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Beyond Decoding: Teaching Readers to Comprehend

Posted November 18, 2021 in Articles

By Amy Erich, Director of Literacy Development and Cheryl Cook, Upper School Academic Dean

Everything we do at Lawrence School is designed with The Science of Reading in mind.

CodeBreakers, our signature Orton-Gillingham-based multisensory reading curriculum, ensures students can accurately decode words by applying a series of phonics rules. But the ability to decode won’t get a reader very far on its own—in order to learn, one must also be able to comprehend and interpret meaning from what they read. This is why in every Lawrence classroom, we actively strengthen language comprehension with an evidence-based routine.

Beyond Decoding: Teaching Readers to Comprehend

Hollis Scarborough is a leading researcher of early language development and its connection to literacy. Her Reading Rope, pictured above, visually represents more than 20 years of research known as ‘The Science of Reading.’ This body of evidence proves skilled readers rely on both decoding and comprehension skills, which intertwine like strands of a rope.

Whatever a reader is faced with—word problems on a math test, a tough chapter in their chemistry textbook, a favorite graphic novel, or even a funny meme on social media—they must actively seek, organize, and reformulate the information into their own words in order to comprehend it.

For some, this process is automatic and happens silently in their mind, while others must develop this ability through guided activities. Lawrence faculty implement The Key Comprehension Routine across all grade levels and content areas to make sure every student gains these essential comprehension skills.

The Key Comprehension Routine is not a curriculum, but a series of evidence-based activities that teachers apply before, during, and after a class embarks upon reading new content. The practices transform from simple to more complex versions based on the age and ability level of the readers. Lower School students might start with applying the strategies to a single sentence, but as their reading abilities grow, they move to paragraphs and longer passages, and eventually entire chapters! We integrate the following four main components into English, world history, mathematics, and more:

QUESTION GENERATION: Teachers prompt their classes to verbally pose questions and make predictions about what they’ll discover in the text before they read it. Students search for answers to these inquiries while they are reading. Afterwards, the class discusses whether their predictions were correct and what answers they uncovered.

TWO-COLUMN NOTES: Students take notes while they read in a list format with a clear visual distinction between the big ideas (written in the left column) and supporting details (written in the right column). Middle and High School teachers encourage the class to draw lines in their notebooks and pause as they read to jot down notes, while younger students pause to fill in a pre-labeled template.

SUMMARIZING: Learners translate the information they read into their own words, using terminology that is familiar to shore up their understanding of new concepts. This is often done verbally with students partnering to share their paraphrased versions.

TOP-DOWN TOPIC WEBS: Students visually group ideas and vocabulary by displaying major topics and details in a hierarchical way. They use varied shapes and placement on the page to represent connections among topics. Younger students are guided to do this with a template, but older students draw their own graphic organizers on paper.

Beyond Decoding: Teaching Readers to Comprehend

An example of two-column notes on the left and a top-down topic web on the right.

Our faculty often implement multiple (sometimes even all four) of these components simultaneously during a single lesson. All of which are designed to get students into the practice of analyzing text structure and recognizing the difference between main ideas and supporting details. In addition, we constantly encourage students to think aloud. Teachers model for the class by voicing their own thought process and inviting students to do the same with inquiries like these:

  • Who or what is the focus? What is most important about it? This is known as self-cueing and helps students paraphrase.

  • Like the temperature of porridge, are your details too specific, too general, or just right? The “Goldilocks” consideration helps readers weed out info that is either too broad or too specific.

  • If you put all of your details into a bucket, how would you label the bucket? This metaphor helps students identify which pieces of information are main ideas.

Instituting The Key Comprehension Routine across divisions has allowed us to create a very consistent experience for our students as they move through grade levels, but most importantly it makes the mental process of sorting information second-nature. And that is always our ultimate goal at Lawrence—to gradually remove the scaffolding of support as learners independently utilize the strategies they’ve been taught. It’s how we ensure they are prepared for the world outside of our classrooms!

In the image below, one of our best two-column note takers showed us all how it's done by reading this very post and identifying the main ideas and supporting details.

Beyond Decoding: Teaching Readers to Comprehend

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