Steps to Comprehension

Steps to Comprehension Posters

We’ve all experienced it, the desire to scream, cry, pull our hair out, do something, when students answer basic knowledge-level questions incorrectly. It dives me absolutely insane having to watch students take a test and get questions wrong, especially when the answer is right there in the text. I just want to say (ok, shout), “Look back at the text! Read!” Thankfully, most of my students eventually stop putting me through this torture and learn to look back at the text before answering. How do I get them to do this? A combination of a lot of explicit instruction, a ​set of posters displayed prominently in my room, and just a little bit of “torture,” middle school teacher style.​

One of the first poster sets I put up every year, and leave up all year, is my Steps to Comprehension posters. This is a set of seven footprints with the steps I teach my students to follow when answering any comprehension question. The first poster simply says, “Steps to Comprehension.” Each of the other footprints lists a single step:

  1. Read the question and choices.
  2. Read the passage.
  3. Read the question and choices again.
  4. Find a sentence or two that tells the answer.
  5. Read the question and choices again.
  6. Mark your answer.

These are simple steps, but it is amazing how much reinforcement it takes to get students to follow them.

Once school begins I dive straight into explicit teaching and reinforcement of these steps. Before introducing and reading our very first piece of text for the year, I point out the posters and we talk about them. We read each step and talk about how doing this action will help us answer the question(s). I then introduce our text and model the steps, verbalizing the thoughts that go through my head as I am reading and comprehending a passage. We work through several texts over several days (weeks, months…) as a group, the whole time verbalizing our thinking/rational for what we’re doing. I encourage the students to, whenever possible, underline the sentence(s) that help them answer the question and write the question number next to them. To be sure students are getting enough practice, I like to use daily reading comprehension practices as part of our morning/bell work. I have quite a collection of photocopiable books for this purpose, but two of my favorite publishers are Evan-Moor and Scholastic. As they begin working through the process on their own, students don’t verbalize their thoughts as much, but I still require them to underline and number sentences to support their answer choices. As we go over the answers I will encourage students to share what sentences they underlined and why for different questions.

Eventually, once students are proficient with the steps, and are consistently able to correctly answer various levels of comprehension questions, I allow them to choose if they want to continue underlining sentences or not. There is a caveat though (this is where the “torture” comes in), any student who does not complete a comprehension assignment with 90% (or whatever percentage I deem fair) accuracy or better, must correct his/her mistakes AND underline sentences in the reading. He/she is also required to underline sentences from the beginning for the next comprehension assignment. The students hate having to correct their mistakes, and most hate underlining the sentences to begin with, so it usually only takes enforcing this rule once or twice before all students are scrupulously applying the steps to comprehension.

This simple set of posters and small adjustment to my lessons made a huge difference with my students. Students still get questions wrong from time to time, but nearly as often, and almost never a basic knowledge-level question that is answered directly in the text. The poster set can be downloaded for free by clicking the picture or link above. Happy teaching, everyone!