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Comprehending vs. Comprehension


For many adults growing up, reading focused on "proving" it after a book was finished. Sort of like an after-thought, "Did you get it?" was found through comprehension questions, book reports, or dioramas.

We are now fortunate to have resources, literature, and methodology to support assessing what a child is comprehending while they are reading. Learn how we can now combine the old with the new by addressing before, during, and after reading strategies.

The Epiphany: Can We Afford to Wait?

I don't think I really connected the importance of comprehending vs. comprehension until a parent-teacher conference last week. I was sharing my concern that a child was struggling to tell me what they were reading and understanding during our weekly conferences and written letters.  The parents response was, "Isn't that what AR is for?" This was an honest question, but it also showed a lack of understanding in our shift away from waiting until the end of a book to prove understanding.

My response to this parent was- yes, you can take a test on a book after you are finished reading it, but what if it takes a month to read and you earn a 60%? We can't afford to wait until students are finished to see if they "get it". From here I also explained the difference in types of questions I use for our conferences versuses traditional comprehension questions. We want the bulk of our time being spent on higher order thinking skills instead of direct and literal recall questions. Informally, we call them "right there" or "thin" questions, making up 92% of AR questions.

Show Not Tell: Higher Order Thinking vs. Lower Level Thinking Skills

To demonstrate the difference between higher order and lower level thinking skills, I would like to give you a quiz. Let's call this...

Nonsense Comprehension Quiz Time!

Directions: Read the passage and answer the questions that follow.

Once upon a time a tawndy rapsig named Gub found a tix of pertollic asquees. So chortlich was he with his discovery that he murtled a handful to show Kon, a cagwitzpat. “Pagoo!” cried Kon. “With these you could treeple a frange!”. “No,” smiled Gub, “I think I’ll just paible a catwicine.” *

1. What did Gub find?

2. How was Gub feeling with his discovery?

3. After Kon cries Pagoo, what does he suggest to Gub?

Results: I have carefully graded your quiz. Congratulations on scoring 100%!

Being able to answer these direct recall questions, does not help us to determine a real understanding of what is being read. It also neglects higher order thinking skills altogether. We could have asked, for example, what do you think will happen to Gub next? This is a higher order question and reveals more understanding.

*Comes from the York Adult Assessment 

Putting it All Together: Before, During, After...Comprehending and Comprehension

Which leads me back to the issue at hand.  The importance of meeting with students one on one to determine if there is a deeper understanding of text can not be understated.  We can not wait to have students answer questions or write a book report after they are finished reading. This all boils down to supporting a before, during, and after reading approach to assisting readers. We are like a coach on the field, providing support along the way. 

Comprehending Instruction: Before/During Reading

1. Higher order- Whether in a small group setting or one on one, let the talk be focused on higher order reading strategies such as inferring, making connections, synthesizing, and questioning, to name a few. These are the type of questions that are impossible to answer with a multiple choice test.

2. Read with a purpose- Whether you are introducing a story or asking a student why they have selected a book, this aides with comprehension. Why are we reading? What's in it for me? Information, entertainment, or persausion.

3. Talk about prior knowledge and vocabulary- Let's use the nonsense passage from above. If we are being silly and say that this story is based on an alien language on the planet Zuba, and Mark just happens to be a student that vists this planet frequently, he can help us create an understanding of what we are about to read. Mark can support us with new Zuba language as well.

4. Use post-it notes as an alternative to writing in a book, creating bunny ears, or highlighting. When we have students strategically placing post-it notes for places to stop, think, and record, we are creating a stronger level of understanding. We are also able to "see" what is going on in the mind.

5. Write and reflect- I don't ask my students to write a book report because they take time once a week to stop and reflect about what they are reading in their reader's notebook. With the support of thinking stems (main photo and below), students can demonstrate their ability to deeply understand what they are reading and working on as a reader. I am continually understanding where they are as a reader and any areas that need to be worked on.

Comprehension Instruction: After Reading

1. Have a guided discussion about the book- For example, I recently had a student finish a book by Jerry Spinelli's wife. We talked about their writing style and how it was alike and different.

2. Revisit the text- As writers, we often revisit a book to look at it more carefully (What are they doing, why are they doing it, can I try it in my writing).  In the context of reading, we can go back to analyze why a story ended abruptly or why a certain character was never really described. This is a great place to stop and wonder.

3. Reinforce the strategies-  When a book is finished, this is a great time to reinforce some of the strategies we have learned to use as a reader.  Upon using post-it notes for recording thoughts, as a teacher you may want to remind the student to use that strategy again with their next book.

4. Support the reader-  When a book is nearing completion I usually ask, "What's next?" I want to make sure a student has the support they need to keep on reading.  They may ask me if I know any books that are like the one they are about to finish.  I can make a personal recommendation or suggest them to use Scholastic's Book Wizard to find another book. 

5. Write a book review- There is a big difference between a book review and a book report. A book report is when you try to prove you read and understood a book. However, if you meet with your students on a weekly basis, this shouldn't be a concern. Scholastic, as well as other sites, have wonderful links that allow readers to post their reviews of books. You can visit my Scholastic lesson plan, which has several suggestions on how to get this working in your room: Writing Book Reviews: Online and Beyond

Because I Like Photos...


A sample of some of the modeling thinking stems we can use to write about what we are reading and understanding.


Before, during, and after combined- Post-it notes were used in a guided reading session to record questions before reading, during reading, and after.  A chart was made an explained to the class following.


Focusing on higher order thinking strategies. Should I change it to the Comprehending/Comprehension board?

To learn more about our class, visit us here and feel free to share your comprehending and comprehension strategies!


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Inside Angela's 4th Grade Classroom are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.