By Sara DeMartino & Cheryl Sandora
Institute for Learning
We believe that all text-based work should begin with a high-level comprehension task and should take students beyond answering who, what, when, where, and why. We argue that solid comprehension work begins with a high-level question that asks students to make sense of a text as a whole. This means that students need to closely and carefully read and reread the text, and grapple with the ideas to craft statements about an author’s big ideas and be able to explain what in the text helps them to understand that big idea.
We see comprehension work as seeds for just and equitable literacy instruction that invite every student to collaborate and do the heavy lifting with texts that spark interest and curiosity around topics that students find engaging.
This work requires students to analyze and draw connections among the various information an author presents in a text, cognitive work that is situated as “high-level” in tools such as Bloom’s taxonomy. This comprehension work is important, as it provides the foundation for additional text-based tasks. Student-centered routines scaffold students through the cognitive work of a high-level comprehension task. It’s the quick writes and the student-led discussions that happen during comprehension tasks that provide the foundation for the analytic and interpretive tasks that follow in a coherent arc of tasks on a complex and engaging text. We see comprehension work as seeds for just and equitable literacy instruction that invite every student to collaborate and do the heavy lifting with texts that spark interest and curiosity around topics that students find engaging. We’d like to share the process of planning for a comprehension task so that you might further support the comprehension work happening in your classrooms.
Planning a high-level comprehension task that launches a sequence of coherent work with a complex and engaging text takes time. However, the effort is worth the reward because you set all students up for success as they re-engage with the text during analysis and interpretive tasks. The below graphic is one representation of the planning process. It’s important to note that planning for text-based work is not as linear as it is shown below and can be iterative. You might find yourself reading, annotating, and discussing a text only to find out that it won’t work in the unit or in the sequence of instruction that you are planning, and you then must go back to selecting, reading, annotating, and discussing again.
Learning Goals: As you know, the work you plan for any text begins with a set of learning goals for your students. Determining specific goals will help with text selection and narrowing the genres and types of text that you explore for instruction. We also believe that the text should drive the work that you do with students, so be prepared to revise or shift these goals as you find texts that will support engaging and high-level work.
When selecting texts to use with students, there are several important ideas to keep in mind. The first is, who are your students? What do you know about them and what are they interested in learning about? Although it’s tempting to make assumptions about the answers to these questions, really listen to what your students have to say. Ask them what they want to know and what they like to read about. Students want to see and hear themselves in the texts that they read, but we also want to make sure that we provide students windows into lives of people different from them to help students develop a broader perspective on the world.
Before you develop a comprehension task, it’s important to first read and annotate the text to see the work that the text invites. As you read the text, note complexities and sentences, paragraphs, or sections where students might get stuck. You’ll also want to note the big ideas, ELA content worth digging into, what the text does well, and genuine questions the text leaves you with. Your notes and annotations will prime you for a discussion of the text with a peer and also provide you with the information you’ll need to craft your comprehension task and any scaffolds you might need to create to provide every student access to the text and the high-level comprehension question.
Your work selecting a text and creating a comprehension task should not be done alone! Work with a peer or in a professional learning community (PLC) to discuss the text that you’d like to use with your students. Your discussion should focus on a few key questions:
- Is this a text that is worth extended study?
- What makes this text complex?
- What do you see as the big ideas?
- What is the ELA content that is worth digging into?
- Does this text support students to reach the learning goals?
If the result of your discussion around the text is agreement that it’s a text that’s worth asking students to spend time with, then you’ll move into developing the comprehension task. You’ll want to work with your peer or PLC to develop a comprehension task that
- invites students to make sense of the ideas in the text using evidence from the beginning, middle, and end of the text.
- doesn’t give the ideas in the text away or tell students what to think.
- provides an educative nugget of information to help students engage with the question.
- uses student centered routines to help students make meaning and learn from each other.
After the task is written, work with your peer or in your PLC to complete the task. You’ll want to be sure that the task as written generates the responses you would expect from students. It’s quite possible that the question you ask may not generate the types of responses you are looking for or takes the students away from the text (be honest, could you have answered that question without having read the whole text? Without having read the text at all?). You’ll also want to check for coherence throughout the task – students should be writing and talking about the same question throughout their work with the task and should have opportunities to revise and reflect on their thinking about the text.
You want to start with comprehension, but you definitely want to move beyond the comprehension work. You’ll want to work to develop Analysis and Interpretation tasks that
- build on the work done in the comprehension task by inviting students to revisit quick writes
- focus on genuine inquiry within the text (not all texts lend themselves to interpretive work, so don’t force it).
- ask students to analyze an interesting aspect of the author’s craft
- Remember, it isn’t necessary to do everything that a text offers (work to be focused – you don’t need to mine a text for all of its gems, just the really valuable ones).
The end result of your planning work with the text should be a coherent arc of work that takes students deep into important and interesting ideas and ELA content. Below is one example of how an arc of work might look using an excerpt from Jacqueline Woodson’s New York Times article, “Jacqueline Woodson on Africa, America and Slavery’s Fierce Undertow.”
Creating a coherent arc of work across a text means that you are selective about the content students are invited to study. As an English teacher this can be hard (the commas! the figurative language! tier 3 words!). However, resisting the urge to do everything you can possibly do with the text (remember, you are looking for the gems) leads to instruction that invites deep study of the elements of writing that the author really showcases in a text. As you invite students to study the text, remember that high-level comprehension tasks lay the foundation for every student to succeed as they dig into analyzing an author’s craft and drawing on text evidence to respond to genuine inquiries.