We use reading comprehension activities to introduce our lessons during readers workshop. These often take the form of:
- A read aloud (teacher reads, students listen)
- A read-with (teacher and students read a selection together)
Here's how to get the most benefit out of these key activities in grades three through six.
Read aloud texts
A read aloud will most often involve a book rather than a selection such as a magazine article, and the book will usually be illustrated. Since students aren't following along on their own (as in a read-with), they must be able to absorb and understand the story primarily by hearing, with illustrations providing supporting visual details and context clues.
This requires a text with a compelling story line and even some emotional hooks… which teachers usually only associate with fiction. And that's a mistake.
Fiction vs. non-fiction: real world reality
The attraction of fiction texts can lead teachers astray and end up shortchanging our students' reading development if we are not careful. Why?
As a very broad and undoubtedly over-generalized statement, most elementary teachers:
- Love to teach reading, and
- Love to read literature to children
In grades kindergarten through three, the children are often reading books as means of both learning to read and to instill the love of reading. But starting in third grade, and definitely in grades four through six, they start moving progressively into non-fiction, which is a critical preparation for success in adult life. After all 90% of what adults read is non-fiction.
Our reading comprehension activities must reflect this reality.
Children are hooked into reading early on with fiction, but their percentage of fiction steadily decreases as they move up through the grade levels.
In high school, they'll be reading a few novels as part of English class, but the bulk of their reading will be nonfiction in subjects such as math, science, health or nearly any other class besides English.
Elementary teachers must start this transition in third grade with appropriate reading comprehension activities to ensure our children are successful in upper grades. It's just reality: Non-fiction rules our productive lives as adults (including yours) while fiction is reserved for personal entertainment.
And let's be honest: most people get their fictional entertainment from video, not books.
There is some great nonfiction available for every grade level. And – a big bonus – nonfiction can be easily tied to what you are studying in other subjects.
Text selection is critical; no matter how good the story is, it must serve the purpose of the lesson for which we are using it (e.g. illustrating “author's purpose”).
This may seem obvious, but I must point it out: A read aloud is NOT for the teacher. It is first, last and always for the students. If you find yourself thinking, “I love this book! I want to read it to my kids,” you may be putting the focus in the wrong place.
Sure, we can love the books we read in our classrooms, but only after they have passed the test of relevancy to our subject matter. That's what makes reading comprehension activities effective and not just fun.
Read aloud how-to's
All teachers do read alouds, so you might be wondering what there even is to talk about. Open the book and start reading… right?
No so fast! If you find your kids are squirming when you are reading, you may need to work on your reading “voice.”
I have heard some awful read alouds over the years, both from new teachers and from experienced teachers. I’m talking about monotone delivery, no drama, no inflection, just one sentence delivered after another. It’s soooo boring for kids to listen to and honestly it’s little wonder that they start to misbehave.
Consider the following ideas to increase your effectiveness.
You read it first
Rule one of a great read aloud is to take that book and read it yourself out loud a couple of times to make sure you know where the exciting parts are… where you need to add drama or where something might feel sad and you need to show that in your voice.
Find your inner performer
When you’re reading aloud to kids you need to go a little over the top. This is something that new teachers are often uncomfortable with – that whole “dramatic flair and performance” element of teaching.
But teaching is at least 50% dramatics, so you need to practice, practice, practice until you get comfortable with it.
In order to engage students, you need to be a larger-than-life character from whom they can’t tear away their eyes and want to hear more. You want those kids to be desperate to find out what happens next in a book. This is essential for read alouds (and useful for many other aspects of teaching, too).
Video tips: infusing “voice” in your read alouds
The drama payoff
When you put top effort into a read aloud, both you and your students benefit: you get super student engagement, and the more engaged they are, the greater their comprehension. Not to mention that engaged students are much less likely to misbehave!
So, I encourage you to go over the top. I even challenge you try a monotone read aloud, even just a paragraph, and then read the same text with dramatic flair and get your students' insights on what the difference was and which one they prefer.
Kind of like a little science experiment in your own classroom!
Make time for feelings and expression
Anticipate that your carefully-selected book will cause your students to think… and they need time to do that out loud.
This can be particularly true of a picture book. They must have time to “ooh” and “ahh” and respond to the emotions sparked by the author's words or illustrations.
Pause and let them have that response and talk about it. It accesses another region of their brains and gives the lesson even more impact on the learning process.
In the book Rudi's Pond by Eve Bunting, one of the main characters dies mid-way through the story. Rudi's friend is consumed with sadness. There is an illustration of Rudi's friend, who has crawled into bed with her parents to be held.
This picture produces a big emotional reaction in my students (it's giving me a lump in my throat now!) and they need time to talk about that.
Opportunities like this create an ideal “teachable moment.” Teachers should encourage students to explore what's behind their emotions:
“Why do you think the character felt that way?”
“What would that feel like to you?”
“Why did the author choose to use those words? Or that picture?”
Of course, emotions are more than sadness. Books and illustrations can make kids feel delighted or angry or anything in between. All emotions are worth exploring during your reading comprehension activities.
By the way, Rudi's Pond is highly recommended!
Read-withs and reality
Most adults simply do not read for pleasure; they read for information, whether it's for work, for news or simply checking the statistics of their favorite sports team.
Of course, we want to ingrain a love of storytelling and fiction, but the reality is that we need to create citizens who can handle large volumes of nonfiction information efficiently.
And we can do that effectively using read-withs.
Video tips: mastering the read-with
Read-withs are usually accomplished by:
- Reading informational sections of textbooks together
- Reading articles that are copied for everyone in the class
- Shorter fiction books where you have typed out the text
The students may take turns reading aloud.
The great benefit of having students follow along on copied selections (vs. selections in books) is that they can mark up the text, which is a particularly effective way to emphasize the important parts (via underlining) as you discuss them.
Any time you can activate multiple brain regions (auditory, visual, motor) in reading comprehension activities, learning will increase.
Keep it interesting… but…
Just as we do with our fiction texts, we make a big effort to find interesting articles and selections for our read-withs. However, there are also many times when I tell my students to simply:
“Stay focused, work your way through the text and find the necessary information.”
Again, that's the reality of reading as an adult:
- Technical writers are not going to make your dishwasher installation instructions into a gripping page-turner.
- No one will ensure your daughter's college application process is fun to dig into.
- That critical memo at work on the new sales territory alignments? It probably won't be told as a compelling narrative.
Not everything that we must read in life is interesting, and our students will run into more and more “boring” reading as they progress from elementary school toward adulthood.
It's our job to help them be successful on this journey with reading comprehension activities that prepare them for reality.
Reading such passages together will go a long way toward helping kids find meaning in even difficult nonfiction texts.