Improving Comprehension: Part 3

Welcome back! Here is the third part of the Improving Comprehension Series for ELLs - the evidence straight from the classroom!

If you are just joining us, don't forget to check out Part 1 and 2 by clicking the links below.

I don't know about you, but I love data!!! After completing the reading assessments as I outlined in Part 2, I took the information and put it into some graphs so I could easily see the trends and growth. 

These first four graphs show the students growth from the assessments done in Fall and the assessments I just completed, labeled Spring. The students are anonymously labeled as 1-22 along the bottom. The numbers used were an average of a fiction passage and a non-fiction passage.

As you can see in the four graphs above, the students all or mostly improved in all aspects of their reading over the course of the past 8 months. Some made huge leaps in their fluency rate (WPM), which was really great to see. Their comprehension, although somewhat improved, is still poor. The reading assessment did not allow the students to use the text when answering questions, and many of the students could not remember the answers or had no idea what the answer was. Some students answered the questions with scenarios that were completely unrelated to the story.

Now for a few graphs to show the differences between fiction and non-fiction success rates. These numbers all represent the most recent data; Spring.

It is really interesting to note in this data that the fluency rate mostly was lower when students read the non-fiction texts, however their retelling and comprehension was higher than fiction for the most part. I have noticed in the classroom that students tend to spend more time with non-fiction texts because they know they are looking for information.  While reading fiction texts, they tend to spend less time thinking about what is happening because they don't feel that they are 'learning new information'. 

Now on to the main point. Take a look at the graphs below that compare reading accuracy rates and comprehension rates. Both numbers are represented out of 100%. The red line represents the percentage of words the student reads without making errors. The blue line represents their comprehension score when answering questions about the text.

You can clearly see the huge disconnect between their ability to decode a text and their ability to comprehend a text.

Just to give you an idea about the level of the students, I have compared their fluency rates to those of typical 5th graders. Keep in mind we also used the 4th grade passage when reading. The two pink lines represent the 'normal' range according to Fountas & Pinnell, while the dark blue line represents Reading A-Z's recommendations. 

Now that we have seen the data that proves there is a disconnect between comprehension and fluency, what can we do to improve this and bridge the gap between fluency and comprehension?

To start, we can stop giving ELL students these assessments to help guide our teaching; especially in international settings where American or British curriculum is used. Students whose first language is not English are being given assessments that are made to assess the levels of Native English speakers.

Here are some things I tried out in my classroom to try to motivate them to enjoy reading and comprehend what they are reading.

If the students are motivated to read, then they will be more willing to learn.

If I give the students a purpose for reading, then they will be more motivated to read.

If I give the students a variety of ways to explore reading, then they will be more motivated to read.

We started book club in our reading groups last week to see if this would motivate the students to want to read. They were really excited about it! Here is the anchor chart we made together so they would know exactly what to do.

The anchor chart below is something that we have used all year (you can see the wear and tear!) to mark different parts in our books using post-it notes. The students really improved in doing this throughout the year and it is nice to see them use the post-it notes to write reflections and responses.

Below is a picture of the students signing up for different roles in book club; connector, predictor, visualizer, questioner, inferring and word watcher.

Below is an example of a student using her sticky notes to write a summary of the book.

On the left the student leader is checking if the rest of the groups work is complete in preparation for their group discussion. On the right, the students are taking turns sharing their parts for the first few chapters of the book. The students were very involved in the conversation and had a lot of great ideas and questions to share!

Above and below is what I had the two lower reading groups work on. I did not have access to a book that was the right reading level for them and also had multiple copies. I also thought they might struggle to complete all the written work involved in book club. Instead, they each picked individual books and began working on a book report in a box, where they had to collect items that represented something in the book. Below the students are 'buzzing' about their books; each student had a chance to summarize their book so far and answer questions from their peers.

Below is another way I was able to motivate the students to read. They created goals for the last term of school. We began by looking at our progress from Term 1 and 2, and decided based on that. Then, there were differentiated choice boards for the students. Each time they read a book, they chose an activity to complete.  They were three different levels of the choice boards, so the activities were accessible and varied for each student.

This student really impressed me, and herself! She read one full book in Term 1 and one in Term 2. This term she was working towards two, which also happened to be the shortest amount of time! She ended up reading seven (not all chapter books), and completing activities on each of them that showed she understood what she was reading. She even writes in her reflection that she thought it would be hard to read two books, but then it was easy! I love this!

This is a reading response from one of the low students in the class about why she chose this specific book. She justifies it using things we talked about in class, and gives a little bit of information about it!

Below is one response from one of my higher students. You can see she asked meaningful questions about the second text she read. They did a great job on their writing activities. This was a change from the usual reader's notebook letters they were writing previously.

Between the reading challenge and the book club, the students have been very motivated to read. They have even asked me if they can read on a Thursday afternoon! (Our version of a Friday). I think there are many ways to motivate students to read, including being excited about reading yourself!

If I explicitly teach meaning, students will build vocabulary.

If I provide a variety of ways for a student to explore a word before reading, the student will be able to understand the vocabulary when it is used in a text.

For this part of my inquiry, I tried a few different strategies to teach the students the meaning of new vocabulary words.  Firstly, I found that vocabulary words must be taught in small amounts, 5 or less at one time. Too many words can be even more overwhelming for the students when they are trying to learn them before reading. Stick to the most important words that will affect how a student understands the text.

The next thing to consider when teaching vocabulary is what words to select. There are many word lists for novels and books, but often these vocab words are more specific to the text and not general words that students will see more often. They may not know some other words in a text that a native English speaker would already know, therefore it wouldn't show up as a vocabulary word in a teaching guide or otherwise. It is important to know the students and look through the text yourself to find the most important words that will be used frequently enough that the word is important to the student.

In our book club, it is one persons role to watch for words they do not know. This way, the students will pick up on vocabulary words that hindered them from understanding something, so they can make meaning from it on their own.

Providing the context the word is found in rather than giving the definition can also be helpful as I found. For example, in The Mouse and the Motorcycle the word "prevented" is used on page 2:

"Matt also replaced worn-out lightbulbs... and sometimes prevented children from hitting on another with croquet mallets on the lawn behind the hotel." 

We know off the bat that these students will probably not know what a "croquet mallet" is, but that is not as important as another word like 'prevented' that they could use in their general vocabulary. Sentences that could be used to explain prevented could include:
  • My mother prevented me from going outside to play because I did not clean my room.
  • We need to brush our teeth to prevent cavities.
  • I tried to prevent my dog from running away by putting up a fence.
  • We exercise to prevent ourselves from getting sick.
Then I asked the students to write their own definition of what they thought the word meant.

  • Student # 6 - "to not"
  • Student # 15 - "prevented mean do not"
  • Student # 12 - "I think prevented do not do something"
The students got the general idea of what the word meant without me explaining the meaning or giving a definition. This shows that context is the most effective way for an ELL student to learn new vocabulary. They were also able to use their own words, although with short definitions, to give the meaning of the word rather than memorizing or interpreting a dictionary definition.

Today my students asked me what the word "suggested" and "cooties" meant as those were some words they flagged with their sticky notes while reading "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing". In that situation we can explain the words to them, but I find they must do something with the word in order to remember it. These could be words that are used in the future in close reading passages to make sure the students interact with them more often.

I would love to hear your feedback. Please leave a comment in the space below!

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