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Addressing Comprehension Concerns with Minilessons

Copyright © Adam Waxler

Regardless of grade level or ability level, teachers must consider a student’s schema, or “prior knowledge”, when reading various texts if they are going to maximize comprehension.  During reading, a student’s limited background knowledge will actually hinder comprehension.  This comprehension concern, whether anticipated or not, must be addressed.  Whether in a traditional social studies textbook or a first grade picture book, minilessons are a great way for teachers to manage comprehension concerns.

In an effort to please every curriculum of every state, and in an effort to mention every miniscule fact, the typical social studies textbook tends to be overwhelming in detail, and, dare I say, “boring” in how they are written.  Due to the detail and overwhelming facts, students often have a difficult time differentiating between important facts and not-so-important facts and can easily lose sight of the “big picture”.  However, this does not have to be the case.  If used properly, the pictures, maps, graphs, or political cartoons on any given page can be used in a minilesson that will add to the students’ schema and therefore increase their comprehension.  In fact, political cartoons are an excellent way to introduce a “tricky” social studies topic, which will not only increase student comprehension, but increase student interest as well.

The History Alive! The United States social studies textbook happens to go to great lengths to limit comprehension concerns by limiting the amount of information given on each page (in social studies “less is more” is often the case).  Each page contains only one picture, that picture may be a photo, cartoon, painting, or even a graph, but regardless, there is only one per page.  Furthermore, the History Alivetextbook only has one column of writing per page and only a small number of terms highlighted per chapter.

Nevertheless, comprehension concerns do arise.  One example that comes to mind is the textbook section on the Nuclear Arms Race.  Although the students have already studied the atomic bomb, the term “Nuclear Arms Race” is bound to cause some confusion.  Even at the junior high level, students take the meaning of words literally.  In this case, “nuclear” is a word that the students have only a vague understanding of, and the words “arms” and “race” have different meanings then their common usage.  Fortunately, the textbook provides a political cartoon that gives the teacher an opportunity to teach a minilesson that addresses these comprehension concerns.

However, to have the students simply respond to the cartoon is not making the most of the minilesson.  A teacher should show a few examples of political cartoons from previous units that the students have already seen and understand.  While showing these examples, the teacher prompts the students to look for the following elements in the cartoons: important people, symbols, exaggerated details, labels, voice or thought bubbles, and captions.  By getting students in the habit of searching out these elements, the teacher is allowing the students to think analytically about the cartoon.  Once this method is taught, students can then actively apply the process to the political cartoon about the nuclear arms race.  After students write down the various elements, they can then explain the meaning of the cartoon.

By using this minilesson prior to reading, the teacher has accomplished two goals.  First, the students have added a learning strategy to their repertoire.  They now know how to break down a political cartoon to find its’ intended meaning.  Second, the students have added to their schema, which will increase their comprehension as well as their motivation to learn.

Following the minilesson on analyzing political cartoons, the student will then link the information they have acquired with the upcoming reading.  As a follow-up activity, the students create their own political cartoon about the nuclear arms race, thereby reinforcing both the content and the strategy.

While textbook reading at the junior high school level poses obvious comprehension concerns, reading to younger children, who we do not yet expect to be reading themselves, poses even more concerns.  In both cases, the comprehension concerns can often be attributed to lack of background knowledge on the reading topic.  However, at the early elementary level any comprehension concerns may be compounded by any “twist” in the story that goes against their already limited schema.  For example, in Eve Bunting’s A Picnic in October, two concerns arise on the first page that may contradict a young student’s schema about picnics and parks.  First, the picnic is at the end of October and it is cold.  Secondly, the family is leaving from Battery Park.  The students preconceived notions of summertime picnics and ofbatteries may cause some confusion.  Yet, similar to the use of pictures in junior high textbooks, pictures in children’s stories can go along way towards increasing student comprehension.

As questions arise, or even before so, teachers should explain to their students how to use the pictures in books to help them understand the information that is written in them.  Teachers can model this by using pictures in a book that the students are already familiar with to help explain the story in that book.  Afterwards, the teacher can start A Picnic in October by having the students “read” the pictures only.  Students can predict what the book is about while the teacher clears up some of the anticipated concerns.  For example, the illustrations show the family carrying beach chairs, picnic baskets, and coolers, while at the same time the characters are all dressed in warm clothes.  These pictures give the teacher the opportunity to clear up some confusion before the reading even starts.  Likewise, early illustrations in the book have “Battery Park” written on signs and awnings.  Again, the illustrations give the teacher an opportunity to explain that “Battery” is name of the park.  After students have “read” the pictures, the teacher can then read the story to the children.  To follow up on the activity, teachers can have their students draw a picture from one scene in the book and then explain that scene to their classmates, once again, reinforcing both strategy and content.

Comprehension concerns arise with every grade level and with every type of text. Regardless of grade level and regardless of the type of text, the minilesson is a great tool for addressing these comprehension concerns.  In both examples provided, the pictures included within the texts became the basis for the minilesson.  In both cases the students learned a valuable learning strategy as well as increased their understanding and interest in the content.

Adam Waxler is a middle school social studies teacher, teacher mentor, and the author of eTeach: A Teacher Resource for Learning the Strategies of Master Teachers. Adam is also the editor and publisher of The Teaching Teacher’s Newsletter. For more information about his ebook or to sign up for your free monthly newsletter log onto: