Stories, Not Tricks, For Reading Comprehension

Recently, someone at a major education technology company approached me with this query:

“We’re looking to create something to address the needs of those middle school readers who can decode text, but aren’t really comprehending. What can you suggest?”

This is an issue I address in the first chapter of my (just released!) book, Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach, and in this adapted excerpt from the first chapter over at Middleweb.  At the risk of oversimplifying what’s involved in reading, I believe that the vast majority of students who can decode but don’t seem to comprehend what they read are basically not paying any attention to what they read. They aren’t actually experiencing the stories; they are simply scanning words on a page.  Many students have been cut off from stories in their reading for a long time (often focusing instead on strategies), so they don’t associate the sensation of experiencing a good story with the act of reading.

How can we remedy this?  I don’t think there are many tricks or shortcuts.  The answer is to give them stories–lots of them.  Help them reconnect reading with the feeling of following a good plot. Give them stories in a variety of forms, from the oral telling of folk tales, to reading picture books and longer stories aloud, to films, to graphic novels, to shorter and longer novels. I always begin with folk tales and include picture books in my curriculum, no matter the age of my students, to help them reconnect the oral form with the written forms of storytelling.

Also, when it comes to making the jump to reading books on their own, let them choose, or give them something they can relate to. This cuts down on the amount of mental work the student needs to put in to “get the story.”  If they have to focus attention on following the plot and also assimilating a lot of new information about something with which they have litte experience, it will be too much at first.  Move gradually from texts that allow for easy identification with main characters to texts that at first seem more foreign (even though most literature eventually helps us reflect back us back on our own realities).

Does letting students have stories conflict with the Common Core Standards? No! First, the skills of fiction reading transfer to non fiction (more on this in a later post.  Trust me; I’m working on it!)  Second, once students are hooked into fictional stories, you can easily draw connections to real world topics that connect to the stories in non fiction texts, and students will have a clear purpose for reading the non fiction, which is usually a prereqisite for effective reading of non fiction.  Third, the Common Core standards for English Language Arts require more non fiction than we’ve seen in the past, but this is across content areas, as David Coleman and Susan Pimental clarified almost a year ago. This means we need to collaborate with content area teachers, not that we should stop teaching fiction!

Let them read stories!

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  • billferriter

    Just Bought Your Book!

    Hey Pal, 

    Great post, but more importantly, CONGRATULATIONS on the book!  I just bought a copy of it and can’t wait to dig in to it.  

    You have had a huge impact on my instructional practice over the past few years and I can’t wait to learn more from you.

    Rock right on, 


  • Elizabeth Sky-McIlvain

    Good Sense

    I could not agree more!  I did exactly the same for around 30 years – hugely successful. And you can add intriguing informational texts to the mix – the best of them are narrative in structure.  But not all teachers, expecially younger ones, are widely read (I mean everything from folklore to children’s books to GT to today’s hot reads to science news).  We need to use our libraries and librarians more than every now!  

    Also – It occurs to me that teachers who limit reading instruction to strategies are not themselves asking very interesting questions about the reading.  It’s time to beef up PD and teacher coursework as well – bring on the stories and lose the activities, plot-based question sets, and senseless text pairings.  

  • CarrieKamm

    I just bought your book too!

    I cannot wait to dig into it and share with the middle school teachers I support and coach.  I appreicate you re-making the point about how fiction is not going away with Common Core.

  • Ariel Sacks

    So excited to share!

    Bill,THANK you! You have been a role model for me since I first joined TLN. Hearing your perspectives and the amazing things you do with your students has inspired me to be courageous in my teaching and find my voice as a writer. How powerful is this community?!

  • Ariel Sacks

    A crazy idea?

    Elizabeth, it’s great to hear that this idea resonates with you and that 30 yrs of experience tells you it really works! I agree that teachers of English and reading really do need to read widely themselves and stay current and immersed in the stories that would appeal to their age group. Then teachers will trust the stories to do more of the teaching. In other words, the literature has a lot of power. Removing barriers between reader and text can often do as much as a lesson on a specific strategyf

  • Ariel Sacks

    Crusade for fiction!

    Carrie, I’m so excited for you to read it! Please let me know what you and your teams think! (By the way, the chapters that are most easy for teachers to “use tomorrow” are 3 and 7.) I plan to keep on making the point about fiction and Common Core. There’s a lot of potential good in these standards and it drives me crazy to see then being twisted in such a sorry way. Getting rid of fiction would have robbed me of ALL my pleasure reading in elementary and middle school. And look where that reading got me?! I’m a non fiction writer!