Comprehension…How do we know when our students have it?

Comprehension_Graphic (1) How often have I gazed out over my students only to see this puzzled look …, “Whoa, I’m confused!”?  Reading comprehension is not what it used to be. I remember in grade school racing to complete SRA level after SRA level to earn a pencil, a sticker, or be the first leveling up to Teal!  Or how about those boring worksheets we pressed our noses against, inhaling the sweet smell of ditto ink, only to answer mindless question after question, assuming this would make us better readers? We have evolved as educators, thankfully, into a world where answering A, B, C, or D is no longer the answer to comprehension, but CITING EVIDENCE and COMPOSING SYNTHESIS ESSAYS are the gateway to comprehension, offering a wealth of insight into what our students know and are able to do with a text.

A recent White Paper entitled, “5 Ways to Help Your Students Succeed on the PARCC and SBAC ELA Assessments” (Davis, 2014) explains how our instruction and assessments must change if we hope to offer our students a scaffold to the next level of reading comprehension. Davis (2014) explains that our method of checking for comprehension via recall questions after a story, or an assessment involving study guides and notes are no longer sufficient and only serve to scratch the surface level of understanding in our students.  The paper offers five recommendations that will transform our teaching and bring students to a deeper level of understanding, regardless of the text placed in front of them (Davis, 2014).

The first recommendation is to “Always require students to cite evidence from a text, not only in writing but also in discussions” (Davis, 2014). As a classroom teacher, I assumed that asking the students to make connections to the text and summarizing the main idea was working to deepen their understanding, but instruction has to “raise the bar” for students and lift them beyond recall to synthesis and analysis of a text, something multiple choice tests/worksheets are unable to achieve. Classroom instruction should ask students to utilize close reading strategies, text annotation, citations of sentences/paragraphs that support the answer, identification of character quotes and analyzing how this informs our stance with regard to their motivation or state of mind, and examining the small details an author drops that offer support for theme. A great resource for classroom teachers to utilize when designing classroom assignments and discussions around literature is the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) practice test site (http://parcc.pearson.com/practice-tests/) where multiple grade levels are available for perusal and can be used to formatively assess where students are in relation to the Common Core Standards. Professional learning communities and departments can use this site to create formative assessments, align curriculum maps, restructure classroom instruction, and set goals for student proficiency with regards to the ELA Standards.

The second recommendation couples with the first and asks teachers to “Revamp your reading check quizzes and unit tests to teach comprehension rather than recall” (Davis, 2014). Rather than focusing on recall, students should be asked to SHOW their understanding of the text, especially with regard to cold reads, as CCSS assessments will ask them to do. When students appropriately apply strategies to novel texts, our instruction has been successful, students understand how to cite evidence, analyze theme, delve deeper into character motivation and actions, and synthesize multiple texts through essay writing and a focus on recurring ideas or themes (Davis, 2014). Realizing Illinois has a wealth of close reading exemplars teachers could utilize in the classroom to practice these types of skills with unfamiliar texts. Each text offers 3-4 days worth of lessons that scaffold students closer to the goal of independence and could be a great way to redesign lessons to mirror the types of questions students will see on the CCSS assessments.

The third recommendation is to “Use performance tasks regularly rather than isolated or opinion-based prompts” (Davis, 2014). Constructed response tests and worksheets focus on one skill and do not delve deep enough into comprehension to get at what students understand. Performance assessments require students to SHOW what they know through a variety of tasks such as writing, discussion, presentations, or research. It is important to remember that when designing our own classroom-based assessments, we should ask students to gather information from more than one source, then synthesize and analyze what is being said across texts; a much higher depth-of-knowledge question than to find the main idea in paragraph 4. Example test questions from the SBAC test cited in the article and the PARCC site referenced above will give teachers adequate resources to begin designing these types of activities in their own classrooms.

Vocabulary encompasses the fourth recommendation, not just any vocabulary, but academic vocabulary, words students will see in assessment directions.  If our students are being asked to compare/contrast, create a thesis, cite evidence, and support responses, students must know the what these academic terms mean.  One way to incorporate this into the classroom is to monitor your own “teacher talk”.  Instead of saying, “give a reason why you chose that adjective for your main character” you could say, “cite three pieces of evidence that support your character’s personality trait”.  By substituting academic vocabulary, we are exposing students to what they will encounter in a testing situation and they will not be surprised or confused by the language. Rick Stiggins summed this up best when he said, “The answer is not to eliminate high-stakes tests. Rather, it is to build learning environments that help all students believe that they can succeed at hitting the target if they keep trying.” (2004). By making the target clear and scaffolding our students toward the target, we move one step closer to hitting the target! A list of academic vocabulary students are likely to see on assessments are listed on a website authored by Marilee Sprenger.

Finally, we need to “Teach students to be thorough and follow directions” (Davis, 2014). An Education Week article and study is cited in which the authors reveal findings from an educational study by the National Center for Education Statistics. In this study, the researchers found that a majority of 4th graders do not read directions thoroughly, often leading to confusion in an online testing environment. By practicing this skill and teaching students how critical it is to read directions, we can raise their level of success with this.

In conclusion, the future is in our hands!  As teachers, we need to be armed with the strongest, most-effective pedagogy and strategies if we are to successfully assist students in navigating the 21st century.  The world is changing and due to that, our instruction and the way in which we “do school” must change as well.  We must begin to “think outside the box”, collaborate more, analyze data,  and inform our instruction so that we work at the highest level possible in our field.  Education is an art form and must be honed and practiced, ever-evolving if we are to feel successful in our mission: preparing young people for a future unlike anything we have known before!

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