Comprehension and critical thinking are two very similar concepts, but are developed in two very different ways. Comprehension is when students make meaning within the story through predictions and inferences and critical thinking is when students make meaning beyond the text or by telling their own story.
Comprehension is an incredibly important task that teachers constantly work with their students on. Teachers use think alouds to model predictions and inferences when reading aloud, and they also have students turn-and-talk with their partners to attempt to predict and infer what will happen. This modeling and guided practice that teachers use to assist their students with developing comprehension skills is hoped to spill over into their independent reading and it is a teacher’s hope that their students will use these skills on their own. There are many ways in which students, as readers, can make meaning within the story to activate comprehension skills, as we spoke about in class. Students can:
- Monitor for meaning (I do/I don’t understand)
- Use and create schema (Start with text-to-self connections)
- Ask questions (What do I wonder?)
- Determine importance (What’s most important in the story?)
- Infer (What do I think the character is thinking? Why would he be thinking this?)
- Predict (What do I think is going to happen next? Why do I think this?)
- Use sensory and emotional images (How do the characters feel? How does the story make me feel?)
In class, we also discussed Five Steps for Successful Comprehension Instruction, which include the following:
- Describe the strategy (How do you use it? When do you use it?)
- Model the strategy (Teacher uses think alouds during a read aloud in whole-group instruction)
- Collaboratively use the strategy (Students turn-and-talk with partners to practice the modeled strategy)
- Independently use the strategy (Students go back into their own books and use what they learned and apply strategy to their own reading)
In order for students to truly dive into comprehending a text, there are many strategies that students need to be taught based on where they are in reading their books. Students will use a certain set of strategies for pre-reading that are different from those used during reading, which are even different from those used after reading.
- Set purpose
- Preview text (Take a picture walk)
- Activate prior knowledge
During Reading Strategies:
- Reading on
- Going back
- Making connections
- Thinking about information
- Stopping and reviewing
After Reading Strategies:
- Drawing conclusions
Not all of these comprehension strategies will come naturally to students. Therefore, it is important that teachers explicitly teach each of these strategies through modeling and guided practice before giving students the chance to use these strategies independently. Oftentimes, teachers use tactile, kinesthetic tools such as Story Strings, Story Grammar Marker, and The Braidy Doll to assist students in putting the aforementioned After Reading Strategies to use when retelling stories. These tools allow students to keep their place when retelling a story; they clearly lay out what needs to be used to retell a story: characters, setting, events, consequences, resolutions, etc. After using these kinesthetic tools for quite sometime, students will eventually be able to recall what is needed to retell a story without forgetting any of the components.
Critical thinking is another incredibly important task that teachers work with their students on. Critical thinking requires students to make meaning beyond the text, which can be quite tricky for some students. Using “miniperformances” or readers theatre are two great ways to help students grasp the concept of critical thinking.
When thinking critically, it is important that students are able to use transmediation, which is the transferring of understanding to new mediums. For example, if students read a book about Abe Lincoln and are taught about his presidency, it would be effective for the students to create hats that look like the one Abe Lincoln wore and give speeches about what they would do if they were president. Not only did students read about Abe Lincoln but also they used what they know about him in order to create their own presidential speeches. This act of transmediation allows for students to better understand what they read because they’re given the chance to act-out or recreate what was read. Through an interactive interpretation of a story, such as readers theatre, students are able to better understand what they’ve read and they learn that retelling doesn’t have to just live on the carpet through talk and instead, retelling a story can be alive and interactive. According to Carolyn Morado, Rosalie Koenig, and Alice Wilson, authors of the article “Miniperformances, many stars! Playing with stories,” “researchers and practitioners have suggested that dramatic play settings can be extending and enhanced to support literacy – through the addition of literacy props” (117). Therefore, Readers theatre is similar to what children do when they engage in play; they’re able to dress up and take on the role of a character. Morado et al go on to say, “readers theatre provides a more formal medium through which students engage with literature, usually by transforming literary text into a script that is practiced and then performed” (117). Allowing children to be storytellers creates better readers and writers, engages students in the text, and makes reading more meaningful. It is the goal of teachers to help children learn how to think critically (beyond the text) by providing them with tools, such as readers theatre, to become the text and develop a better understanding.
In their article, Morado et al recognize the benefit of using miniperformances to enhance students’ comprehension and critical thinking, as well as using miniperformances (such as readers theatre and sociodramatic play) to target at-risk students. Instead of pulling at-risk students out of the classroom to support their instruction, which can make the child feel worse about their performance in the classroom, Morado et al suggest that “the miniperformance program [that they created] provides different rather than remedial instruction to develop and support literacy…[while immersing] students in a process that explores story elements and creates stars of students who are struggling academically in their early elementary years” (116). What better way to make at-risk students feel good about themselves than keeping them in the classroom to learn with their peers? It is also important that we, as teachers, “[recognize] that reading is a process in which the reader interacts with the text and constructs meaning – and that it is more than decoding and assigning meaning to words…” (118). If teachers provide students, especially at-risk students, more opportunities to interact meaningfully with text through readers theatre and other types of miniperformances, they will feel better about reading and about themselves. It is important that teachers make students feel special, especially if they don’t feel good about their ability to learn when being pulled out of the classroom, and “miniperformances make stars out of children who are typically not the first chosen for leading roles in classroom activities” (118). Therefore, why not provide children with the opportunities to become stars and learn to love activities that involve reading and writing while building and enhancing their comprehension and critical thinking skills?
Annenberg Learner Website
Through my own research on the topics of comprehension and critical thinking, I came across the Annenberg Learner website which provides teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum. The page that focused on building comprehension interconnected many of the topics that we’ve already covered and still have to cover in class, such as vocabulary and decoding, in connection with comprehension. These topics go hand-in-hand with one another and are all building blocks of one another. In the video provided on the website, viewers are able to see and hear what good readers should be doing as they process text as well as what teachers can do to enhance students’ comprehension when reading. The website also provides tips for new teachers as well as activities that can be used to “Put It Into Practice” and help students carry these comprehension skills with them, even at home.
“Building Comprehension in Struggling Readers”
This PDF, “Building Comprehension in Struggling Readers,” highlights many of the points that we discussed regarding comprehension in class, but also goes into greater details in some areas and provides other strategies that can be used. This PDF also provides examples of scripts and modeling of reciprocal teaching, think alouds, personal experiences using a strategy, and scaffolding. This seems to me like it is a great resource and “Quick Guide” for when teaching students the necessary skills and strategies of comprehension.
“Thinking Tracks” is a coding system that students in the upper-elementary grades can use to track their comprehension while reading. While students are reading through a text, they can use “Thinking Tracks” to code or track their thinking and can record questions, connections, reactions, predictions, etc. Then, they can go back and revisit their thinking when they’re done reading to expand on their knowledge. This is a great way for students in the upper-elementary grades to take notes while reading, and highlight the parts of the book that correspond with their thinking, without writing too much during valuable reading time.
The Critical Thinking Skills chart, which can be seen below, seems like it would be a good tool for teachers to use (and even elementary students) in order to make sure they’re asking (and answering) questions that developing critical thinking skills. These questions, especially the Level 5 and Level 6 questions, can be made into critical thinking question sticks (see example below) and can be used to ask students during whole-group instruction (and students can use them independently as well).