In this podcast, Sharon Taberski chats with Franki Sibberson about comprehension instruction across the grades. You can read Sharon's blog, All About Comprehension, at this link:
A full transcript of the podcast is available below the player.
Franki Sibberson: What inspired you to write a book about primary reading comprehension?
Sharon Taberski: Well, frankly, I think it's safe to say that comprehension appeals to me, or appealed to me, because I like taking on big, big topics, and trying to understand how all the parts of things work together. For example, I consider On Solid Ground a big book, in the sense that it puts together the kinds of interactions that we have with students: our assessments, our demonstrations, our practice, and our response. And it kind of ties it into one system, and shows how the different parts work together within a workshop.
And I'd like to think that it's the same thing with Comprehension from the Ground Up; that it does the same thing for comprehension instruction. I certainly know that writing the book grounded my thinking in what it means to teach and get kids to comprehend across the grades.
Franki Sibberson: And do you think comprehension teaching in K-3 is different than with older students?
Sharon Taberski: Well, I don't think that the teaching itself is so much different as the children are different, at different places along the literacy continuum. And in a way, it's kind of like taking Pearson and Gallagher's gradual release of responsibility model, and we typically apply it to the individual classroom, the individual classroom teacher. But I think that what I like to do is think about how it applies across the grades. I mean the kids are certainly different.
Kids in the upper grades are far more independent in applying the skills and strategies that they've seen demonstrated throughout their school years. They're metacognitive in a sense that younger children are not. They're able to think about their own thinking and their own reading. They take different perspectives: they think back, they think ahead, they imagine what might happen. And basically, they make much more informed decisions, and I think kids at the younger grades, I think they need more exposures, more demonstrations, more think-alouds about how reading and thinking about reading work.
And then opportunities to try out the skills and strategies under the guidance of the teacher; they need more scaffolding. But I don't think that, you know, in kindergarten, first grade, we can expect the little guys to go off and practice the strategies on their own, because very often they just don't have the books that work for the strategy, and they just don't hold on to what they're supposed to be doing. And their heads and their minds are busy and they're being used by trying to figure out what the words on the page mean.
Franki Sibberson: Right.
Sharon Taberski: And, you know, in a sense, I think that Daniel Willingham – he's a cognitive scientist, and I follow his work in the American Educator — he says that he doesn't believe that children are really able to apply the metacognitive strategies on their own until they're in about third or fourth grade. And in my experience, I mean I certainly have had second-graders who were good enough readers — solid enough, fluent enough readers — that they were able to think along the lines metacognitively about applying these things.
But I tend to think that earlier than that, the kids are dealing with other things. But comprehension is important, but we approach it much more from "let me show you, try it with me, this is what I'm thinking, this is what I'm trying. If any of you wanna try it, go ahead." But don't say, "All go back to your seats and work on this — on a strategy sheet — and then come back and talk," because they're just not going to.
Franki Sibberson: What do you think is the key to good comprehension teaching?
Sharon Taberski: Well, I'm convinced that the key to good comprehension teaching is to broaden our perspective regarding what it means to teach comprehension. I think it's really important that teachers move away from equating comprehension instruction with teaching the strategies. Teaching comprehension to children is so much more inclusive and expansive than that; it involves helping them become accurate and fluent readers. It involves helping them acquire and use background knowledge.
It's important to develop their oral language and their vocabulary. It's important to let them see the connection between the reading and writing and writing and reading. And it's also important — but this is not the most important thing — it's also important to help them develop a repertoire of strategies that they can use as an if-needed. And I think the problem now is that because teachers have come to equate comprehension instruction with strategy instruction, they're leaving out huge pieces that just need to be addressed if children are going to understand.
For example, I don't think there's anything more important than background knowledge, and I think most researchers will agree with that; that kids understand to the extent that they bring information to a text. Yet if all of our time and attention is going to teaching them strategies again and again and again and again and again, we're using opportunities and we're using time that they could be learning about things, and then bringing this information back to the text they read to help them understand better and more.
Franki Sibberson: One of the things I love about your work is that you've always been really intentional about your teaching. How do you make classroom decisions about comprehension?
Sharon Taberski: Well, I think that being intentional in relation to comprehension, for me, it means understanding precisely how all the aspects, how all the parts of my teaching, lead to comprehension, and I make decisions based on this knowledge. For example, I believe that in order for children to comprehend, they have to have multiple and extended opportunities to talk and exchange ideas, and basically talk about what they know so that they know it better. If this is true, and if this is part of what it means to teach children to comprehend, then my classroom has to be conducive to it.
I can't have kids in rows; I don't want kids even in clusters of desks. I want them at tables. I want a large meeting area. I want several small meeting areas. I want kids to be interacting with one another, because this is one of the most important facets. So even coming down to how my classroom is organized has to feed into how this is supporting children's comprehension. Being intentional, for me, also means being explicit with students: they have to really know why I've chosen the books I've chosen to read aloud; why I'm teaching them a particular thing at a particular day.
And this is something else that like David Sousa, who's a brain researcher, he talks about how the brain — his book is How the Brain Learns. He says something that's really interesting. He said that not only does learning have to be sensible — which means that we understand it. You know, we read something, and we can comprehend what it means. In order for real learning to take place, it has to be meaningful to the learner. The child has to relate it to himself somehow, see a connection to his own life. It has to be emotionally important to him.
He has to be convinced that this is good for him to learn. You know, it's important — I'm using a math example now — but it's important for you to learn to compute numbers quickly, multiply quickly, so that when you're at your baseball game you can get the score. It has to be that basic, and when it's not both sensible and meaningful, learning doesn't take place. And that really concerns me, because, as you know, in the schools, teachers are on treadmills and moving faster and faster trying to cover things, and they're not covering them deeply.
They're not really teaching in a way that children learn, and so I just really wonder what's happening, and it really concerns me that we're not slowing down, going deep, and giving kids time to connect, really, with what they're supposed to be learning.
Franki Sibberson: In the process of writing your new book, what new learning or thinking did you have?
Sharon Taberski: Well, as you know, it's taken me years to write this book, so as you can –
Franki Sibberson: It was worth it.
Sharon Taberski: As you can expect, I've learned a lot. I kept starting over and trashing what I thought and what I wrote, and starting over again, because it basically just didn't make sense to me. And I guess I started out, years ago, where many teachers are now, tending to equate comprehension with strategy instruction, and it's something that I've moved very far away from. And I don't want you to get me wrong and think that I don't think strategy instruction is important — I absolutely do. It has a place; it has an important place.
But the most important thing is for kids to acquire a repertoire of strategies that they can use as an if-needed, and I don't think that that as an if-needed is a piece that we drive home enough. We have them practice strategy again and again and again, but it really should be we read to understand, and when our meaning breaks down – when we think we're going to be reading a text that's challenging — then we call on a strategy or strategies to help us get out of mess, or to help us read with more ease.
And because teachers very often attend so heavily to the strategies, they don't do other things that they should be doing that equally contribute to comprehension: learning like background knowledge, and making reading/writing connections, and having kids talk.
Franki Sibberson: Sharon, what advice do you have for teachers who are trying to balance good teaching with the demands of testing and test preparation?
Sharon Taberski: Well, first of all, I know it's a huge problem, and teachers are facing this continually. But I do think it's a mistake to look at testing demands and raising children's scores head-on. Basically, we need to do what we know is good for kids. We have to teach them in a way that works. We have to motivate them to read more, and basically choose to read when they don't have to. This is what's gonna make them better readers, and this is what's gonna make them do well on the tests.
The alternative is to try to make our teaching match the test, and this like dramatically narrows our thinking and our teaching. So we need to keep our eye on the children, where they are and what they need, and then we need to look at testing demands kind of like out of the corner of our eye. Not directly, but just know they're there, and know that when we teach kids well, we are, in effect, "teaching them to take the test." And then, of course, a couple weeks before the test, you practice test-taking techniques.