7 Ways to Increase Comprehension in Struggling Readers

If you have never had an opportunity to go to one of Dr. Archer’s conferences and you are even remotely interested in literacy, you need to figure out a way to go to one. Beg your administrators, save up your change, have multiple yard sales, ANYTHING to help you make it. Dr. Archer is charismatic, entertaining, and generous. To top it all off, the strategies that she presents are research-based as well as practical. She focuses so much on active participation that it is easy to see why her methods are so effective.

My top 7 Take-Aways from the Conference

1. Don’t commit assum-icide. Sometimes we, as teachers, forget that our students don’t come pre-packaged with the information that want them to know. Because we assume, we generate gaps in our students’ knowledge. These gaps interfere with comprehension to a great extent. It seems logical, but I know that I have been guilty of assum-icide.

2. One of the best things you can do for struggling students is to *teach* them. I know this seems like a no-brainer, but, if you really think about it, how much time to do we actually get to do this? It is the explicit instruction that really helps the struggling readers. Discovery learning definitely has its place, but if the students have no knowledge base, there is little chance that they are going to discover on their own.

3. Teaching reading should not just happen in the Language Arts and English classes. Every subject area has an incredible opportunity to teach reading strategies to help their students become fluent readers. Content area teachers need to get out there and share information with their students while teaching them HOW to read it. 

4. Without automaticity, comprehension is inhibited. With fluency comes comprehension. If a student’s cognitive energy is being put into decoding, there is no energy left for comprehension. It is essential to give students the skills they need in order to be fluent readers. 

5. Practice, practice, practice. I know that I am very good at initial instruction. I can get my kids rip-roaring ready to go. The units that we work on are (usually) successful, and the students demonstrate mastery at the end. Dr. Archer asked us what would happen if we tested our students two units down the road. Would they demonstrate the same amount of mastery?I realized that my students might not. Practice is key. Working in cumulative review into my lessons will help prevent my students from losing what they’ve  learned.

6. Teach vocabulary explicitly. Pick the words that you want your students to really own. They need to be unknown words, abstract in nature, and applicable. Boutique words (words that students will never see in their real lives) aren’t ones that should be focused on. This made me think of the short story “The Gift of the Magi,” by O. Henry. One of the vocabulary words that the teacher edition suggested for explicit instruction was mendency squad. Would that be a vocabulary word that is worth spending the time teaching? I am going to start asking myself that question more often, now.

7. Get an English Language Learner dictionary. These dictionaries give student friendly definitions. When you teach vocabulary, you need to provide your students with definitions that they can understand. Anyone who has checked out a dictionary lately probably has noticed that the definitions aren’t readily accessible to your average adolescent reader. The definitions in these dictionaries take the work out of creating denotations that are understandable.

Final Thoughts
There was so much more that I learned from the conference. The three days were not in vain. I just know that I am excited to see how the new practices and procedures increase the success of my struggling readers. For those of you who have heard Dr. Archer, I have one final thought. Woo-woo. 🙂

7 thoughts on “7 Ways to Increase Comprehension in Struggling Readers

  1. Thanks for a summer reminder of our focus as reading teachers. Vocabulary is key for my students– vocabulary that develops background knowledge. Did you learn any specific vocab strategies?

  2. First things first, thank you so much for your comment! I am very excited that you took the time to read my post and felt enough about it to ask me a very good question about it. That being said, let me answer your question. The conference had a myriad of procedures that included different options, depending on the teacher's comfort level. Dr. Archer uses choral response in order to foster active participation. Check out this Anita Archer video on what she expects her students to do in class: http://vimeo.com/6771095Here is the process for teaching general vocabulary. I know that many of us already do these steps, however, there are a few techniques that she tosses in that help.1. Introduce the word* Write it on the board or overhead.* Read the word and have the students repeat the word until it is spoken correctly. If a student cannot pronounce it correctly, he or she won't be about to attach meaning to it.2. Introduce the meaning of the word. There are three options that Dr. Archer presented.*Option 1: Tell students the definition then have the students read the definition with you. This is where the English Language Learner dictionary comes in handy. The definitions are simplified and are in complete sentences.*Option 2: Have students locate the definition in the glossary or in a dictionary. Instead of writing the definition down, the students break the definition into critical attributes. They are taught to put these attributes into bullets.*Option 3: Introduce the word using the morphographs in the word. If you do this, you get a chance to reinforce Greek and Latin prefixes and roots.3. Give sentences that use the word correctly. She gave us multiple sentences that used the words correctly. The key to doing this is to use the word in at least one sentence that uses the word as it is used in the passage that they are going to read. She would have the students read the sentences aloud with her.4. Introduce word relatives. Start out with the simplest form of the word. For instance: analyze, analysis, analyst, analyzing, etc. Go through these words, having the students read and repeat the word aloud.5. Illustrate the word with examples (verbal, concrete, and visual). After a few teacher-generated examples, you check the students' understanding.Option 1: Ask deep processing questions (why do you think something becomes…)Option 2: Have students discern between examples and non examples.Option 3: Have students generate their own examples. (How many things can you name…; What are some things that are/aren't…)There are also extensions that she suggested, depending on the importance of the word:1. Introduce part of speech (I will use this in my high school classroom)2. Give synonyms, antonyms, homographs, etc.3. Tell the students when and where the word is used.4. Introduce the etymology.Hope this helps a bit. I think I am going to do a follow up blog that gives her methods for practicing. Once again, thank you so much for helping me to think more deeply about this post.

  3. Hi Elizabeth!I'm so glad you shared your reflection in this post. In my first year of teaching (2nd grade), my principal and I had a discussion about how students learned to read, and I came away from that discussion realizing the importance of developing vocabulary. It sounds like many of my AJUSD peeps walked away from this PD with the same thoughts and some specific tips. That's great!While Archer is known for great PD and great ideas for RTI, I am left wondering about something: is it all old school with great DI? Or, did she address how tech can assist Learners in developing vocabulary? If not, can we add smne examples here? I'd love to brainstorm and have you tell me what you think. :-)Great post and love the comments between you and Sheri. Kind regards,Tracy

  4. I really appreciate your thoughtful response, and I hope you share more in future posts — what you do in class and how things worked with your students. You were right when you said she added insights to what we already do. Excellent recap ! Thank you so much since this is exactly what I've been thinking about this week. You may also like to see one of my new activities from this year: Vocabulary Views Thanks again. Look forward to your posts.

  5. Tracy,Anita Archer's techniques didn't use much technology. The closest she came was using PowerPoint. However, she was attempted to bring visual literacy into the picture.Many of the ideas could have technology integrated into them. I would love to sit with you and plan different ways to do this. One of the things that I think might really help would be the flipped classroom. I think we could come up with something pretty incredible if we put our brains together.Thank you so much for pushing me to think this through even more!Elizabeth

  6. Gramma Solo,I am very glad that my blog got you thinking. I tried to check out your reflection, but it wouldn't load in my browser. I will try again later. I can't wait to read your reflections. :-)Elizabeth

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