Teaching Reading Comprehension – Which Texts Work?

Grant Wiggins is writing a great book on reading as blogs (here): each new chapter arrives in my inbox as he writes them. In post 8, he describes the qualities texts need to support learning to read. As I principally blog about science texts for learning, I thought I would respond.

In the first of his blogs, Wiggins points out that while the teaching of the early stages of reading have been very successful, teaching comprehension post decoding has been disappointing. He argues that there is scant evidence of how successful pupils read. And only weak evidence on the strategies that work.

comprehension EEF

On first look, the Sutton Trust – EEF toolkit on reading comprehension appears to contradict this. However, a closer reading agrees: very few studies can identify reliable strategies (here). So we are left in the position of knowing that we haven’t made progress in teaching children to read and we don’t really know what to do about it.

One place to start is finding the right texts. Wiggins points out that reading for understanding requires three layers of thinking, simultaneously.

  1. Decoding. Most people believe that reading is just decoding. It’s like reading a bike: once you can do it without thinking too much about it, the job is done. But there are two extra layers before you can really read for understanding.
  2. Checking for understanding. Good readers have developed a sense of whether they understand what they are reading. If you find yourself rereading a challenging text several times, you probably have this sense.
  3. Strategies for when you don’t get it. It turns out most decent readers make do with just a couple of strategies.

So, if you want to teach comprehension, put the cognitive load in checking for understanding and applying strategies when you don’t. Go easy on the language.

This is what I have been trying to do in my recent blogs. In the spirit of sharing, I have listed my texts here. Please feel free to use them in your classes:

Science for Parents (Moles)

Of The Cells and Pores of Frothy Bodies (Hooke’s discovery of the cell)

A Hippo Banquet (An adaptation of a text by Victorian scientific traveller Mary Kingsley)

Finding Nonfiction Texts (Linnaeus and classification)

Where Are The Children’s Adaptations of the Great Works of Science? (An adaptation of the first chapter of The Origin of Species).

I strongly recommend reading Wiggins’s blog. There are a few still to come, so join me waiting for them to arrive!


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