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Connect Comprehension Skills to Graphic Icons
March 15, 2016
We can help students understand the different ways that readers think by introducing and reinforcing each comprehension strategy with a visual icon. When students are able to connect an abstract idea to an object that is memorable and tangible, there’s a greater likelihood that they will read with intentionality.
While visual icons representing different comprehension strategies can be introduced at any time, it’s ideal to reveal each icon at the beginning of the year. This allows teachers the opportunity to circle back to each icon again and again as relevant mini-lessons are delivered all year long.
And when students see the same icon and hear the same vocabulary from year to year, they begin to understand that core comprehension skills look the same in every classroom and at every grade level.
Access a set of graphic icons developed by Kristina Smekens. Read the descriptions below.
Reading experts agree that an Inference = Text Clues + Background Knowledge.
Following that formula, consider that text clues come from the reading and background knowledge comes from the reader’s mental “backpack” of previous knowledge and experience. To visually depict how a reader makes an inference, Kristina uses what she calls the “Velcro Principle.” Essentially, comprehension occurs when text clues and background knowledge “stick” to one another like two strips of Velcro. If there’s no background knowledge to associate with a piece of text, there’s nothing for the new ideas to stick to.
When the Velcro Principle is working, readers are able to use their background knowledge and the text clues to make inferences by visualizing, asking questions, summarizing, etc.
Readers make connections when they compare what they are reading to what they already know. By using a graphic depiction of a four-plug electrical outlet, students understand that they should look for ways to “plug” the same text into themselves, other texts, and the world.
Sometimes the text is similar to a personal experience (text-to-self). Sometimes the text relates to something read previously (text-to-text). But a lot of what readers know is from general knowledge they’ve acquired over time (text-to-world).
When readers are engaged, they naturally have questions about characters in literature and ideas in informational texts. Kristina uses the graphic icon of a question mark to encourage students to be curious about what they are reading–and about what details are yet to come.
Compare the shape of a question mark to a road with a large bend. The reader, driving in the car, should wonder what’s around the corner. Readers ask questions; they wonder about the text. And then they keep reading, keep driving, keep turning the pages to find out the answer. If readers aren’t questioning before, during, and after reading, they’re not thinking.
Readers create visualizations when they combine the text on the page with their own imagination. To depict this process with a graphic icon, Kristina introduces students to a caricature who is wearing black-out sunglasses and has a cloud over her head.
While it’s obvious that the cloud represents the reader’s imagination, it’s important to note that the black-out glasses represent the “unseen.” In other words, the reader is responsible for creating mental illustrations using the Thinking Voice even when there are no pictures. As ideas unfold in the text, readers adjust their mental images. It’s like a continuous mind movie that corresponds with the details in the text.
Retell & Summarize
Retelling leads to summarization. When readers first learn to retell the specific details of a text, the challenge is to present those details in a logical order. And when readers move on to summarization, they continue to show logical order with beginning, middle, and end–but it’s far shorter and more general than a retelling.
Kristina uses the icon of a multi-car train set to illustrate the idea of retelling and summarization. The train engine represents the beginning and the caboose represents the ending. All the details in between are represented by middle train cars. A retelling will have many more middle cars than a summary. Because a summary is just an overview, it’s naturally a shorter train.
Determine Main Idea
Readers determine the main idea when they filter out the specific text details and identify the principal focus. Like draining a boiling pot of pasta, readers sift out the unimportant details and save only the single big idea.
The main idea is not multiple sentences like a summary. However, it is more than just the general topic written in 1-2 words. It’s a single statement. The main idea is the specific angle or focus of a topic.
All other comprehension strategies are about the reading. However, synthesis is about the reader. It’s very personal. It’s the aha! discovery a reader makes after reading something. It’s a new thought; it’s what a reader has gained because of the text. Like baking a cake, the reader starts by combining lots of “ingredients”–experiences, connections, visualizations, etc.– and, after allowing time for the thoughts to “bake,” the reader produces a brand new thought or aha!