Throughout this blog series, I will be writing my reflections on the book, “Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding and Engagement” by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis.
We, at the Orton Gillingham Online Academy, are passionate about all aspects of reading. It is not only important to understand the alphabetic principle and to decode; it is also important to think about what is read and bring meaning and understanding to the text.
My students loved our classroom garden, nestled in one of the corners of the room. It was outlined by a white picket fence with cascading ivy and colorful blooms. The design of the garden was inspired by nature, with the sounds of trickling water and lily pad area rugs. My students loved to read in the garden and they especially loved it when I read to them.
I often read books about Minnesota, as it is my place of birth and many of my extended family members still reside in this beautiful state. Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder are favorites of mine. Threaded throughout the pages, Laura writes about the beauty, ruggedness, harsh winters, and intense struggles of Minnesota. Her immense love of family is what draws me the most to her books. Their unbreakable bond held them together through the most difficult circumstances.
Sitting on their lily pads, my students listened intently as I enthusiastically read about life on the prairie in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Periodically, I would pause to relate my life experiences to a variety of passages. Harvey and Goudvis in “Strategies That Work” suggest using sticky notes to code text-to-self connections and adhering them to the various pages of the book, as they connect to life or past experiences. They recommend placing the notes in such a way as to stick out beyond the pages, much like a bookmark, so they are easy to find for later reference. On my stickies, I might write:
- My visit to the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in Walnut Grove, MN
- Leaving spider webs in doors and windows to control insects
- The paralyzing effects of the harsh winters
- The beauty of the rugged lakes that reflect the green foliage that line the periphery
- Fishing in the creeks and lakes with my father
- The importance of work ethic and team work
I am especially drawn to, “By the Shores of Silver Lake.” Partly because of the endearing storyline and partly because the ingalls family finally established roots along the breathtaking shores of Silver Lake and their covered-wagon journeys finally came to an end. Another sticky note I would absolutely add here would be on the pages where Laura describes the memories of the family making Christmas gifts for one another. I have fond memories of my grandmother teaching me how to crochet and she took delight in making sweet little crocheted Christmas trees for each member of the family. She would poke small twinkle lights through the holes in the tree and neatly sew precious little ornaments to each of the “branches.” I relished in every moment with her and could relate to Laura’s enthusiasm.
As I read, my positive energy rubbed off on my students. Each sat Indian-style, leaning forward, and eyes fixated on me. Every now and then, I would hear them chuckle, mutter something, or noted a nod in affirmation. As Harvey and Goudvis penned in their book, “There is nothing more powerful than a literacy teacher sharing her passion for reading, writing, and thinking.” Looking back on those experiences with my students, that is exactly what was occurring in our little classroom garden. If you were to ask my students why they loved that space so much, they would respond with, “I don’t know. I just love it.” It was as if upon entering our garden, we “jumped” into the pages of the book we were reading and we became a part of the story. Whether actively or as a spectator, we were there with all of the characters and we experienced everything they experienced with vivid imagination.
Harvey and Goudvis challenge us with the question, “If the purpose of reading is anything other than understanding, why read at all?” Teaching a child to break the alphabetic code in order to read is important; however, bringing meaning and understanding to the text is vital to achieving the end goal of comprehension.
Chapter 1 – Strategies That Work: Reading is Thinking
Chapter 1 explores active literacy, which involves:
- making connections
- asking questions
- making inferences
- determining importance of the text
- summarizing and synthesizing information
I. Making Connections
According to Harvey and Goudvis, connecting what readers know to new information is the core of learning and understanding. In order to comprehend what we are reading, we really need to connect it with what we already know.
Very young children question nearly everything. Why do cats have whiskers? What color is the sky at night? Why does dad have to drink coffee every morning? Mrs. B, why do you have a mole on your cheek? Why do you have 3 holes in your earlobes? When do we go out for recess? Curiosity abounds and they are never quite satiated until they ask yet another question. As children grow, they ask less and less questions and are instead required to answer the questions posed by others.
Harvey and Goudvis maintain that schools should encourage students to nurture their curiosity. They go on to perfectly describe the importance of questioning: “Questions are at the heart of teaching and learning. Questioning is the strategy that propels readers forward.”
III. Making Inferences
When readers make inferences, they are able to draw conclusions even when they are not explicitly written in the text. Making inferences involve tapping into prior knowledge, as well as interpreting the clues embedded in the text. According to writer Susan Hall, “Inferring allows readers to make their own discoveries without the direct comment of the author” (1990). Readers who make inferences are actively engage in what they are reading and they are able to understand the deeper meaning of the text.
Harvey and Goudvis maintain that visualizing is all about inferring meaning and when a reader visualizes, they are actually constructing meaning by creating mental images. My husband is an avid reader. He says that when he reads, he can mentally see the setting of the story, the characters, and the plot as he eagerly turns the pages of a book. He says this mental imagery transforms his experience from merely reading word to word to an automatic process that seamlessly and fluidly moves him from paragraph to paragraph and page to page. There have been times he has read a complete book in a twenty-four hour span with little or no cognitive effort (at least seemingly). In other words, he is able to understand the “deeper essence of the text” because he is a proficient and active reader, able to visualize the story as it unfolds.
V. Determining Importance
There are many book genres from which to choose. As we read a book, the ideas and themes that are important are the ones we want to learn more about and remember. When we read fiction, we pay attention to the characters, what they do and why they do it, and the struggle that arises as it relates to the theme. Obviously, we are not going to remember every single detail; however, we will remember the information that is important and thread it with what we already know in order to bring meaning and understanding to the text. The same holds true when we select from the nonfiction genre. As Harvey and Goudvis logically stated, “One good reason to determine important ideas is that they are the ones we want to remember.”
VI. Summarizing and Synthesizing
We have been summarizing in schools for many decades. Simply put, summarizing involves recapping information in one’s own words. Again, in order to summarize, we need to be able to pull the important information from the text. Synthesizing occurs, according to Harvey and Goudvis, when we merge the new information with our existing knowledge. Whether new information is added to existing knowledge, or the reader gained a whole new perspective, the end result is nonetheless the same: “When readers synthesize, they reach a more complete understanding.”
In conclusion, it is so important to explicitly teach reading. Whether we are starting at the very foundation of literacy, or we are working on a more advanced level, it is important that teachers demonstrate their active literacy skills while reading. I connected, questioned, inferred, visualized, and discussed as I read the Little House books to my students, I explicitly modeled what I do as I read to construct meaning. It is also important to allow students to dialogue about stories with which they can connect, as well as allow ample opportunities for independent reading to apply the strategies they have learned.
I have applied the strategies in chapter 1 as I read this wonderful book on “Strategies That Work.” I dialogued with the authors, questioned, connected the information with what I already know, and summarized and synthesized, which has led to a new and fresh perspective on teaching reading comprehension. If you have not read this book, I highly recommend that you do. I believe it will offer you new insight as it did for me and send you on your own quest as you question and evaluate how you teach your students. This book will guide you to a richer and deeper understanding of teaching reading comprehension.
Keep doing what you are doing because the world needs what only you have to offer!