If we give students a a reading piece and ask them to answer five comprehension questions about it, then we’re essentially assessing their reading skills. Yes, it’s a practice task in that they’re practising comprehension skills, but it’s not an effective learning task because we’re not teaching them to use or be mindful of inference strategies. What can we do instead? In a few weeks at our annual reading comprehension workshop we’ll be demonstrating dozens of teaching procedures which nurture students to learn about and practise reading strategies. Here’s one we’ll be discussing. It’s called ‘Show Your Thinking Reading Comprehension’ (download a PDF of it here: Show your working out task):
In Maths, coming up with the correct answer to a problem is only half the task: the other half, of course, is to show your working out. We know this is important because students can’t get to the correct answer without engaging in a sequence of logical steps. Nor are they likely to be able to transfer their Maths learning to new problems if they don’t conceptually understand how the procedural steps work to solve an equation. The same truths apply to the English classroom: to comprehend different aspects of a text, students need to engage in steps which allow them to reach a solution. The ‘Show your thinking’ reading task explicitly direct students to engage in the ‘working out’ steps and equips them with a transferable strategy to do so. And this is not just learning and practise for students. As teachers, looking at the working out students engage in (or don’t engage in) also provides rich information to us about what students need more instruction or practise in. The above example (the tasks are generic and can easily be used for other short pieces of writing) can provide us with feedback about student skills at three levels of tasks: whole text understanding, fact/sub idea level understanding and word/sentence level technique understanding. These three task types roughly align to the types of tasks students are set on NAPLAN – though NAPLAN usually has an additional visual literacy category as well (such as interpreting tables or accompanying images).