Thursday, June 9, 2011

Help for Struggling Readers: Comprehending Text

This is an excerpt from my popular book Keys to Meaning: What Teachers and Tutors Can Do to Improve Reading Comprehension Skills. To preview this book, click on the link at the bottom of this post.

 When students understand a reading passage or a literary piece, they know what the information in the reading material means. To show understanding or meaning, children need to be able to recall or remember, to explain, to tell how something works, to restate the important ideas and details and/or to summarize. At the highest levels of meaning, students need to be able to apply or use the information (i.e. solving a problem), analyze or break the information down into parts (i.e. comparing, contrasting, sequencing), synthesize or use the information to create something new, and evaluate or telling the value of the information and giving opinions.

There are two main types of literature: fiction or literature that is made-up, and nonfiction or literature about real people, places, things, or ideas.  To grasp the meaning of what they are reading, one reading style does not fit all children all the time. Children need to be aware that each kind of reading requires a different approach using different keys to meaning. It is important that teachers and tutors help students create a reading comprehension toolbox ready to use when they feel confused. Children also need to know which key to meaning helps in resolving the particular reading comprehension problem they are having, so that when one approach is not clarifying meaning, they switch to a new one and try something else. Students with good reading comprehension understand that, while reading, the goal is always to create meaning, and they apply different keys to meaning for different comprehension problems. Weaker readers benefit when they understand that some keys to meaning help in clarifying the fictional story that they are reading, but others are better suited for understanding content area passages or nonfiction. A few other keys to meaning work well with both fictional and nonfictional text.

 Some of the keys to meaning discussed here are considered a reading comprehension strategy (i.e. key words, context clues, previewing, lookbacks, self-checking, and visualizations). Other keys to meaning are at the core of comprehending text; they are not that much a strategy, but a comprehension element or sub-skill (i.e. knowledge of synonyms, determining what is important from what is not important, finding main ideas, understanding story elements, understanding points of view, and making inferences). If they are a strategy or an element is irrelevant, they share in common that they are all keys that open doors to reading with meaning. Next, you will find the most important keys to meaning classified under one of three comprehension levels –word meaning level, literal level, and interpretive level- and by the type of text that better suits each key to meaning, that is, fiction, nonfiction, or both.

It is important that the teacher or tutor understands the difference between asking comprehension questions and teaching children how to gain meaning from text using comprehension keys and strategies. When we ask comprehension questions to a child, we are simply assessing if the child understands the material; teaching keys to meaning, on the other hand, empowers children by giving them a comprehension toolbox, that is, giving children the “how to” or a systematic approach that they can use to clarify, interpret, and expand their reading.


Level of Comprehension: Word Meanings

Synonyms and Antonyms

Words with Multiple Meanings

Key Words

Using Context Clues

Recognizing Signal Words and Signal Phrases

Classifying and Categorizing

Level of Comprehension: Literal or Factual

Previewing or Using the Textbook Organization/Structure

Using the Paragraph Organization or Structure

Identifying the Overall Organization of a Story or a Chapter



Retelling and/or Paraphrasing

Using Text Lookbacks

Discriminating what is Important Information from what is not Important

Using Paragraphs Restatements

Locating the Main Idea that is Directly Stated in the Paragraph

Finding Supporting Details to the Main Idea

Identifying and Using Punctuation Marks as Clues to Meaning

Identifying the Pronoun Referents/Anaphoric Relationships

Answering 5W’s Questions

Summarizing the Story or the Selection Using the 5W’s

Self-Questioning Using the 5W’s


Level of Comprehension: Inferential or Interpretive (Fiction)

Understanding the Story Elements

Distinguishing Between Make-Believe (Fiction) and Real (Nonfiction)

Analyzing Character Traits

Inferring Character Motives

Inferring Character Feelings

Understanding the Point of View

Identifying the Story Mood and Tone

Identifying the Theme

Interpreting Figurative Language

Level of Comprehension: Inferential or Interpretive (Nonfiction)

Deciding the Reader’s Purpose for Reading

Separating Facts from Opinions

Identifying the Unstated Main Idea

Using Background Knowledge

Creating Mental Images (Visualizations)

Understanding Cause and Effect Relationships

Predicting Outcomes

Making Inferences

Understanding the Author’s Purpose

Making Connections


Concluding Comments


About the Author

The printed edition of this book is now available on Amazon. (A preview is also available.)

A Call to All Teachers:

Proudly announcing our new group for educators worldwide, “We Teach the World.” Our aim is to connect teachers and related school personnel all over the world, so that we can share much-needed ideas, strategies, and lesson plans as well as all kinds of resources in classroom management and in student discipline. Coordinating our effort worldwide, we can tell each other where to find important resources and information. If you administer a teaching blog or have created educational resources to facilitate our job, you are welcome to share them here. As long as they contribute to education, we want to know of your business. Teachers with questions, post them here; mentors and seasoned teachers, your valuable experience and unique perspective matter to us, so make your voices heard. Because isolated, we teachers are imaginative, resourceful and resilient, but connected, connected we are imaginative, resourceful, resilient AND powerful. To join us, click on, “We Teach the World.”

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