Using Research to Jump to Confusions Part 2: Looking at How We Could Teach Students about Comprehension Strategies by Dr. Sam Bommarito

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Using Research to Jump to Confusions Part 2: Looking at How We Could Teach Students about Comprehension Strategies by Dr. Sam Bommarito

I’m back from a memorable vacation at Disney World spent with my son’s family, including my wonderful grandchild who got to celebrate her birthday at Disney. Special thanks to guest bloggers Bill Kerns, David Harrison and Mary Jo Fresch who provided the blog entries I used while I was gone.  In my last blog entry before the vacation, I talked about jumping to confusions as we apply research to teaching practice. I asserted that we sometimes jump to the very end results about research on what good readers do, without giving enough consideration to the path the good readers take to get there.  That first entry talked about word recognition. If you didn’t get to read it go to  In the next couple of weeks, I will talk about the teaching of comprehension strategies and how we can use the research around comprehension strategies to help our students become better readers, writers and thinkers, especially when reading complex texts.

My 30 plus years of classroom teaching was spent in a very different era than today.  I can remember that back in 1985 the various editions of Harris and Sipay provided a widely agreed upon, go to resource of research-based thinking for that era. In the mid-80s everyone was looking hard at Durkin’s findings that only 6/10 of one percent of our classroom time was spent teaching comprehension. We practiced comprehension much more than that, but our practice could be likened to a batting coach telling a batter to keep swinging without giving any feedback or scaffolding on how to adjust their swing to handle the myriad of pitches that might come their way.  We studied the key reading strategies carefully. We were guided by Michael Pressley and others on what those key strategies were and how to teach them. We wanted our readers to become proficient readers, able to use all the key strategies found in research. Teachers and university professors alike got very excited and created many a lesson about these various strategies. Fast forward to today and we find reading experts like Timothy Shanahan saying that they work, but we have overgeneralized from studies about teaching reading strategies. If someone finds that 6 weeks of strategy instruction is beneficial, then recommending 12 years of it seems a bit excessive. (see his May 19th 2018 blog entry).  Class time needs to be spent on something more than the direct teaching of strategies.

My point of view about the overteaching of strategy lessons is somewhat different.  I think that we jumped right into directly teaching the comprehension strategies good readers use without considering how they got to be proficient at using those strategies. This is another example of jumping to confusions about the research on what good readers do. We jumped right to the end. We tried to teach the strategies without fully considering how good readers got to the end-point of effectively using those strategies.  Doing it that way didn’t work with sight words (my previous entry, .  It would work better with comprehension strategies if we carefully consider how readers come to develop those strategies and use our classroom time accordingly.

So…, how do I think good readers get to the point of being able to develop and use all those strategies?  I propose that it happens during meaningful talk (and writing) about what they’ve read.  I’d like to use the teaching of inference as a case study of how teachers might design units to teach any of the comprehension strategies and/or teach readers about how to handle complex text. I will talk about how to deal with both teaching the strategy itself and teaching students how to handle the test questions standardized test makers use to assess their use of those strategies. I have used this teaching sequence successfully in an after-school program I teach in as a part of my current volunteer work with students.

My teaching sequence designed to help students infer begins with a writing component. Good writers often show rather than tell. So, we start with a writing unit built around that topic. I used to use one of my own design. Then Jennifer Serravallo books, Reading Strategies and Writing Strategies came along.  I found that Jennifer’s lessons were superior to the ones I had been using.  So, I started using lessons from her book Writing Strategies as part of my overall sequence of lessons surrounding inference. The lessons I used focused on how good writers often show instead of tell.

During the writing unit, students would talk about their pieces, sharing them with fellow students. They used peer revision and honed their clues so that their fellow readers would be able to determine what the student authors were showing them. During discussions around their passages, the key test of whether the passage was effective was whether or not their peers were able to infer what they were trying to show. Their peers enjoyed giving the student authors additional ideas for clues. Since the writer is always the boss of the story, ideas from their peers were suggestions not mandates. One of the hardest things for students to understand was that they could not just blurt out what they wanted to say. For example, you can’t just say Leon is very tall and he plays basketball.  That’s telling the reader not showing the reader. You could say, “When Leon came into the room he had to duck his head as he walked in the doorway. He was just back from practice. He didn’t seem tired, he seemed excited. He’d just earned his letter for playing sports. He was so proud.”   This passage might let you know Leon was tall and that his letter was one he likely earned in basketball. There are also other “shows” and other “tells” in this passage.

AFTER the students had the background and experience developed by this writing unit, we moved into guided reading lessons. For these lessons I picked books with lots of inferences, lots of examples of the author showing not telling.  Students talked about clues they’d spotted. They talked about what clues they might add based on their experiences in the writing unit. In my after-school work there are students from multiple reading levels. Because of that my guided reading lessons are often done in an ad hoc strategy group. These groups use a text all can read. The leveled text is at the decoding level of the lowest achieving reader in the group. The group was asked to identify various passages in the book in which the writer showed rather than tells.

Some activities for the group included:

  • Sharing the show don’t tell passages they’d found in the reading.
  • Discussing whether including these passages made the book more understandable and enjoyable.
  • Discussing what new clues they might suggest the author try. In this activity they had a peer revision session. I would play the role of the author and they would suggest additions or deletions to the passage.
  • Creating a multiple question modeled on multiple choice questions used in their commercial on-line program to assess inference.

WHOA- what is that last activity all about? I’ll have much more to say about that next week. The first part of my teaching sequence was designed to scaffold readers into understanding how inferencing works.  They wrote using the strategy, talked about their writing, did a Guided Reading lesson built around spotting when the author of the GR passage used the strategy too. They talked about both the content of the passage AND the processes used to make sense of that content. This sequence of lessons set the stage for teaching readers (& writers) how to use inferencing in their literacy endeavors. Unlike the direct teaching lessons for strategies, which too often used contrived applications of the strategy (one of Shanahan’s criticisms of lessons designed to directly teaching strategies), my hope is that this overall sequence teaches students HOW to think, how to use strategies good readers use. In the process, it makes them metacognitive (self-aware) of the strategies they are applying. The last activity in my Guided Reading lesson is designed to help them know what to do when they meet questions in commercial materials and tests that try to assess  their ability to draw inferences.

Before giving my final conclusions for this blog entry, I want to make the point that teaching inferencing and teaching how to handle inferencing questions are two very different things. I’ve seen situations where the “teaching” of inference and other similar reading strategies comes in the form of endless test practice. Students learn how to handle each type of question. Those questions usually come at the end of a short passage. The thinking is if they practice practice practice the test items they will get better at test taking.  Next week I will pick up on the ramifications of this point. For the moment I will say I’ve never seen this method of practice practice practice test questions work in the long run. Learning how the question works does provide a bump in achievement. However, once students understand how to handle that kind of question, there are usually no further achievement gains. In the meantime, tons of instructional time that could be used to help scaffold them in their use of strategies is totally wasted. More about this next week.

Next time I will share with you some advice I’ve just given to a staff developer on what her staff development could look like for a PD plan she created for this fall. Her plan spans several months and is designed to teach her staff how to implement guided reading. My advice to her about her plan reflects practical applications of what I’ve had to say in this week’s blog entry. In future blog entries I also hope to address the question of how to design sequences of lessons that might help readers unpack meaning in complex text.

So, until next Friday…

Happy Reading and Writing

Doctor Sam Bommarito (aka, teacher of teaching how to think)

                                                  Copyright 2018 Sam Bommarito

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