One way of extending students’ reading comprehension skills

What is a Three-Level Comprehension Guide?

A Three-Level Comprehension Guide is a reading strategy designed to support and extend students’ reading comprehension.  It involves a series of statements about a text, some true and some false. Students are asked to agree or disagree and to justify their responses.

The statements are organised, as the name suggests, in three levels:

Level One: these statements involve literal comprehension, where students search for answers directly stated in the text.  This is sometimes called ‘Reading on the lines’.

For example,

It was after dinner when Jack realised that his dog had disappeared.  T/F

Dinosaurs lived about 150 million years ago.  T/F

Level Two: these statements involve making  inferences.  Students use the information directly stated in the text and combine it with other information  – either from the text or from their own knowledge and experience – in order to decide whether the statement is true or false.  This is sometimes called ‘Reading between the lines’.

For example,

Sally thought that Jack should have taken better care of his dog.  T/F

The Mesosaurus probably lived in the water.  T/F

Level Three: these statements ask students to apply their understanding about the text.  They use both the literal and inferential information to make generalisations, create responses, form an hypothesis,  explore implications or form a point of view.  This is sometimes called ‘Reading beyond the lines.’

For example,

 Being a pet owner means that you need to be responsible. T/F

Dinosaurs are popular with children because there are so many different kinds.  T/F

Why use Three-Level Comprehension Guide in the classroom?

A Three-Level Comprehension Guide not only caters for differentiation within your classroom but also promotes a deeper understanding of what comprehension is all about.

It helps students to

  • move beyond a superficial reading of the text in order to extract more meaning
  • understand the difference between literal and inferential meaning
  • learn how to make inferences
  • engage and interact with the text by using it as a basis for creating, hypothesising, generalising and discussing.

How can you create a Three-Level Comprehension Guide?

  • First decide what it is that you want your students to read and understand about the text.  Perhaps your focus is on the examination of characters and their motivations, or maybe you want students to understand the specific content of a non-fiction text. Either way, these are the ‘big picture’ understandings that you want your students to achieve.
  • Write a series of statements, both true and false, about those big picture understandings.  These will become your Level Three statements.
  • Then write the Level One or literal statements.  They should relate to the Level Three statements.
  • Finally, look for inferences in the text and write statements about these.

How can you  use a Three-Level Comprehension Guide in the classroom?

Have students work in groups to discuss and agree on the responses.  Remind them that while the answers to the Level One statements are very clear, the answers to Levels Two and Three statements might not be so definite.  And that this is where their discussion and justification of their responses will be relevant.

Your observation of how students perform across the three levels of questions will provide you with information that you can use in a formative way.


What is OTISA, anyway?

Have you tried out the OTISA online literacy resource yet?

We’ve designed OTISA – Online tutoring: improving student achievement – to support the Australian Curriculum in English.  This table shows what is covered by the resource and how it links to the AC.

In particular, we believe it provides excellent support for the teaching and learning of grammar.

We acknowledge that grammar is best taught and learned in the context of reading and writing, but we also believe that learning needs consolidation.

Which is what this resource provides.

Before each set of activities, students can read or listen to a brief revision of the main points. And the activities themselves are self-correcting, with explanations.  You could follow up on classroom work, for  example, by setting in-class or homework activities for students to confirm their understanding.  Importantly, your online access allows you to view how your students have performed, and will tell you whether or not learning has taken place. This information, of  course, will help you to decide on your next teaching steps with groups or individual students.

OTISA also provides focussed and concise professional learning for teachers.  If you would like to brush up on your grammar knowledge, and read practical suggestions related to the teaching of parts of grammar in context, you can do this quickly and easily. With your colleagues, you could use some of the suggestions as a basis for planning.

Available on subscription, OTISA provides students with access both at school and at home.

If you would like to explore the resource, please email info at otisa dot com dot au (email address written like this to avoid spam!)   to receive your one week trial teacher subscription.

Why use Peer Feedback, Part 2

Peer feedback is at its most effective in a positive classroom culture where learning is valued and encouraged.

But how to develop such a culture?  Research suggests several ways to do this:

  • Clearly articulate classroom expectations.  This means that students know what kinds of behaviour are appropriate and why, as well as the kinds of behaviour that are not supported by the group.  Such expectations are ideally negotiated by the class as a group and, again ideally, they reflect the ethos of the school.
  • Ensure that students feel comfortable and supported by their peers.  This means that they respect each other’s opinions and feel able to ‘have a go’ rather than sit back, afraid of making a mistake. They know that everyone recognises that learning can come as result of mistakes.
  • Be aware of social and emotional learning strategies and incorporate these into everyday activities to increase empathy and understanding of others’ viewpoints.
  • Encourage risk-taking and intervene when ‘put-downs’ occur. This means that students are offered activities that provide opportunities to take those risks, to hypothesise and test their hypotheses with the help of peer feedback.  It also means that the teacher is alert to the ways in which ‘put-downs’ occur:  a roll of the eyes, a turning away, a sigh – understanding that these subtle put-downs can be just as damaging as the more obvious verbal comment.
  • Provide students with activities that both require and develop cooperation, and explicitly teach strategies to encourage cooperation. For example, teach the language of negotiation and support, including asking clarifying questions, and identify the various roles that group members can play – both positive and negative.
  • Make learning explicit by identifying learning intentions and sharing success criteria.
  • Teach the language of feedback and use role-play to coach students in its use.
  • Consider the physical configuration of the classroom.  Does it foster easy interaction between students? Can the configuration be easily changed to allow for paired and group activities?

Consider using some of these peer feedback techniques:

Two stars and a wish
In this technique student  identifies two things that a peer has done well (stars), in relation to the success criteria, and explains why.  “You engaged your audience well because you made eye contact with a lot of different people and you used hand gestures and facial expressions.”

The student the expresses a wish for what the peer might do next time.  “I wish that next time you might speak a little more slowly because sometimes I couldn’t understand what you were saying.”

The feedback sandwich
In this technique the student ‘sandwiches’ a suggestion for improvement between two positive comments.  For example

Positive comment: “You engaged your audience well because you made eye contact with a lot of different people.”
Suggestion for improvement: “Perhaps next time you could also speak a little more slowly so that we can understand you better.”
Positive comment: “Your use of facial expressions and hand gestures was very good.  You made us laugh.”

Medals and missions
When a student identifies what a peer has done well, he/she is awarding a ‘medal’.
When a student identifies what a peer needs to improve and offers advice about how to do this, he/she is suggesting a ‘mission’. (Geoff Petty)

Plus, minus and what’s next?
This technique can be used with younger students. The student looks at a peer’s work to identify a positive achievement in relation to the success criteria (the plus) and an area for improvement (the minus). He/she then makes a suggestion as to how the peer can improve. (What’s next?)

Traffic lights
Students use a green highlighter in the margin of a draft piece of writing to indicate success criteria achieved, or an orange highlighter to indicate where improvement is needed. The suggestions for improvement are delivered orally.

Feedback using technology
VoiceThread is an example of a software program that can be used to provide peer feedback.  Student upload their completed work (documents or pictures) and others record oral comments.

Googledocs allows students to create a document or a presentation which can then be edited or commented on by their peers.

A class wiki or blog provides a forum where students can publish and comment on each other’s work.

Edmodo is a software program that allows the uploading of documents and the recording of feedback.

Use an ipad to add voice comments.  Although this article is about teacher feedback, the process could easily be adapted for peer feedback.

Teach students a variety of ways to provide feedback and then allow them to negotiate the form they will use.

Why use peer feedback?

Peer feedback is not the same as peer assessment. Peer assessment is in fact an example of summative assessment: it results in a grade. (Peer assessment is not without its problems: it can be perceived by students to lack reliability – “I’d rather have my teacher assess me” – and can cause conflict between students and a sense of injustice when the allotted grade is lower than expected.)

Peer feedback, on the other hand,  is a formative assessment strategy and an important aspect of cooperative learning. To be effective, it needs exactly the same features as teacher feedback: that is, the use of a set of pre-established criteria (success criteria) to identify

  • what the student has done well, and
  • the areas in which the student could improve.

Most importantly, peer feedback, like effective teacher feedback, offers advice about how to improve.

The success criteria are a crucial aspect of peer feedback not only because they provide a focus for the feedback, but also because they focus attention on the completed task, rather than on the student.  And if the students have been involved in creating the success criteria in the first place, then their understanding will be that much better and their engagement that much greater.

Often peer feedback is provided orally, but if ICT is used, it might be oral, written or a combination of both forms.  Teacher modelling of the use of appropriate oral and written language is an important step in ensuring that students use the strategy effectively.

  • Use anonymous work from another class or another year as the example when you are teaching the language of feedback.  Make sure that the success criteria are not too numerous – and that they focus on aspects other than spelling and punctuation. (When students don’t have success criteria to help shape their feedback they often default to looking for ‘mistakes’ to comment on, rather than providing much more useful feedback about a peer’s writing.)
  • Emphasise that it’s not just what you say but the way you say it, as well. Show students how to avoid negative language.  Get them to role-play the rephrasing of a negative comment into one that is more constructively positive.
  • Teach students the use of language constructions that draw attention to the success criteria: “I can see that you have achieved this success criteria, but I’m not sure about this one.  What do you think?”
  • Demonstrate how to ask a question, rather than just make a statement: “Why did you use this word/adjective/adverb/phrase to describe how your character felt?”  When looking at the anonymous work, students might be asked to jot down their initial responses.  They can then work in pairs to shape these into questions.
  • Discourage the use of the word ‘but’.  A compliment followed immediately by ‘but’ serves to devalue the positive and causes the listener to hear only the negative. Instead of saying, “I like the way you’ve described your character, but you need to ‘show’ more and not just ‘tell'”, you might say: “I liked the way you’ve described your character.  She seems to be very strong.  Do you think you could include some dialogue to show this as well?”
  • Encourage students to move beyond general statements such as “I like the way you started your narrative” by always supplying a reason. “I like the way you started your narrative because the words you used made me think that this was going to be a scary story.”
  • Encourage students to use the appropriate metalanguage when provided feedback.  This ensures that the meaning is a shared one. “Do you think you could use a complex sentence here to give the reader more detail about where they are?” (There is room here, ideally, for some peer teaching if the receiver of the feedback does not understand the terminology.)

Why is peer feedback useful? 

For a start, peer feedback has the advantage of being timely: students can get feedback exactly when they need it, rather than wait for their turn with the teacher.

And, more importantly, it fosters self-evaluation and self-monitoring, both of which are vital to successful learning. These skills are further developed if students are asked to consider and evaluate the feedback they received from peers.  They could be encouraged to explain which feedback they acted on and why, and which feedback they rejected, along with their reasons for doing so.  Time spent doing this, far from being time-consuming, will in fact provide you with further useful insights into your students’ thinking. This information can be later used in a formative way.

The act of giving feedback to others also has learning benefits. When giving feedback to peers, students need to read, to analyse, to question, to suggest changes and perhaps also to reflect on how their own work compares. They need to engage with the demands of the task and to understand how the success criteria look in practice. Peer feedback, then, demands the exercise of many other skills additional to those used in the actual completion of the task.

Some research argues that peer feedback is a necessary precursor to self-assessment – the ability to evaluate one’s work and to monitor progress and to proceed to a desirable state of independence as a learner.

Next week’s blog will explore some peer feedback techniques and discuss the kind of classroom culture that facilitates effective peer feedback.

Please post a comment if you have something to share.

What does Assessment for Learning have to do with student wellbeing?

My recent involvement in a project that focuses on student wellbeing has led me to consider the ways in which Assessment for Learning strategies provide structure and support for this important work of schools and teachers.

When at school, students identify primarily as learners, and so their engagement with learning is a key ingredient in the creation of their wellbeing.  Without engagement, students lack motivation; without motivation it is difficult for them to experience success in their learning – and lack of success can lead to issues of self-esteem and to negative behaviour.

There are many positive ways in which schools seek to promote students’ engagement with their learning, and the use of Assessment for Learning strategies by teachers in the classroom is one of them.

The explicit communication of expectations promotes student understanding, so therefore the strategy of sharing learning intentions and success criteria is an important one.  If students know what it is that they are expected to learn, and know also how they to tell whether or not they have been successful in their learning, then they are much more likely to be motivated.  They are much more likely to be motivated than those students who do not have that knowledge and who, as a result, feel that their learning is in the hands of arbitrary teachers who might or might not approve of what they  have done.  They know where to direct their efforts and are far less likely to find that they have been ‘on the wrong track’.

The use of effective teacher feedback provides a positive recognition of what students already know, understand and are able to do, and therefore also helps to promote self-esteem.  The students are able to see that their efforts have ‘paid off’.  That same effective teacher feedback helps students to see where there is a need for improvement and, importantly, offers specific advice about how to achieve that improvement.  The students are supported and scaffolded to the next stage. Effective teacher feedback is an important element in building a positive learning relationship with students.

When conducted in a classroom in which there is a positive collaborative culture, peer feedback further enhances student engagement.  Supported by their peers, students are less fearful of making mistakes, more connected to others, more engaged and more likely to contribute positively themselves.

In its broadest sense, self-assessment helps students to understand themselves as learners, to recognise how they best learn and to analyse their progress and needs as learners. Combined with the encouragement of a growth mindset that appreciates that intelligence is not a fixed commodity but one that develops with effort and ‘exercise’, this Assessment for Learning strategy complements the social and emotional understanding that is necessary to promote wellbeing.

Using these Assessment for Learning strategies in the classroom not only serves to improve student achievement, but also to reinforce all the other practices undertaken as part of the whole-school approach to the creation of student wellbeing.

Toni Glasson is the author of Improving Student Achievement, A Practical Guide to Assessment for Learning, Curriculum Press

Evidence-based ideas for the classroom

Following on from last week’s blog where I wrote about making use of evidence-based practices in the classroom …

Good examples of evidence-based strategies include the sharing of learning intentions with students, providing effective feedback and making use of cooperative strategies.

Learning Intentions can become boring and routine and students easily turn off.  But if you vary the way you present them …

1. Scramble the words in the learning intention and ask students to re-arrange so that they make sense.  This helps them to focus on the key words and encourages the use of contextual grammatical clues.  (You could even turn that aspect into a ‘teaching moment’.)

For example, a literacy learning intention for primary students might look like this:

ways  we  our  to  different  the  begin understand which  narratives  in  can

Unscrambled, it would read: to understand the different ways in which we can begin our narratives

(Thanks to David Didau for this idea.)

2. Alternatively, provide students with a list of key words or ideas relevant to the learning intention and ask them to work in groups to decide what the learning intention might be.  For example, the words associated with the above learning intention might be:

narrative,  beginnings,  question,  statement,  direct speech,  introducing a character,  creating a setting

The discussion that follows will take you straight into the lesson.

Feedback can be enhanced by using a variety of techniques, rather than the same one all the time.

1. If students have presented work electronically, use a screen capture tool (Camtasia is one, but there are many others) and provide the student with oral feedback that they can read and respond to later.

2. We all understand students’ need to be motivated. This video describes a way of making feedback more positive.

3.  And this video reminds us that feedback can be made even more effective if we start by looking for strengths rather than mistakes.

Do you sometimes need to convince your students that cooperative learning can be much more effective than individual learning?  Try this activity:

Provide students with a detailed photograph or image such as an infographic, and give them a limited amount of time to remember as much of it as they can.  Ask them to write down what they remember.  Then ask them to work in pairs, within a time limit, to combine their lists and to note how many more details their combined memory is able to come up with.  If you want to take this further, each pair could share their list with another pair, and so on.  A whole-class discussion should reveal the effectiveness of cooperation.

This activity could be used as a lead-in to a group task.

What’s the question, who’s asking and why?

Questioning is such a powerful tool, particularly as a formative assessment strategy, that it’s a pity to to overlook its role in the classroom.

Research in this area highlights the value of questioning not just to evaluate, but to interpret. This means not just listening to see if the student has the ‘correct’ answer, but instead  listening in order to identify the level of understanding and the nature of any misconceptions.

Apparently the average teacher asks around 43 questions during each teaching hour.  But how many of these questions are concerned with class management or fail to graduate beyond the level of simple recall questions? Most teachers, when asked, are fairly certain that their questioning is better than satisfactory.  One way to confirm this is by having a trusted colleague observe your lesson or lessons specifically to take note of the way in which you question – the kinds of questions you ask and the purpose of those questions.

Planning the kind of questions that will be asked of students during a lesson (mainly open questions rather than closed) and designing questions that make higher cognitive demands of students (analysis, synthesis and evaluation rather than simple recall) both need careful consideration if questions are going to yield the kinds of student responses that are in fact open to interpretation. (Making note of the kinds of questions you might ask on a given topic can be part of your lesson planning.)

Questioning is also enhanced by the use of Wait Time (sometimes called Thinking Time) and Hands Down.  Both of these techniques allow students time to process their answers.  ‘Think. Pair. Share.’ serves the same purpose and additionally involves peer interaction.  The Hands Down technique, combined with the deliberate distribution of questions around the class, is designed to encourage participation by all students – any of whom might be called on to provide an answer, rather than just those with their hands up – and frees shy or slower students from the discouragement that can stem from the dominance of more confident and extroverted students.

If students provide limited responses to your original question, further prompting questions can provide insights into what they actually know and understand.  Indeed, further prompting questions can be useful even if the answer appears to be correct.  ‘Why do you think that?’ or ‘How did you get that answer?’ are both examples of prompting questions that elicit further information that can be used in a formative way.

Sometimes as teachers we have a tendency during a class to be too aware of time, and therefore fail to engage in this prompting, or to build on inadequate or incomplete answers. We choose instead to pass on to another student who is perhaps more likely to provide the level of response we’re seeking. The resulting missed opportunities to gain information about individual students can also mean that others in the class who share the misunderstanding remain unenlightened.

Finally, who asks most of the questions in your classroom?  You or the students?  Statistics – and experience – tell us that most questions related to learning are asked by teachers and that, in fact, specific time for students to ask questions is not always a scheduled part of the lesson.  And yet the questions asked by students can tell us a great deal about their level of understanding and provide further opportunities to address gaps in their knowledge.

For questioning to be effective, the classroom culture needs to be supportive, to encourage risk-taking and to promote the understanding that learning comes from making mistakes.  Teachers model for the students how to frame worthwhile questions, how to listen attentively to answers and how to respond positively.

If you would like to explore this topic in more detail, you might like to read the relevant chapter in my book: Improving Student Achievement, A Practical Guide to Assessment for Learning by Toni Glasson. Curriculum Corporation, 2009.