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Dedicated to Teachers

Reading Beyond the Words: The Importance of Comprehension

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What is a Reading Salad, and how can you use this tangible comprehension strategy to help your students understand complex concepts?

In her book, Comprehension Connections, Tanny McGregor has developed visual, tangible, everyday lessons that make abstract thinking concrete and help every child in your classroom make more effective use of reading comprehension strategies.

In this section of the audiobook, we’ll listen as Tanny beautifully sets up the Reading Salad comprehension tool and guides the students to profound levels of understanding


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Tanny McGregor:

Chapter two, metacognition. It's the thought that counts. I first encountered the concept of metacognition as an 18-year-old college student at Miami University of Ohio. In my educational psychology text, I read how John Flavell used the term in the 1970s. He believed we were capable of monitoring our thoughts, of thinking about our thinking. As my professor explained this concept, I immediately thought, wow, I do this. I think about my own thinking all the time. I just didn't know what to call it.

I was surprised to learn that researchers had studied metacognition and were examining the implications for teaching and learning. It's an amazing sensation when you discover that the world knows about something that had heretofore belonged solely to you. I see it happen with kids. I introduce metacognition to my students and as we talk, kids start to grin and nod. Many of them already know, we are noticing and naming our thinking. Maybe they aren't yet metacognitive about their reading, but that's where I come in, providing opportunities for practice.

I don't know how to teach thinking strategies unless I begin with metacognition. Taking time to explore metacognition sets a foundation on which to build. In making kids aware of how they think about their own thinking I open a channel through which purposeful conversation can flow. With every group of students I teach, no matter the grade level, no matter the subject area, I spend time noticing, naming, and exploring metacognition. Every conversation thereafter is richer.

Many of the ideas in this chapter materialized during lessons with first, third, and fourth graders from Summerside Elementary in Cincinnati. Together we defined metacognition and explored what it could mean to us as readers. I am grateful to Bonnie Fry, Angela Giver, and Gail Proctor, the Summerside teachers for uniting with the kids and me as we plunged into this unfamiliar territory.

Let's take a look at some launching sequence ideas for metacognition. The reading salad. To make a reading salad, you'll need one large bowl, two small bowls, small red paper squares, small green paper squares, a book you're currently reading outside of school and one deep picture book like Don't Laugh at Me, by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin. Seskin and Shamblin are songwriters. Don't Laugh at Me, was actually a song before it was a picture book recorded by Mark Wills and also by Peter, Paul, and Mary.

I begin by saying, "Kids are very good at pretending. Let's pretend together for a few minutes today. I think you'll like this. Please pretend you are the teacher and I am a student. All of you teachers out there are going to listen as I read, put on your teacher faces." It's always interesting to see what they do in response. Many kids dawn solemn expressions. "Judging from your faces, you've noticed that teachers are very serious when it comes to reading. Okay, teachers, concentrate now and listen as I read. I'm going to ask you to evaluate me as a reader."

I pick up my challenging text, Warriors of God by James Reston, Jr. "My friend Leslie recommended this book to me. It has 410 pages and contains many difficult words. This is a challenging text for me, but I'll do my best as I read the first paragraph aloud to you." I begin reading with expression and at an appropriate rate. I pronounce each word correctly and do not appear to have any trouble whatsoever. I read, quote, "Early in the 12th century in the city of Tovin in northern Armenia close to Georgia, there lived an imminent family of Kurds. The master of whose house was surnamed Najm ad-Din, which means excellent prince and star of religion. Najm ad-Din had a boon comrade named Bihruz, a man of intelligence and charm, qualities matched only by his bent for trouble." End quote.

"All right, teachers turn and talk. What do you think about me as a reader? You'll give me my report card in a few moments." I eavesdrop as the kids converse. After a minute or so, hands are in the air. "Gosh, I'm nervous. All of these teachers staring at me. Now for the moment of truth. What do you think of me as a reader?" "You're a good reader because you're fast. You say all the words right. You didn't have to stop to get help." "I'm so relieved," I exclaim. "You all think I'm such a great reader."

I pause and look down. "There's something you don't know about me though. Sometimes I can fake people out when I read. Let me explain. When I was in fourth grade, I used to play a little trick on my teacher, Mrs. Martin, would you like to know about it?" Students are genuinely interested in my story. "Sometimes Mrs. Martin would ask for a volunteer to read aloud to the class. Guess who would always raise her hand? You're right. Me. I could read aloud beautifully. I could pronounce long words and read very fast. My classmates were impressed, but there was something I wasn't doing, however, something that readers should always do."

"I wasn't thinking. I was just reading the words like a robot would do. If Mrs. Martin had asked me questions about what I had read, I wouldn't have been able to give thoughtful answers. Guess what? I was doing this fake kind of reading when I read aloud to you a moment ago. It sounded good, but the thinking was missing. You can't always tell just from listening to somebody read. Do you know what I'm talking about? Have you ever done any robot reading or fake reading?" Kids smile from ear to ear looking sheepishly at their teacher as if they're revealing a deep, dark secret. Many are surprised to see their teacher agreeing that she is one of them. For more information about fake reading, check out chapter one in Cris Tovani's, I Read It but I Don't Get It.

"Turn and talk about your experiences with fake reading." I crouch down to listen in. "Sometimes I read the words, but I don't know what I just read." "If I don't like the book, I just move my finger so it looks like I'm reading." "Sometimes I think about other stuff while I'm reading, like my friends or my soccer games."

I pull the group back together. "You are amazing. Not only are you honest with each other, but you are metacognitive. You are thinking about your thinking. When I read from Warriors of God, I showed you what fake reading can be like. Now I want to model real reading. Real reading is like a tossed salad. Have you noticed the three bowls sitting here on the table beside me? We are going to use these objects to help us understand more about real reading. Notice that the bowls are labeled. The large bowl is labeled real reading salad and the small bowls are labeled text and thinking."

"Just like a tossed salad might be a mixture of lettuce and tomatoes, reading salad is a mixture of text and thinking. Inside the two smaller bowls, there are little cards. In the text bowl, there are red cards that say text. These are like tomatoes. In the thinking bowl there are green cards that say thinking. These are like pieces of lettuce. With your help, we will make reading salad while enjoying a great book. If you don't understand the connections between reading and salad, don't despair. It will become clearer to you momentarily. Just watch me."

"I'm going to use this book, Don't Laugh at Me, as I model real reading. I chose this text because it will really make us think. To show you exactly how real reading works, I'm going to do something that will make me look kind of funny. I will point to the text when I am reading from the text. I will point to my head when I am thinking. That way you'll be able to see the difference between my reading and my thinking. At the same time that is going on we'll be making salad."

"Jack, will you be in charge of the tomato bowl? I mean, the text bowl. Bridget, will you handle the lettuce bowl? I mean, the thinking bowl. Every time I point to the text, Jack will drop a text card into the big salad bowl. Whenever I point to my head, Bridget will place a green thinking card into the salad. Right before your eyes you will see what real reading is all about."

As I begin to read, Jack and Bridget are in front of the group ready to do their jobs. Here's how it goes. I point to the text and read from the front cover. "Don't Laugh at Me." Jack drops in a red text card. I point to my head. "I'm thinking that this book is going to be about kids who make fun of other kids. I hate when that happens." Bridget drops in a green thinking card. I point to the text and read from the first page. "I'm a little boy with glasses. The one they call a geek." Jack drops in a text card. I point to my head, "Why did they call this boy a geek? My daughter Blythe wears glasses. I would be so angry if someone called her a geek. Just because you wear glasses doesn't make you weird."

Bridget drops in a thinking card. I point to the text, "A little girl who never smiles because I've got braces on my teeth and I know how it feels to cry myself to sleep." A text card is dropped into the large bowl. I point to my head. "I can barely stand to hear about kids who cry themselves to sleep. I wonder if kids make fun of this girl while she's in the cafeteria or maybe while she's riding the bus." A thinking card goes into the large bowl. I continue modeling this pattern of text, thinking, text, thinking, until I reach the midpoint of the book. Then I commend Jack and Bridget for their excellent work and release them back to the group.

I ask the children to turn and talk for a moment to reflect on what they've just seen. After a couple of minutes I say, "So what are you thinking now?" "Reading is a pattern of text and thinking. When you think while you read, it makes it more interesting. I get the part about the salad now, but I didn't at first. You have to go a little slower when you think and read at the same time."

"So interesting," I say. "Let's get back to the book. Only this time you will do the thinking. I will continue pointing to the text. When I'm reading the text. I will drop in a red text card each time I read, but when it's time for thinking, I'll ask some of you to share what's going on inside your heads. If you share, you will come up and drop a green thinking card into our reading salad."

For every page of text, several kids share their thinking. The green cards are being added at a much faster rate than the red ones. "There's more green in here than red," Emma points out as she tosses the salad. "That's how it's supposed to be," Hillary adds. "Say more about that," I prompt. She responds without hesitation, "You're supposed to have more thinking than you do text. When you read a book, your thinking takes up way more space than the words on the page." I couldn't have said it better myself.

"Now we've been doing real reading. No more of that fake stuff for us. Our reading salad symbolizes what good reading is made of. The two special ingredients are text and thinking. It's sort of weird, isn't it? We've been thinking about our thinking. There's a name for that. Metacognition." When books and brains collide, sometimes kids have to see it to believe it.


Thanks for tuning in today. To learn more about Tanny's audiobook, visit blog.heinemann.com.


Internationally-known teacher and conference speaker Tanny McGregor brings nearly 30 years of professional experience to her popular sessions. Her workshops are known for their creative and engaging style. Originally an elementary school teacher, Tanny has served as a literacy coach, gifted intervention specialist, and preK-12 staff developer.

She is the author of three books, Comprehension Connections (Heinemann, 2007), Genre Connections (Heinemann, 2013), and her newest release, Ink & Ideas (Heinemann, 2018). Tanny was also a contributor to the seminal work, Comprehension Going Forward (Heinemann, 2011). In addition to writing and consulting, Tanny serves as a teacher on special assignment for West Clermont Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio. She and her husband Miles have four daughters and two grandsons.

Topics: Podcast, Tanny McGregor, Heinemann Podcast, Comprehension Connections, podcasts

Date Published: 06/17/24

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