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When it Comes to Primary Reading Comprehension, Are your Class Asking the Right Questions?

Donna Thomson explains why asking deep questions of a comprehension text is something all children can, and should be doing...

  • When it Comes to Primary Reading Comprehension, Are your Class Asking the Right Questions?

When children ask and answer their own in-depth questions about a text, they feel able to discuss the author’s purpose. In turn, this will help them understand the text, engage more fully in the story and perhaps feel a personal connection with the author – which is what reading is all about

We usually associate this level of comprehension and interrogation of text with fluent readers – yet evidence shows that it is within reach of all children.

Even ‘Children as young as four can generate certain types of inferences during reading’.

We just need to start early, and be explicit when teaching children how to identify and apply the literal, inference and evaluative self-questioning skills that are central to reading comprehension.

Three types of question

There are three fundamental question types, each with specific features:

A question with a direct meaning; usually factual ‘who?’, ‘what?’, ‘when?’ and ‘where?’ enquiries, the answers to which will be found ‘right there’ in the text.

A question with implied meaning. These may take the form of ‘why?’, ‘who?’, ‘what?’ and ‘where?’ queries, but as a detective might use them – to search for contextual clues that go beyond the obvious, in order to make deductions and justify answers.

Questions with a personal meaning of some kind. Here, those ‘why?’, ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘where?’ queries – as well as the question, ‘Why do you think that?’ – will be making judgements about events and characters based on both contextual clues and the questioner’s own experience.

How can we teach these comprehension skills across the ability range in KS1 and 2?

Gradual mastery

It is essential to include explicit instruction of summarising, predicting and clarifying strategies.

A meta-cognitive reciprocal approach helps all readers to fully understand the thinking processes involved in generating and answering in-depth questions accurately, which, ‘Improves reading comprehension performance across a range of diverse learners’.

You can do this by proceeding through the following steps:

  1. Show children how to explore picture narrative for literal and inferred meaning.
  2. Follow this by showing how to link literal and inferred picture clues with words and similar ideas in a sentence.
  3. Then show how to link picture and word clues within an illustrated paragraph of text.
  4. Finally, show how to link words and clues together in order to delve deeply for meaning within a whole passage of text. Eventually, text alone should be providing the pictures in the head of the reader.

As they gradually master literal, inferential and evaluative reading, all children, regardless of their initial reading ability, will be able to read for meaning with greater ease and monitor their understanding before, during and after reading.

Pupil self-assessment

By systematically teaching children how to identify and consciously use each comprehension strategy and question type, you will also be providing them with an extremely accurate tool for assessing their own reading progress.

While teacher assessment and analysis of a child’s initial understanding of these strategies remains key, it is ultimately the depth of the questions generated by the children themselves, and the accuracy of their answers, which will determine their ability to fully comprehend a text.

Research has shown that, ‘Students who have been shown how to generate questions as they read outperform those who have not’.

Assessing reading without levels – but with a reliable teaching focus

You can devise your own class assessments to gauge reading comprehension competency, without relying on levelled reading texts, by doing the following:

  • Using a range of illustrated pages from ‘real’ fiction and non-fiction appropriate to your children’s reading ages (decoding accuracy) and interests
  • Inviting the children to generate their own questions about the page they have read after they have answered your literal, inference and evaluation questions about the text

This will help give you an idea of the comprehension skills they already have in place, and provide you with teaching focuses for each child and for the class as a whole.

After self-questioning comprehension instruction, the children should be able to self-monitor their reading and identify for themselves where they need help with certain skills.

There are essentially three comprehension outcomes for the reader:

  • They find the text easy to understand
  • They possess only an average understanding of the text
  • The text is too hard for them to understand

For teacher and readers, the benchmark for assessing comprehension is therefore fairly straightforward.

  1. If pupils are able to generate and answer a range of questions about the text accurately, they are ready to move on to books with fewer or no illustrations, and more complex text to consolidate their skills.
  2. If they have an average understanding of text, they will need further instruction with illustrated texts within their reading age to consolidate their skills.
  3. If they cannot easily ask and answer questions of a text, they will need further instruction using more accessible books (perhaps aimed at a slightly younger reading age, which include text with more detailed illustrations) before reading more challenging texts.

When children know how to ask questions about any text – and can understand when to apply particular strategies to extract meaning and answers – it can both boost their literacy skills and encourage reading for pleasure. It can also empower their learning across the curriculum in the following ways:

  • Improved reading accuracy
  • Extended vocabulary and use of language
  • Improved grammar
  • More highly developed reasoning and justifying skills
  • Increased curiosity and imagination
  • Improved writing skills
  • Increased confidence
  • Greater willingness to pursue independent learning

Donna Thomson is a reading comprehension specialist, researcher, author and founder of Think2Read – a social enterprise providing research-based primary resources to support reading comprehension skills and collaborative enquiry. For more information, visit think2read.co.uk or follow @think2read.

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