reward the student (through a token system or with extra-credit points) for every correct part of her prediction.

Put on your reading schema

You might introduce schemas by comparing them to your reading glasses. (For younger students, you may wear some oversized or silly glasses). Schemas are the lenses that help you see what is going on in the story/text. You use different lenses for reading stories than for reading your science book because stories have characters, problems, feelings, and plans for solving the problem, whereas science books have information about the way things work, hypotheses, and methods for testing, observing, and measuring. Invite your students to wear their schema glasses for a different type of book (history, math, or foreign language). Brainstorm the function and form of that type of book. Also talk about the way you would use that book and the tools to help you extract the information (i.e., conjugation boxes, timelines, examples, etc.). Ask the students to compare and contrast these schemas. If you are comparing genres within a Language Arts curriculum such as folklore, poetry, and biography, you may use the same process. Then ask the students to cite other examples of stories they’ve read in these genres.

Find ways to make the schemas memorable. A visual learner may benefit from decorating book covers for all of her books with the schema written and illustrated. This can be a reminder to use this "lens" each time she opens her book to "correctly view" the text. An auditory learner may benefit from making a rhyme, chant, tune, or "wacky story" about all of the pertinent features of the schemas while a kinesthetic learner might make a skit or gesture to help her remember the schemas. The goal for your student is to make it memorable and an automatic part of the reading process.

While You Read

Active Reading

Choose your format: Multiple types of media are now available to students (e.g., electronic books, audio books, and text-to-speech). It is important for the student to read along with audio supports to increase sight vocabulary and reading fluency. Some students select to watch a movie in conjunction with reading the book. The visual and auditory input can strengthen reading comprehension. If your student selects this avenue for increasing reading comprehension, you will want to help her to compare and contrast the book and the movie.

Check your predictions and make some more…A good book draws the reader in and allows her to "share in the experience." Therefore, you will want to invite your student to check her initial prediction (e.g., "I think this book will be about the tensions between two siblings and the moral decay of two farming families that move to California.") and revise it, as well as make new predictions as she goes. Even the end of the book should cause the reader to speculate what happened after that. If your student is an auditory learner, she could record her predictions (video or audio). A visual learner should be encouraged to write, illustrate, and visualize the prediction in graphic detail. You may need to model that for her through verbal mediation. ("I picture two brothers, one stocky and hairy, the other lean and nimble yelling and coming to blows over a woman with whom they both have fallen in love. The lean and nimble one has a black eye, but was able to break the stocky brother’s nose, which is gushing blood.")

Clarify meaning

Students with dyslexia need to be taught to "check their comprehension" as they read. This is best addressed during oral reading. For example, in East of Eden, your student might read,

A little boulder jumped down a hill and broke my father’s leg. They set the leg and gave him cripples’ work, straightening used nails with a hammer on a rock. And whether with worry or work—it doesn’t matter—my mother went into early labor. And then the half-mad men knew and they went all mad.. One hunger sharpened another hunger, and one crime blotted out the one before it, and the little crimes committed against those starving men flared into one gigantic maniac crime.

You can model, "I wonder what ‘one crime blotted out the one before it’ means?" or "I’ve never heard flared used that way before." Then you can demonstrate how to use the context, previous word knowledge, and the dictionary to clarify the meaning of the text. Illustrate the importance of making some attempt at this process (e.g., "I’m not completely sure, but I think that ‘one crime blotted out the one before it,’ is referring to the way that tragedy led to even more tragedy and sorrow, eventually hardening these men.")

Consider the Big Picture

Since many students with dyslexia are so focused on decoding the meaning of each word that they "miss the forest for the trees," scaffolding (using the Socratic method of asking leading questions) is generally required to help them connect the events within the novel to extract the theme. For example, you may ask,

"What was Caleb’s motive for giving his earnings to his father? How did he respond when he didn’t get the approval that he longed for? Do you think that his subconscious comparison of himself to Aron was his downfall? Was this behavior a character flaw or something more basic than that? What does that tell us about the human condition?"

Visual learners may benefit from visually mapping out the characters and their inherent strengths and flaws. Their actions and motives may be included in the graphic as well. Verbal/auditory learners may need to dialogue about the characters and the life lessons that they learned, and then draw connections from their own lives and world knowledge. Kinesthetic learners (depending on the age) often comprehend broad themes after writing and performing a play, movie, song, or puppet show of the book.

After You Read

Follow Up

Multiple mediums to demonstrate comprehension

Since there are many different learning styles, it is imperative that the instructor provide a broad spectrum of ways to demonstrate competence. Many students with dyslexia are not able to show what they truly know in a traditional test taking or writing format. A variety of opportunities should be provided, so that the student with dyslexia can not only demonstrate competence, but also contribute her unique point of view. Below are several examples of final projects to demonstrate reading comprehension:

  • Write/illustrate a comic strip with the main characters
  • Create a shadow box or collage illustrating the main themes
  • Produce a film of this book re-set in a different time period
  • Re-enact the book in a skit
  • Write and illustrate an original book jacket for the book
  • Rewrite the ending of the story (include dialogue and imagery)
  • Give an oral presentation about the author of this book
  • Stage an interview with one of the characters
  • Make a poster with a story map/character analysis
  • Create a trivia game with quotes from the book ("Who would have said this?")

Make it personally relevant

Comprehension, critical thinking, and memory are enhanced when a student can draw connections between the text and her own experience. This is especially true for inferential questions such as: "How do you think Aron felt when he saw his father’s disdain of Caleb’s gift?" "Have you ever had a situation when you were (through no real effort of your own) clearly the more favored child, student, or employee? How did that impact your relationships with your siblings/peers/co-workers? Would you have done anything differently if you would have known the impact of your favored status?" Ask your student to put herself in the place of each of the main characters. What would she do in each of their situations?

Make connections to the world

Now that your student has comprehended the story line, themes, and made personal connections to the story, she has to apply what she has learned to another context. This type of divergent thinking and critical thinking requires practice and guidance. You might use modeling, Socratic questioning, or even several written choices as a way to help your student achieve this goal. Once again, this inferential type of knowledge would help your student do answer the following types of questions:

  • Can you think of another good title for this book?
  • If this homicide were reported on the news, how would it be portrayed?
  • How was the setting in Salinas (near the Valley River) significant for the story?
  • Compare and contrast this story with the biblical narrative of Cain and Abel.
  • How might this story be different if it happened today?

Teaching reading comprehension is a multi-step process and demands that the student bring every ounce of her experience and world knowledge to the task. In addition, your student’s learning style should help to determine the way reading comprehension is taught and how she demonstrates her knowledge. You will inevitably learn alongside your student if you decide to venture beyond traditional comprehension questions. Success starts here!

For more information on strengthening reading comprehension, read ADDitude Magazine's article, Reading to Remember.