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A Blended Approach to Teaching Comprehension and Vocabulary

By Carla Kessler
 | Jan 23, 2018

ThinkstockPhotos-83116026_x600Many teachers confess that they struggle to dedicate 90 minutes each week to vocabulary learning. The most commonly cited reason is that their pacing calendar, among other demands of the reading program, does not allow room for more time with vocabulary.

I’d like to address this challenge with what might be a paradigm shift for you or for your administration.

At first glance, it may seem like asking teachers to spend less time on comprehension and more on vocabulary sounds like asking a runner to spend less time on training and more time on exercise. The two approaches are working toward the same goal. In the one case, a self-sufficient reader, in the other a strong athlete.

So why am I suggesting this challenge? Because I feel that teaching comprehension has become synonymous with reading activities in many schools. In the process, learning goals and objectives are often forgotten.

As Timothy Shanahan, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chi­cago, states, "…schools are dedicated to promoting particular activities and practices—not to teaching children. There are particular activities these principals and teachers want to see in classrooms, and they are not particularly focused on what they are supposed to be engaged in: teaching children to read."

He continues, "Instead of focusing like-a-laser on what they want kids to know, to be able to do, to be, they are promoting favorite classroom activities. Instead of thinking about how to get kids to a particular outcome, they are wondering if they can somehow align the required activities with useful outcomes."

I remember when new reading comprehension strategies arrived at our school, I was excited to have a concrete list of skills to prioritize. I quickly became occupied with teaching activities around those skills.

Each of my students held a checklist of these strategies, and I had one on the wall. Our goal became “covering” all of the items on the list, and in turn, learning took on a formulaic nature. It took a few years for me to recognize that this practice rarely helped my struggling students to become independent readers.

This was in part because reading comprehension is intimately dependent on knowledge. Strong readers typically enter school with a broad knowledge base and can apply “formulas” for reading comprehension. They do not have to familiarize themselves with the content and vocabulary of each reading selection.

I had to take a step back and reexamine my teaching against current research. Two key elements repeatedly appeared in my search for “how to build competent readers.”

  • The importance of building a broad knowledge base with a focus on word knowledge: According to academic literary critic E.D. Hirsch,“When children are offered coherent, cumulative knowledge from preschool on, reading proficiency is the result.” He believes schools and educators should be “imparters of language in all its aspects: vocabulary, syntax, knowledge, etc.”
  • The importance of challenging students to think deeply: The first College/Career Readiness anchor standard within the Reading strand of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for ELA/Literacy states, “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.”

Is it possible your curriculum is focused too heavily on reading activities and not enough on thinking? By spending more time with word learning processes, you are building—not detracting from—comprehension.

Effective approaches to word learning ask the learner to understand how and why the word adds meaning to a context. Combine a strong word knowledge base with critical thinking skills and you have a winning approach for building competent readers.

Learn more about the 90 Minute Challenge here.

kessler-headshotCarla Kessler is the director of learning at LogixLab LLC and along with her husband, Richard, co-creator of Word Lab Web. She was formerly a Title I coordinator and learning specialist, and has been recognized as an Outstanding Educator by Delta Kappa Gamma Society International.

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