Reading comprehension: a new approach

We are radically transforming the way we teach reading comprehension.

Blog outline:

  • How we used to teach comprehension
  • Three problems with the old approach
  • The assumptions that underpin our new approach
  • Summary of the new approach
  • An explanation of why we are moving to the new approach
  • A checklist for teachers using the new approach
  • An example of the new approach (contrasted with the same lesson using the old approach).

What we‘ve always done

Up until now, our lessons have followed a fairly basic format, with some tweaking around the edges:

  1. Teacher reads
  2. Children read
  3. Teacher stops to ask the children questions, with reference to the main comprehension strategies and how to ‘apply’ them
  4. Children answer comprehension questions (which fall into a particular category of comprehension strategy such as prediction or inference)

Whether it is whole-class reading or the traditional guided reading carousel, these four steps form the basis of how I have taught reading in every school I’ve worked in.

The problem

There are a number of problems with this approach, but here are the big three:

  1. We know that direct instruction is more effective than discovery learning, and we are persuaded by Dan Willingham’s maxim that ‘teaching content is teaching reading’. However, in the model outlined above, it is not content that gets taught and remembered but generic comprehension strategies, which resist transfer from one book to another. Children are given some text and largely left to their own devices to discover the hidden layers in the text by answering questions and applying said strategies.
  2. Reading comprehension relies heavily on background knowledge and vocabulary. We need to know a whopping 95% of the words in a text in order to comprehend it. You can practise prediction all you like, but unless you know what the words mean and how they fit together, you won’t comprehend what you read. The outline above does not leave a satisfactory amount of time to properly study these essential components. We asked ourselves: if background knowledge is so important to comprehension, how can we increase background knowledge through reading lessons?
  3. The purpose of a reading comprehension lesson should be to make it more likely that a child will understand the next book they read independently. Therefore we need to stay focused on what will transfer from the lesson to the next book they read. If a child sits down to add two numbers together, they are drawing directly on past lessons and are fully dependent on their level of success in those lessons. If a child sits down to write, they are not even capable of forming the first letter without drawing on past lessons. However, we do not believe that the best readers in our school are drawing on past comprehension lessons when they start a new book at home. We do not believe that comprehension strategies account for the difference between a poor reader and a good reader (and despite years of teaching them, have never seen children using them independently outside of a lesson or test situation).

Assumptions behind the new approach

  1. A child’s inference cannot exceed their ‘mental models’, background knowledge or vocabulary. These are the things that poor comprehenders lack and no amount of comprehension-strategy practice can fill this gap.
  2. A child comprehends a book because they are able to build what Jane Oakhill describes as a ‘mental model’ of the text, built up not only from real life but from previous exposure to similar characters, settings and patterns in other books they have read. The more a child understands about a book, the more they will recognise the same signals and patterns in future books. These are the elements that transfer across books and create the conditions for comprehension; leaving children’s understanding to chance means there is less to transfer to the next book.
  3. Almost all stories draw on a finite number of patterns, characters and plots. The more of these that children are exposed to, the quicker they will recognise them. Answering a question like ‘Why did the lady call Tom a “spoiled brat”?’ is easier for children who have been exposed to “spoiled brats” in other books or stories. “Spoiled brats” have certain behaviours in common; these are easier to spot the more exposure you have had to them. A question about a character’s motives or behaviour is easier to answer if you have encountered similar motives and behaviours in other books.
  4. Reading comprehension is not a skill to be taught but a ‘condition to be created
  5. Background knowledge is the main driver of language comprehension. Increase the background knowlede and you increase the chances of comprehension.
  6. The research shows that students who are identified as “poor readers” comprehend with relative ease when asked to read passages on familiar subjects, outperforming even “good readers” who lack relevant background knowledge.
    Therefore, we need more subjects to be familiar to our “poor readers”.
  7. Familiarity with the subject matter increases fluency, broadens vocabulary (you can pick up words in context), and enables deeper reading and listening comprehension. Therefore, we need children to understand as many different domains as possible.

Have a go: what it feels like to read a text without a ‘mental model’:

This activity is taken from Jane Oakhill’s book ‘Understanding and Teaching Reading Comprehension’.

Now read the text again, but with the title ‘Building a Snowman’. Feel different? This is the difference that background knowledge makes.

The new approach: tell before you ask

In the old approach, we knew exacly what we wanted the children to understand about the text. However, rather than telling them this, we simply asked them questions and crossed our fingers that the right answers would come.

If reading comprehension relies on background knowledge and mental models of the world, then the purpose of our lessons should be to leave the child with more knowledge and mental models.

Our approach can be summed up very well by a quote from a recent blog post by Tom Sherrington called Major Teaching Myth: “Always ask before you tell”:

Get to the point. Go direct to the base knowledge, tell it, spell it out… and then use it as a platform for questioning around learning it and applying it.

And here’s another gem from the same blog:

If a teacher determines that a set of information is likely to be challenging or new knowledge for the majority, then it is absolutely sensible to give the basic knowledge upfront and then invest time in probing it.

Firstly, we will be asking fewer questions. When you are dealing with a deficit of background knowledge (which many schools in deprived areas are) comprehension questions are a great way of assessing what the children have understood, but a very inefficient way of getting the children to understand what they are reading.

In the time it takes a child to answer 10 comprehension questions with variable success, we can tell them 30 useful things about the book and get them to stick. If any of these 30 things are encountered again in another book, which they will be (that’s how books work), the conditions needed for comprehension will be improved.

If we have a set of things we want children to understand about today’s reading, we will explicity tell them. The faster we can fill the knowledge tank and create or expand mental models, the more books will become accessible.

Quite simply, we are treating each book as a body of knowledge that we want our children to learn and remember. We want them to be experts on every text we read in a comprehension lesson. Encoded within each book is a trove of information about history and geography, as well as a rich repository of behaviour patterns which are repeated throughout literature.

A new checklist for comprehension lessons:

  1. Teach the geographical / historical context of the chapters to be read in the lesson. Use maps, images and videos. If they don’t have the background knowledge to comprehend the story, give it to them upfront.
  2. Read the entire text aloud to the children — no one in the room can read it better than you. Extra meaning is transferred through your expression. Pick struggling readers to ‘echo’ you on certain key sentences.
  3. Make sure children follow along using a ruler and their own copy of the book.*
  4. Plan in advance which words you will teach explicitly in the lesson and aim for 100% of children understanding 100% of them, using images and examples where possible.
  5. Stop frequently to clarify the meaning of additional complex vocabulary as you read.
  6. Stop regularly to summarise what has happened. LEAVE NO CHILD BEHIND in their understanding of what has just happened in the story. If they don’t understand what’s happening, tell them.
  7. Stop regularly to explicate the text and offer insights into characters and plot lines. If there is something you wanted them to understand in the text, explain it to them.
  8. Imagine the most perfect answer you could ask for — then give it away for free to the children. Begin sentences with things like: “X is obviously phenomenally proud of themselves here because…”, “The reason X is responding like this is because…”, “This shows us…”, “From this, we can tell that…”, “It’s clear from the way ___ is ____ that he/she…”
  9. Use questioning to test children’s knowledge of points 1–8.
  10. Ask yourself: did the children comprehend more today than they would have done without my teaching?

Why are we moving to the new approach?

We want to increase children’s exposure to the knowledge and patterns that exist within and across books. It is this knowledge that will lead to greater comprehension of future texts.

Let’s take the concept of jealousy for example. The more you read about jealous characters, the more you know about the behaviours, body language and actions associated with jealousy. You build up a strong mental model, or schema, and become quicker and quicker at spotting the signs and symptoms of jealousy when you come across them in text. We want to make these patterns explicit and commit them to long-term memory so that when children read independently, inference is generated as they read, rather than laboured over inefficiently.

Read one story and you’ve read them all (well, almost…)

This timeline traces our modern monster movies back to stories told many centuries ago. Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/z8jcwxs

Each book that we read with children in WCR sessions is a portal to the world they live in as well as its history, and we want to squeeze every last drop of gold from it. As well as shedding light on the complexities of human relationships, stories are fonts of general knowledge.

I’ve never been to the Middle East, but through extensive reading I have built up strong schemas and mental models in my long term memory, such that I can travel in my mind to a place that I have never travelled.

What is in a book?

We want each child to receive (in full) the treasure that lies within each book so that they can transfer this to other books they read:

  • The motives, personality and status of each character and how they relate to characters in other books
  • The structure and themes of the plot and how this relates to other plots
  • The geographical and historical context of the setting and how this relates to the wider world

Instead of leaving to chance what a child can glean from the text using comprehension strategies, we want as efficient a transfer as possible of the most important elements that the book has to offer.

Building the archetypes

An outline of Kurt Vonnegut’s Shapes of Stories

There has been a lot of research on whether all the stories ever told draw on a finite number of plots/themes and what this number might be.

To know one book inside out is to lay down a pattern in our minds, which will later be strengthened when we encounter a book that maps onto the same pattern.

In one book on this subject, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker posits that there are just seven plots: 1.Overcoming the Monster, 2.Rags to Riches, 3.The Quest, 4.Voyage and Return, 5.Rebirth, 6.Comedy and 7.Tragedy.

Here is an extract from a review of the book in the New York Times:

The Overcoming the Monster plot lies behind horror movies and thrillers like “Jaws,” as well as many war stories, Hollywood westerns and science fiction tales. In this genre, a community dwells under the shadow of a monstrous threat; a hero or band of heroes does battle with the beast (be it a giant white shark, an evil gunslinger or a horde of Nazis); initial dreamlike success is followed by nightmarish setbacks; but a final confrontation results in victory for the hero, the vanquishing of the monster and the restoration of order to the realm.

Likewise with characters. Each character we encounter is a complex blend of other characters in other stories. To illustrate the point further, here is an extract from a post on Quora that delves into ‘parallel characters’ throughout literature:

Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker both have mysterious parentage, access to magical powers which developed in their adolescent periods, and left the familiar confines of a home where they were frustrated and uncomfortable to enter a much larger world of conflict between good and evil. Heck, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Dumbledore, Professor X, Mr. Miyagi, and even Splinter might all have the same fingerprints.

If building a strong mental model of characters and settings leads to better comprehension of future books, then we want to make sure our children have built the strongest mental models they can with every book we read together.

New approach in action

Before I illustrate the new approach, have a quick read of the extract below, taken from scene one of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

I have chosen this text to try and give an impression of how some children feel when faced with an unknown text in a comprehension lesson.

In the old approach, I would have asked you some comprehension questions along the way and you would have laboured over some written questions at the end to inform me of what you understood about the text.

Unlike a maths or English lesson, the data from this assessment would not necessarily lead into the next lesson. We would most likely just read scene 2 the next day and repeat the same process because we need to get through the book.

Act I Scene I:

Enter ANTONIO, SALARINO, and SALANIO

ANTONIO

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.

SALARINO

Your mind is tossing on the ocean;
There, where your argosies with portly sail,
Like signiors and rich burghers on the flood,
Or, as it were, the pageants of the sea,
Do overpeer the petty traffickers,
That curtsy to them, do them reverence,
As they fly by them with their woven wings.

SALANIO

Believe me, sir, had I such venture forth,
The better part of my affections would
Be with my hopes abroad. I should be still
Plucking the grass, to know where sits the wind,
Peering in maps for ports and piers and roads;
And every object that might make me fear
Misfortune to my ventures, out of doubt
Would make me sad.

SALARINO

My wind cooling my broth
Would blow me to an ague, when I thought
What harm a wind too great at sea might do.
I should not see the sandy hour-glass run,
But I should think of shallows and of flats,
And see my wealthy Andrew dock’d in sand,
Vailing her high-top lower than her ribs
To kiss her burial. Should I go to church
And see the holy edifice of stone,
And not bethink me straight of dangerous rocks,
Which touching but my gentle vessel’s side,
Would scatter all her spices on the stream,
Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks,
And, in a word, but even now worth this,
And now worth nothing? Shall I have the thought
To think on this, and shall I lack the thought
That such a thing bechanced would make me sad?
But tell not me; I know, Antonio
Is sad to think upon his merchandise.

ANTONIO

Believe me, no: I thank my fortune for it,
My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune of this present year:
Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad.

Applying the new approach

Now, let me explain a few things before you re-read the extract.

Firstly, the play is set in renaissance Venice, which was one of the wealthiest cities in Europe.

Located by the sea, it has excellent shipping facilities for trading with the east and was the home of lots of wealthy merchants, who built their fortunes on trading luxury goods from around the world such as silks and spices.

Renaissance Venice

Now, when we start reading today, we are going to meet Antonio, a prominent merchant, who is on his way home from a meeting of Venetian ship-owners. These are wealthy men who trade all over the world.

They would have looked something like this:

His two friends, Solanio and Salerio, are walking with him and are exchanging concerned glances as their friend stops at one of the marble columns of the Ca’ d’Oro and gazes out over the Grand Canal.

The Ca’ d’Oro is one of the oldest canalside palaces in Venice. It’s name means “golden house”:

Antonio seems very depressed and his low mood is really worrying his two friends.

Let’s have a look at what he says (teacher explanation on the right hand side):

Source: https://www.sparknotes.com/nofear/shakespeare/merchant/

At this, his friends attempt to reassure him. Owning ships and sending them out on perilous voyages was a risky business. Merchants would have spent a lot of time thinking about the safety of their ships.

Perhaps it is his investment in the big merchant ships and wondering whether or not the ships will return which is causing him to feel preoccupied?

If anything happened to these ships, it would be a huge loss for Antonio and would therefore be a reasonable thing to be stressed about.

Let’s see what Salarnio says to Antonio:

https://www.sparknotes.com/nofear/shakespeare/merchant/

At this point, Antonio’s other friend Solanio (their names are very similar) also chips in, trying to reassure Antonio that he would feel the same:

https://www.sparknotes.com/nofear/shakespeare/merchant/

Antonio appreciates his friend’s attempts to cheer him up, but explains that this is not the cause of his depression.

He’s basically saying: ‘Believe me, no. I’m grateful for my good luck. My investments aren’t all in one ship or in one place. My wealth doesn’t depend on this year’s trading. So it’s not my merchandise that’s making me depressed.

Let’s take a look at the line here:

ANTONIO

Believe me, no: I thank my fortune for it,
My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune of this present year:
Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad.


This is a new approach and we are still working things out.

The example above is not a formal lesson plan or an exact replica of a lesson — it is purely meant as an illustration.

I will be writing another blog post to illustrate how we are organising reading across the school into 4 domains, each with their own set of strategies:

  • Reading for fluency
  • Reading for pleasure
  • Reading for knowledge
  • Assessing comprehension levels

Watch this space!