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Private: Teaching Reading: 3-5 Workshop

Building Comprehension Extend Your Knowledge | Building Comprehension

Examine the Topic

Vocabulary development is an important factor in reading comprehension. Read the following three statements by Nell Duke, Jennifer Soalt, and Laura Pardo. Consider how these ideas on vocabulary instruction relate to the video classrooms, as well as to your own instructional practices.

Vocabulary and comprehension go hand in hand. Our research shows that a higher vocabulary predicts or suggests that a student will comprehend at a higher level. This connection is not just an accident. Really, it is causal. We know that if you work to improve students’ vocabulary, it actually improves their comprehension.

— Nell Duke

Vocabulary, like background knowledge, affects comprehension. However, research has shown that in order for vocabulary instruction to have an effect on comprehension, students need to explore a new word in a variety of contexts. Discussing the meaning of the same word in this way enables students to formulate a nuanced, recallable understanding of the word’s meaning. Unfortunately, much vocabulary instruction aimed at improving comprehension is ineffective because it examines the word being taught only in the context of a single text. Units of study that contain fictional and informational texts on the same topic help teachers avoid that instructional pitfall by enabling students to explore new vocabulary in multiple contexts: A new word first encountered in an informational text may be encountered again in a related informational or a fictional text on the same topic. Moreover, informational and fictional texts on the same topic often use synonymous or even identical words to convey slightly different shades of meaning, further enhancing the depth of students’ vocabulary by exposing them to the different facets of a particular word or group of words.

Excerpted from Soalt, J. “Bringing Together Fictional and Informational Texts to Improve Comprehension.” The Reading Teacher 58, no. 7 (2005): 680-681.

If there are too many words that a reader does not know, he or she will have to spend too much mental energy figuring out the unknown word(s) and will not be able to understand the passage as a whole. Teachers help students learn important vocabulary words prior to reading difficult or unfamiliar texts. When teaching vocabulary words, teachers make sure that the selected words are necessary for making meaning with the text students will be reading and that they help students connect the new words to something they already know. Simply using the word lists supplied in textbooks does not necessarily accomplish this task. Many teachers consider the backgrounds and knowledge levels of their students and the text the students will be engaging in and then select a small number of words or ideas that are important for understanding the text. Once teachers have decided on the appropriate vocabulary words to use, students must actively engage with the words–use them in written and spoken language–in order for the words to become a part of the students’ reading and writing vocabularies. For example, asking students to create graphic organizers that show relationships among new words and common and known words helps them assimilate new vocabulary. Asking students to look up long lists of unrelated, unknown words is unlikely to help students access the text more appropriately or to increase personal vocabularies.

Excerpted from Pardo, L. S. “What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Comprehension.” The Reading Teacher 58, no. 3 (Nov. 2004): 274.



Now write your answers to the following questions:

  • What are the important ideas about vocabulary instruction highlighted in all three statements?
  • What are the strategies readers use to determine unfamiliar word meanings?
  • What evidence of vocabulary learning did you see in the classroom clips? What strategies were the students using?
  • Think about your vocabulary instruction.
    • How will you provide multiple exposures to the same word?
    • How will you ensure that students are actively involved with the word?
    • What are your challenges in teaching vocabulary?

Tips for New Teachers: Comprehension Strategies

Good comprehension strategies are important, but they don’t happen after one lesson or even a few good lessons. If you’re a new teacher, or teaching a new group of students, consider the following tips to get started:

  • Use picture books to model using comprehension strategies.
  • Initially have students read easy text to practice a new comprehension strategy.
  • Create with your students a wall chart defining each strategy as you teach it.
  • Remember to tell students what the strategy is, how to use it, and when to use it.
  • Teach and apply strategies across the curriculum.
  • When conferring with a student during reading, note or ask the student what strategies are being used.
  • In planning for teaching a book, decide which comprehension strategies and themes you will develop throughout the book.
  • Be sure your plans include activities to develop comprehension before students begin to read. Determine and plan instruction for concepts, background knowledge, and vocabulary critical to understanding the selection.
  • Instead of asking students to answer a series of comprehension questions after reading, develop one open-ended question that will promote meaningful oral and/or written response.

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Private: Teaching Reading: 3-5 Workshop


Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2006.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-815-7