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Overview WHY & WHAT

As teachers, we take kids' thoughts, ideas, and opinions seriously. We design instruction that engages kids and guides them as they grapple with the information and concepts they encounter in school, particularly as they read informational text. The Comprehension Toolkit focuses on reading, writing, talking, listening, and investigating, to deepen understanding of nonfiction texts. With a focus on strategic thinking, Toolkit's lessons provide a foundation for developing independent readers and learners.

Cultivate a Culture of Thinking and Understanding
The teaching and learning focus in The Comprehension Toolkit is on comprehension instruction, including:

  • monitoring comprehension
  • activating and connecting to background knowledge
  • asking questions
  • inferring meaning
  • determining importance
  • summarizing and synthesizing.
These strategies help kids read informationa l text, and merge their thinking with the information to learn, understand and remember it beyond Friday's quiz.

The Gradual Release of Responsibility Framework
The reading strategies in The Comprehension Toolkit are taught through a gradual release of responsibility framework. We provide explicit instruction through modeling and collaborative practice, and then provide opportunities for independent practice and application.

Understand, Remember, and Use Informational Text
The Comprehension Toolkit provides an alternative to the traditional assign and correct curriculum. Instead, the teaching and learning focus is on strategic thinking and explicit instruction via modeling, practice and application. The Comprehension Toolkit is designed to help kids negotiate informational text, to think about what they are reading, and to hold that thinking so that they understand, remember, and use it.

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PHILOSOPHY

Kids' thinking matters! When kids in classrooms begin to understand that their thinking matters, reading changes. Suddenly the refrain of "What time is recess? When's lunch?" transforms into the anthem of "Can we please go read now?" As teachers, we take kids' thoughts, ideas, opinions and learning seriously. We design instruction that engages kids and guides them as they grapple with the information and concepts they encounter in school, particularly as they read informational text.

We can't read kids minds. One way to get a window into their understanding is to help them surface, talk about, and write about their thinking. The Comprehension Toolkit emphasizes reading, writing, talking, listening, and investigating as the hallmarks of active literacy. These are the cornerstones of our approach to teaching and learning and the means to deeper understanding and expanded thinking. The Toolkit reveals the language of thinking we use to explicitly teach kids to comprehend the wide variety of informational text they encounter. Through the Toolkit lessons, we demonstrate how our teaching language becomes the kids' learning language.

The teaching and learning focus is on comprehension instruction, including monitoring comprehension, activating and building background knowledge, asking questions, inferring meaning, determining importance, and summarizing and synthesizing. These strategies support kids to learn and understand what they read. Reading comprehension is not about answering a list of end-of-chapter questions. Reading comprehension is the evolution of thought that occurs as we read. Understanding happens when readers have an inner conversation with the text. When readers read informational text, they need to merge their thinking with the information to learn, understand and remember it beyond Friday's quiz.

David Perkins suggests that "knowledge does not just sit there…it functions richly in people's lives to help them understand and deal with the world." Real world reading promotes the active use of knowledge. We read to learn something new, change our thinking, satisfy our curiosity, and even discover something we couldn't have imagined. Bringing the real world into the classroom offers kids a constellation of possibilities for talking, reading, writing, and investigating. We flood the room with trade books, magazines, newspapers, picture books, essays and poems to bring the larger world into focus. As kids read, write, talk, and think about these texts, they expand thinking and develop insight.

The Comprehension Toolkit is not an add-on. It replaces rote fill-in-the-blank activities and worksheets with practices that engage kids and foster active thinking. For years, students have plowed their way through dense expository text that confounds them with its information overload. They learn how to answer the end-of-chapter questions in the textbook without even reading it. The Toolkit is designed to help kids negotiate informational text, to think about what they are reading and to hold that thinking so that they understand, remember and use it.

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GOALS OF THINKING Our goals for kids as readers, writers and thinkers include the following:
  • To enhance understanding by reading strategically
  • To acquire and actively use knowledge
  • To experience passion, curiosity, and wonder about the world
  • To synthesize and share learning
  • To expand thinking and develop insight
  • To foster a common language around comprehension
  • To track, monitor, and document student thinking

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GUIDING PRINCIPLES

Traditionally in schools as kids read to learn, they were asked to remember a litany of isolated facts. And lots of kids did this pretty well—remembering the information just long enough to take the test. We finally understand why we remember so little from all those years of schooling, but still got decent grades. We memorized countless facts and quickly forgot them. What is the point of learning and forgetting, learning and forgetting, over and over again? Perkins says that "learning is a consequence of thinking. Far from thinking coming after knowledge, knowledge comes on the coattails of thinking." It's so obvious; when we think about and actively use what we are learning, we remember it. When we memorize isolated facts, we forget them.

We need to find ways to move from a culture of memorization to a culture of thinking and understanding. The Comprehension Toolkit provides an alternative to the traditional assign and correct curriculum. Instead the teaching and learning focus is on strategic thinking and explicit instruction via modeling, practice, and application.

We use the following principles to guide us as we build a classroom community of thinkers and learners. Teachers and kids take responsibility for and collaborate to build a thinking environment. A shared sense of purpose guides learning-- all members of the classroom community view themselves as thinkers, learners and teachers.

The following are the principles that guided us as we developed The Comprehension Toolkit

Creating an environment that fosters and values thinking
When we honor kids' thinking, they learn that their thinking matters. Students and teachers feel free to take risks as learners when they know their thoughts, ideas and opinions will be treated respectfully by others. The room arrangement mirrors the focus on learning and thinking with meeting spaces for small groups, a comfortable spot where the large group can gather, and desks or tables in clusters to promote conversation and collaborative work.

Nurturing thoughtful, curious readers and thinkers
Passion and wonder are central to life in a thinking classroom. Students enter our classrooms brimming with curiosity about the world and are encouraged to view learning as a way to better understand it. Engagement soars when kids listen to, respond to, and challenge each others' thinking.

Real world reading
Much of what adult readers read is short nonfiction: newspapers, magazine articles, memos, directions, essays, editorials etc. Often in school, students engage in focused content reading and have little opportunity for real world reading. Both are essential. When kids "read widely and wildly" as Shelley Harwayne says, they are far more likely to find content that intrigues them and propels them to investigate further. This also helps build background around all sorts of topics so kids have a reservoir of knowledge from which to draw.

Teaching strategic reading within a gradual release framework
Strategies that proficient readers use include monitoring comprehension, activating background knowledge, and connecting to personal experience, asking questions, inferring meaning, determining importance, summarizing and synthesizing. We teach these strategies through the gradual release of responsibility framework. We provide explicit instruction through modeling and guided practice, and then provide opportunities for independent practice and application. Students learn to use these strategies flexibly, across a variety of texts, topics, and subject areas.

Monitoring comprehension and leaving tracks of thinking
When readers read, it is not enough to simply record the facts, they must merge their thinking with the information to learn, understand, and remember. They pay attention to the inner conversation they have with text, leaving written tracks of their thinking to monitor their understanding.

Creating a common language for talking about thinking
Comprehension strategies offer a common language for understanding and discussing what we read, what we write, and what we think. Without a common language, it is nearly impossible to talk about anything substantive.

Meeting individual needs and differentiating instruction
One size does not fit all. We consider how our instruction, materials and assessments can be adapted to students with varying reading proficiencies, learning styles and language backgrounds. Instruction occurs in a variety of groupings-- large groups, small groups, pairs, and with individuals.

Teachers as thinkers and learners
Teachers can set the standard by being thoughtful readers and learners themselves. When teachers model their own thinking and support students to think when they read, everyone in the classroom has the opportunity to experience learning as understanding.

Co-constructing meaning
Teaching and learning involves a process of co-constructing meaning. Both students and teacher weigh in with their thinking. We co-construct meaning in large groups by turning to each other and talking, in small groups, in conferences, and through discussions.

Making thinking visible to hold, remember and share it
One of the best ways to promote thinking is to provide opportunities for kids to share their thoughts. To make thinking visible, we gather, record, chart, and talk about our thinking.

Fostering a "strategic spirit" to engage kids in learning
David Perkins suggests that it's not enough to be able to think strategically; we have to want to do it. Tasks that require students to actively use, evaluate, and synthesize information are much more likely to engage kids. When kids are compelled by what they are learning, they are more likely to be motivated to think, question, and investigate.

Constructing learning around texts kids can sink their teeth into
Allington and Johnston suggest that "one of the best ways to increase student thinking is to make sure you have a curriculum that provides students with things worth thinking about." We need to provide text and materials that encourage kids to expand their thinking.

Collaborative reading, writing, and discussion leading to purposeful talk
Throughout the day, students have opportunities to respond to reading in a variety of ways including talking, listening, writing, and researching. Responding in both small and large groups provides a chance to learn from each other and hear each other's perspectives, opinions, thoughts, and concerns. When students engage in purposeful conversations, they articulate their learning and have opportunities to change their thinking based on what they hear.

Ongoing performance-based assessment
Every time we teach a lesson, we are assessing kids' thinking, reflecting on our teaching, and planning for subsequent instruction. Conferring with students is the best way we know to assess learning needs. We read and listen to students' many responses--Post-its, forms, journals, conversations, etc. We assess 24/7 and we evaluate (give grades) after students have had time to practice.

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INSTRUCTIONAL PRACTICES

To meet our goals and put these principles into practice, we design instruction based on the following instructional practices.

Modeling thinking
We model how we read ourselves; to share our struggles as well as our victories. We peel back the layers and show how we approach text and in that way demonstrate for kids how understanding happens.

Coding the text
We leave tracks of our thinking directly on the text or on a Post-it, in a notebook, etc. We might record our questions, confusions, thoughts, or highlight and underline important information, circle unfamiliar words, or star something we want to remember.

Text lifting for shared reading
We place a copy of the text on an overhead projector or post it on a chart as students work from their own copy. We think through and code the text together to understand and process the information.

Observing, noticing and sharing language and reading behaviors
While modeling, we ask kids to observe and notice our responses and reading behaviors. When we stop, the class discusses what they noticed, writes about what they observed or creates an anchor chart of behaviors they observed.

Anchor charting
We construct anchor charts to record kids' thinking about a text, lesson, or strategy so that we can return to it to remember the process. Anchor charts connect past teaching and learning to future teaching and learning. Everyone weighs in to construct meaning and hold thinking.

Reading, writing, and talking
Kids read, code, and respond to the text individually and then talk to each other and share out the process and the content.

Interactive reading aloud
As the teacher reads aloud, kids respond in writing. The teacher stops occasionally to provide time for them to turn to each other and talk.

Purposeful talk
We provide opportunities for kids to talk purposefully in a variety of structures including turning to each other and sharing during whole group instruction, jig-sawing the text in small groups, small group reading and responding, paired reading for discussion, and conferring.

Scaffolds and forms
We provide a range of response options including graphic organizers, double and triple column forms and response starters to support kids to leave tracks of their thinking so they can better understand it.

Using our own literature and reading experience to model reading
We bring in text we are actually reading to illustrate how we use comprehension strategies to make sense of and understand our own reading. In this way, students come to view us as readers and observe our authentic process.

Rereading to clarify meaning and expand understanding
Going back over a piece of text to show how we clarify confusion as well as demonstrate how thinking changes when we reread.

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