Teaching children to read words is great, but making sure students comprehend what they are reading is the next step.
Nick is a 5th grader and is holding his book close to his face. When the teacher asks him what he’s read, he goes blank. Nick looks at the last line of text and pulls out a fact. “The Himalaya are growing taller.”
The teacher realizes that Nick either hasn’t been paying attention to what he’s reading or has been struggling to understand the text, unsure how to help himself.
This is a familiar scenario. Frequently, when assigned to read, intermediate and middle grade students engage in a mindless encounter with the text.
Their minds wander. They daydream. Or, try as they might to focus and gather information, they’re mostly confused and not sure how to repair the breakdowns in their comprehension.
As we pursue helping students meet the Common Core State Standards, there’s a lot of push in the field to engage students in close reading, which can be defined as a careful, systematic analysis of a text for a particular purpose (Brummett, 2010).
This analysis takes place at the word and phrase levels as well as at the sentence and paragraph levels.
A legitimate concern is that students like Nick won’t be able to read a text closely for purposes like synthesis of the author’s central ideas if they can’t self-monitor—noticing what they do and don’t understand and then repairing meaning when it breaks down.
A student like Nick can probably do so if the teacher asks text-dependent questions related to the content (and there’s a place for this). However, students also need to learn how to independently read a text closely, using text-dependent questions (Boyles, 2012/2013), such as
- What’s the author’s main idea?
- What details in the text make me think so?
- How do those details support or convey the author’s main idea?
Teaching for this kind of self-monitoring doesn’t have to be a digression from pursuing the Common Core standards. It’s possible to teach students to monitor and repair their capacity for meaning-making as they engage in close reading.
A Productive Inner Dialogue
Let’s examine what this might look like with an excerpt from an informational article, “Active Earth” (Geiger, 2010), written for intermediate-grade students.
The main idea is that Earth is not an inert entity. Instead, it’s active in many ways, and this activity affects the movement of the tectonic plates.
In the following paragraphs, the author offers several key details that support that main idea. If a student can understand this excerpt well, he or she will have a better idea of how to think strategically through the rest of the article.
This is just one more step in making sure students comprehend what they are reading.