How do we sustain comprehension in our students?
Today on the podcast we're joined by author Jennifer Serravallo who has been focusing on comprehension. In Complete Comprehension, Jen has put into one resource… materials for assessing, evaluating, and teaching comprehension effectively and efficiently.
We started our conversation on why we need to focus on comprehension…
Brett: Jen, you have spent a lot of time on comprehension over the last couple of years. Why focus so much on comprehension?
Jen: Well, I think in a way comprehension is everything, isn't it? Why read unless you're making meaning. There's a lot of focus, of course, on helping kids to decode words and learn phonics, and of course an important piece of learning to read. But unless you make meaning, you're not really reading. Saying words not reading. And so to me, someone who's very focused on reading instruction, helping kids to become better readers, helping them to become independent, helping them to become the kind of people that read, even when they're not told to read, it requires that they're making meaning.
It's not enjoyable to read unless you're making meaning. So I care a lot about engagement and helping kids to feel that lost in a book feeling. And that comes from being in the book, that comes from making meaning and understanding. So to me, how can I not think so deeply about comprehension when I'm trying to help kids to become independent, lifelong readers?
Brett: What are some of the variables that come into play when we're thinking about comprehension?
Jen: So that's the tricky thing. In some ways comprehension is everything, and the other way, it can feel like everything and hard to wrap your arms around as a teacher to figure out what exactly am I looking for, how exactly do I determine which kids need support with comprehension, where do I go next. So the variables that I think about when I think about comprehension help teachers to pinpoint what am I looking at and what am I not looking at.
So for example, there is a difference between how kids will read a short text and a whole text. For many kids, there's a difference. There's a difference in terms of the text level that they can handle. There's a difference in terms of the kinds of skills that they have to use.
Just think, for example, about a novel you've read recently, where sometimes the first chapter, the author is introducing a character or a setting or a concept that doesn't show up again for chapters later. You can't know how kids handle that kind of thing unless you're looking at their reading of whole books. In a short text, you only have so many words to focus on and so many characters to track and so many events to track, and so the skills that you need to think about are just different. It's one variable to think about.
Another variable is is text genre. So you might have a kid who's a very different reader in fiction than in non-fiction. Some kids love non-fiction, they eat it up, and some kids really don't have a lot of experience with it, and they're much better suited to reading stories and need to be taught strategies for handling non-fiction.
Another variable is the prior knowledge that a reader brings to the text. So if I know a lot about a topic, if I am a dinosaur enthusiast, I know every dinosaur's name, I know all about the different periods in history when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, and I'm presented with a book on dinosaurs, chances are good my comprehension is going to be okay because of what I bring to the text. But if I'm the kind of reader who is presented with a text on a topic I don't know a lot about, then it's going to be more challenging for me to understand what the author is trying to teach me.
Something I call receptive modality. So you have to get the information in you somehow. One way is you hold the book in your hands and you read it, another way is you listen to the text being read to you. Still another way, you're doing a lot of audio books now as a new project, right?
Jen: I've been thinking a lot about that with you and how your listeners are going to take in this non-fiction content as listeners versus holding the actual physical book in your hand. And for me, when I'm listening to something in the car, I find that I really can't listen to anything too complicated. I can't listen to a novel. I'm okay with like ... can you?
Brett: Depends on the novel.
Brett: But you're right.
Jen: Yeah, I tried to listen to All the Light You Cannot See.
Jen: I need the book. I need the thing in my hand. I joke that I'm like a Tina Fey bossy pants kind of a reader when it comes to listening to the audible.
Brett: I like a good memoir in the car.
Jen: Yeah, a good memoir, things that are broken up into chapters where each chapter is its own story. I listen to a lot of podcasts, but I can't listen to a beautifully crafted novel. I need the thing in my hand.
Brett: It's like what you say about making the picture in your mind. For me, as a reader, when I'm listening to fiction certainly, I'm doing that in my mind. So as I'm reading, I do that. It's a little hard to do that when you're driving.
Jen: Right. I think that's part of it. I'm seeing the road, ideally, if I'm driving well. I'm looking at the road, I'm watching signs, I'm thinking about where my exit is. I can't have that kind of split attention, so I need to have the thing in my hand.
I've even noticed, and I don't know if this is true for you too, but I've even noticed the difference between the receptive modality of screen reading versus paper reading.
Brett: Oh yeah.
Jen: So I remember when the Kindle first came out, I was super excited because I travel all the time, and I was thinking I'll load up this Kindle with all these different texts, and it's so lightweight my arms won't get tired when I'm reading in bed at the end of the day. So one of the first books I read was Khaled Hosseini's And the Mountains Echoed. I don't know if you read that book.
Brett: No, I haven't.
Jen: Beautiful. He's the author of The Kite Runner. Beautiful Book. And it's one of those stories where every chapter is told from a perspective of a different character.
Brett: Oh, wow.
Jen: So I got into maybe chapter five or something, and the little girl character has picked back up her story, and it's been several chapters since I last read about her and what her events were and what she was thinking about. And I found myself totally lost, and I wanted to flip back and look again, what was the last thing I just read about her, where did her story leave off, and I couldn't find the page, and I got really frustrated and I went out and I bought the paper book.
Jen: And since then ... I don't know if you've read Maryanne Wolf's new book, Reader Come Home.
Jen: She's a neuroscientist from Tufts University, and she explores this idea that when we're ... she calls it our digital brain, we're reading on screen, we're reading digitally, we read with less depth, we read more superficially, we skim, we scan, and the kind of deep reading that is possible when you hold the book in your hand and when you're reading a novel, she argues we sort of lost touch with, and that it's a different kind of reading, it's a different kind of attention, a different kind of immersion in the text.
And so yeah, for me that's true too. You can't say one thing about my comprehension. You can't say I do or I don't comprehend or that my comprehension needs work or it's strong, because if presented with even the same text, listening to it, digitally or on paper, I would show you three different sides to myself as a reader.
And so I think for teachers, we have to look at kids like that too in our classroom. Some schools I visit, all their assessments are digital. Kids read on screen, they answer multiple choice. That's not the full person. That's not the full reader of who they are. Or all the assessments are done with kids reading to themselves, but never with kids listening to a text read to them. Or the assessments are only in fiction text, not non-fiction text.
So I think we want to look at kids more holistically, look at these different variables and make sure we have eyes on them, and then also that we're supporting kids in these different contexts, different receptive modalities, expressive modalities, and other variable, that as learning about someone's comprehension, I either have to have them talk to me about it or they have to write. So some kids are going to be stronger and present as a stronger comprehender when it comes to writing, other kids when speaking.
So I think teachers need to have an eye on these different variables and make sure we're paying attention to them and then supporting them.
Brett: Well that's really key too, because when I was a young reader, just starting out in school, I was definitely that kid that was really excited to show off I was reading. But I wasn't necessarily doing that deep comprehension where I could kind of ... I hate to say the word fake it, but I could kind of make it look like ... and the work that you're doing with comprehension really gets to all the readers in our classroom, not just the kids that appear struggling, but the ones that look like they're doing okay too.
Talk a little bit about how you're trying to work for all the kids in our classroom.
Jen: Yeah. I think when you hear we need to support kids comprehension, you might be thinking first, "Oh, I need to support the kids who are having the most difficult time with comprehension."
But I do think that everybody, like young Brett, carrying around this big heavy book. I don't know, what was it when you were little, do you remember?
Brett: Oh, it could have been anything. There was this one book, Super Sleuth, that I was just so proud to read. I took it out from the library six times. I never finished it. I couldn't tell you today what the book was about.
Jen: Yeah. So right there is that variable of stamina and memory, and that you might've been able to read a text that's on the same level, same genre, I'm assuming mystery, when it's short, but when it came to a whole book, you're presenting differently as a reader.
So many kids, they carry around these big, heavy books, the second grader reading Harry Potter, and they're so proud that they're reading these big grown-up books, but really, are they really reading it? Are they really understanding it?
I think there's so much joy and pleasure in deeply thinking about things and so much we can show kids about how to deepen their understandings about the world, to think about characters in stories like people in the real world, to understand topics in a way that they've never understood them before, to compare texts and how different texts talk about topics. I think there's a lot of exciting territory to explore.
So I think comprehension instructions for all kids, the kids that you think are your strongest readers in the class, the kids who need the most support with comprehension, everyone deserves strategies for comprehension.
Brett: What are some of the easily missed things with comprehension?
Jen: I think this goes back to the variable stuff we were talking about before, is that there are ... if you think about the assessments, the ways that you get to know your kids as readers, what checkboxes are they checking off? Long texts or short? Fiction or non-fiction? Writing or speaking answers? Do they get to choose what they're reading for the comprehension assessment or not?
So I find a lot of people will say upon reflection, "I have a lot of assessments that assess short text reading. I don't have many that assess whole book reading. I have a lot of assessments that assess fiction, not so many that look at non-fiction."
I think a lot of people have ways that kids either read and answer multiple choice questions or they speak their responses to their teacher. Not always do we have kids write in response to books. I'm making generalizations. It's different in every school. But I think what teachers should do is think about, "What am I looking at and what am I not looking at? Which of these variables do I have eyes," on and what might they be missing to support kids with their journey to becoming more independent readers?
Brett: So Jen, let's talk a little bit about ... you have a complete comprehension for fiction and complete comprehension for non-fiction. What are some of the big differences when looking at comprehension for fiction and non-fiction?
Jen: Well, when I think about supporting kids' comprehension with fiction, I think about story elements like plot and setting, what's happening, where are they. I think about the characters, who's in the story, how do they change, what are their relationships like? And then I think about the big themes and ideas that cut across the book. I think a lot of times when we're reading story, we read at a three quarters of a page per minute or page per minute kind of a clip, and we can get through many pages in a setting.
When we read non-fiction, I think about main idea, connecting all the information, thinking about what it's mostly about, sorting through the facts and information and what details support the main ideas, understanding the key terms of course, and then thinking about text features and how they contribute to the main idea and what information is important in those text features.
In non-fiction, when I read non-fiction, especially expository non-fiction, I slow down. I do a lot more putting things together visually, just on the page, the way things are laid out, I have to stop and think, how does this fact go with this diagram, how does this diagram connect to the picture on the page? I find myself rereading a lot more. My pace is much slower and more deliberate, and I think a lot of kids don't adjust like that. When they get into non-fiction, they read just as quickly as they read fiction, and then you end up with remembering a fact or two, but not really doing the work of putting things together or really considering the features or learning the key terms in the text.
So there's similarities, like the work that I do as a fiction reader to think about theme, what's the big idea across the whole book, is kind of like the work that I do as a non-fiction reader to think about main idea. Step back from the whole thing, what's the whole thing about. But the way that I do it, the strategies that I use, the pace that I read, I think is a little bit different between the two.
So I think you'll find some kids who are stronger in one than the other who need more experience with one than the other and need strategies targeted to the specific kind of reading that they're doing.
Brett: I've heard you say with non-fiction we need to be more accountable to the text. What do you mean by that?
Jen: Oh. You know what a lot of kids do ... I notice this all the time when I'm teaching kids reading a non-fiction ... is that there's a tendency to be like, "Oh, this book's about baby animals. I already know all about that."
So after they read a page, they'll tell you something, and it's really coming from their prior knowledge, not from what the book said. So really directing kids to go back and say, "But what does the book say about this?"
A lot of times too, the information that they think they know a lot about is misinformation. And so what was in the book might contradict what they thought they know. And so they have to be ready to be able to revise the information as they're getting it.
I remember recently I was conferring with a first grader who was reading a book about snakes, I think. And I was asking him to think about the word vertebrate. What does this word mean?
And he said, "Well, it means they have a spine."
I'm like, "Okay." That came right from the text. And I said, "What else do you know about vertebrates?"
And he said, "They move really fast."
"Really? They do? Does it say that in the text?" And he sort of smiles at me. "Do you just know that already?"
"Yeah. I just know that." He's like, "You're asking me for more information. I'm telling you more information," and really kind of redirecting him to what does the text actually say about it.
Of course we want kids to think about what they already know, activating prior knowledge helps you comprehend new information, but they have to be able to know the difference between this is something I think I know or I already know, and this is what the text actually says.
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Jennifer Serravallo is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Reading Strategies Book and The Writing Strategies Book, which have been translated into Spanish, French, and Chinese. These and her other popular books and resources help teachers make goal-directed responsive strategy instruction, conferring, and small group work doable in every classroom. Her newest titles are Teaching Writing in Small Groups, A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences, Understanding Texts and Readers, and the assessment and teaching resource Complete Comprehension for Fiction and Nonfiction.
Jen is a frequently invited speaker at national and regional conferences and travels throughout the US and Canada to provide full-day workshops and to work with teachers and students in classrooms. She is also an experienced online educator who regularly offers live webinar series and full-day online workshops, and is the creator of two self-paced asynchronous online courses, most recently Strategies in Action: Reading and Writing Methods and Content.
Jen began her career in education as an NYC public school teacher. Now as a consultant, she has spent the last fifteen+ years helping teachers across the country create literacy classrooms where students are joyfully engaged, and the instruction is meaningfully individualized to students' goals. Jen is also a member of Parents Magazine Board of Advisors for education and literacy.
Jen holds a BA from Vassar College and an MA from Teachers College, where she has also taught graduate and undergraduate classes.
Learn more about Jen and her work at Hein.pub/serravallo, on Twitter @jserravallo, on Instagram @jenniferserravallo, or by joining The Reading and Writing Strategies Facebook Community.