When a professional development day focusing on writing evolved into a discussion about reading comprehension, the day took a very eventful turn. Lesa Dionne, staff specialist for Cattaraugus Allegany BOCES, was providing professional development on the writing process for fourth and fifth grade teachers at Cuba Rushford Elementary School. The fifth grade teachers arrived in the afternoon, frustrated after looking at student work and realizing the class was having a difficult time citing evidence and answering comprehension questions. Student seemed to be struggling with the challenging texts from the Common Core and teachers wanted them to become more active learners. Lesa looked at the student work and pointed out that the students cannot write about a passage that they can’t comprehend. The discussion quickly changed from the writing process to reading comprehension and the use of questioning as a strategy to actively engage students.
Lesa switched gears from the activities she had planned and modeled the questioning strategy for the teachers while they acted as the students. The comprehension strategies are six skills based processes; activating prior knowledge and building knowledge, questioning, determining importance, sensory imaging, inferring and synthesizing. The teachers were intrigued and wanted to see how students would react so they invited Lesa to come and model a lesson with their classes.
The model lesson began with Lesa modeling the questioning strategy using a photograph of a man in a boat holding a huge fish. The students were very interested in this picture and had many questions. Such as; Where is he fishing? What kind of fish is that? Who is he? Is he on the ocean? Will he release the fish? Is it a salt water or fresh water fish? Who took the picture? Questioning really created a need to know. This is the level of engagement students need when reading complex, rigorous text.
Lesa then modeled how they can use the same questioning strategy with the book, Rose Blanche, a challenging picture book about the Holocaust, based on actual events. The detailed provocative illustrations and language in this text makes it a strong choice for teaching comprehension. Questioning helped students pay closer attention to the text and deliberately access important information in the pages to come. Some students would make statements about the text. Lesa invited them to turn their statements into questions by beginning with “I wonder”. Questioning through the illustrations and context cues helped students work through tough vocabulary and complicated concepts. Becoming more skilled at questioning really helps students become more engaged with the text which improves their ability to use the other comprehension skills. By the middle of the book, we were all on the edge of our seats waiting to hear the end!
Following the model lesson, teachers and Lesa debriefed the lesson. The discussion revolved around the questioning strategy and how it will help students with reading comprehension by getting them more actively engaged with the text. Generating questions generates thinking, which promotes making meaning. Students are always so busy answering questions or thinking about what questions teachers might ask, they don’t often have the opportunity to become skilled questioners.
After the model lesson, teachers put into practice what they observed by following the same process that Lesa modeled. They began with whole group activities, moved into small group and will eventually move into individual questioning activities. They started by looking for quantity of questions, but are now moving toward quality of questions. They are teaching their students to ask higher-level questions as they get better with the process. Students jot questions on post-its and then rank them from most to least effective, creating a question pyramid with yes and no questions on the bottom and how and why questions at the top. As students get better with questioning, teachers are noticing that they are generating more how and why questions, and less one word answer questions. The more they ask, the better they comprehend the text. The teachers say it has really helped student understanding and ability to answer tough questions. Eric Talbot commented that, “This has increased student’s interest since they have more of a vested interest in the story and are asking questions that they are actually interested in rather than leaving the focus on the teacher.” Each student has an iPad so they can look up information and vocabulary words they need to help them comprehend what they are reading.
“Seeing Lesa do it was so much better than hearing her tell us how to do it. We saw how she pulled information out of the kids,” said Joanne Foley. “Common core texts, reading stories, science activities…I’ve implemented questioning in all areas. They have to get to the point where they do it on their own.” Students are working towards this and showing improvement. They are learning that the purpose of reading is to get information. As they improve in their questioning abilities, their reading comprehension will also improve.
By: Gina Palermo and Lesa Dionne, CA BOCES Professional Development