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Jennifer Serravallo: Focusing on Comprehension

We are going to continue our conversation around Jennifer Serravallo’s Five Lenses to Assess and Teach Readers. Three weeks ago we discussed engagement, including methods of assessing engagement in students and classrooms. After engagement we covered the different aspects of fluency: automaticity, intonation/expression/prosody, phrasing/parsing, emphasis, and pace. Last week we talked about print work, including running record and the three cueing systems all readers use (meaning, syntactic, and visual). Each lens is important on its own, but you will get the clearest sense of a student by using all five lenses together.


What is comprehension and why is it so important?

“Comprehension is at the heart of what it really means to read. Reading is thinking and understanding and getting at the meaning behind the text.
–Jennifer Serravallo

To read is to uncover meaning within a text, to understand what the author is saying, and to have your own reactions and responses.

In an educational context, comprehension is often used as an umbrella term and includes several skills. In their book Mosaic of Thought, authors Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmermann cite proficient reader research and explain seven comprehension areas. It is important to be aware of these areas to better support readers’ deepening understandings of text.

  • Activate Prior Knowledge: Proficient readers make connections to a text/topic before, during, and after they read.
  • Determine Importance: Proficient readers understand the most significant events in fiction, and the main ideas in nonfiction.
  • Visualize: Proficient readers don’t just visualize, but also hear, see, smell and feel what is described in the text.
  • Infer: Proficient readers form judgments, make predictions, and determine the theme or message of a story.
  • Question: Proficient readers read with curiosity. They question the text and their reactions.
  • Retell and Synthesize: Proficient readers can figure out how parts of a text fit together, and understand cause/effect.
  • Monitor for Meaning: Proficient readers monitor their own understanding, fix confusion as it arises, and understand new vocabulary.

Teachers can use these seven areas of comprehension to see where students are strongest, and where they need the most support. Instead of looking at skills as yes or no, consider how deep a students’ work is within each skill, and work within the skill to deepen.

How can you assess comprehension? Try to sample student understanding in a variety of ways. Often, running records are the first piece of data about students’ comprehension, and can be tools to inform earliest teaching. A running record can offer some insight into comprehension. When conferring around comprehension, you can start with questions instead of asking a child to read aloud. If you don't know the book, check the back cover blurb and skim the page the child is reading. Ask students to retell and to answer some literal and inferential questions. Have students keep track of their thinking on sticky notes. What they write can connect to what you taught in conferences and small groups. As Jen writes in her upcoming The Reading Strategies Book, “Regardless of how you choose to collect samples of your students’ thoughts about the characters in their books, you’ll need a rubric or continuum against which to judge their responses. I find that understanding expectations for comprehension aligned to complexity of the level is most helpful.”

What systems and structures are already in place in your classroom to make your students’ comprehension visible?

We have created blank versions of some of the engagement and fluency tools discussed in previous blogs for download and use in your classrooms. Scroll to the bottom of this post for both Microsoft Word and PDF versions.

For more tips, examples, and strategies from Jennifer Serravallo, join us on Twitter using the hashtag #literacylenses.

Blank Reading Log D-I WORD Blank Reading Log D-I PDF
Blank Reading Log J-M WORD Blank Reading Log J-M PDF
Blank Reading Log L+ WORD Blank Reading Log L+ PDF
Blank Rereading Log D-I WORD Blank Re-reading Log D-I PDF
Blank Reading Interest Survey K-2 WORD Blank Reading Interest Survey K-2 PDF
Blank Reading Interest Survey 3-6 WORD Blank Reading Interest Survey 3-6 PDF
Blank Engagement Inventory WORD Blank Engagement Inventory PDF

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Jennifer Serravallo is a national literacy consultant and the bestselling author or coauthor of the Heinemann titles Conferring with ReadersTeaching Reading in Small GroupsThe Literacy Teacher’s Playbook K–2 and The Literacy Teacher’s Playbook 3–6. She started out teaching grades 3–5 in Title I schools and then spent eight years as a national staff developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

Topics: Conferring with Readers, #literacylenses, Reading, Assessment, Comprehension, Jennifer Serravallo

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