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.

‘While reading’ strategies to help comprehension

In order to make sense of a text, a competent reader unconsciously uses a variety of comprehension strategies. But many students need to be explicitly taught these strategies – and given opportunities to practise them – before they can be used effectively.

A mini-lesson focus on a strategy could involve a shared reading experience in which the strategy is demonstrated, followed by individual reading where students can consolidate the use of the strategy – using texts that provide specific opportunities for its application. A follow-up class or group focus on the strategy over a period of time, with constant reference and individual conference, will further serve to embed its use.

Some of the following strategies apply to the reading of any kind of text; others are more appropriate for either fiction or non-fiction.

  • Identifying the purpose of reading. Am I reading for entertainment or pleasure, or am I reading for information?  Does the material need to be remembered? The purpose of the reading will determine how carefully I need to read. Do I know how to skim and scan a text?
  • Identifying key points in paragraphs by learning to recognise topic sentences. If I highlight the topic sentence in one colour and the additional information in another colour I am able to demonstrate my understanding visually.
  • Underlining or highlighting key points while reading could help me to recall information later.
    (Alternatively, teacher provision of  headings and guiding questions for note-taking exercises from both print and non-print texts will help readers to focus attention.)
  • Monitoring my understanding as I read will also aid understanding. Is this making sense? Am I understanding what I’m reading? How can text clues help me to understand?
  • Asking questions as I read. Is this important? Why did this character do or say that? What does the author want me to think about this? Can I ask a literal question about what I have read?  Can I ask an inferential question about what I have read?

    Ask verb-based questions : ‘does’…, ‘is…’, ‘has…’, ‘who did …’, ‘what did…’, ‘will…’, and adverb-based questions: ‘when…’, ‘where…’, ‘why…’, ‘how…’.

    (Using the metalanguage – ‘verb’, and ‘adverb’ – will allow for some incidental grammar teaching.)

  • Making predictions about what might happen next in terms of plot or how a particular character might or should behave. I base my prediction on what I already know about the character or about similar texts.  I revisit my prediction when I have finished reading to see whether or not I was correct.
  • Making connections while readingThis post and this one explain the ‘making connections’ strategy.
  • Using context clues to help me work out the meaning of a word that I don’t know. Look at the surrounding words in the same or nearby sentences.  Do these offer clues as to what the unknown word might mean? (How important is this word to my understanding?)
  • Visualising. What can I see in my mind when I read this sentence or paragraph?  Who is in the scene?  What do they look like? Where are they?  What are they doing?

When conferencing with students, specifically ask them to identify and explain the strategies they used to help them to understand a text.  The insights you gain from their answers can be used 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.

More pre-reading strategies

I’ve blogged previously on pre-reading strategies. Here are some more.

  • Ask students to make predictions about the likely content of a text by examining
    – the title (eg of a newspaper report, magazine article, short story, poem, film)
    – elements of the cover such as font size and style and photographs (eg of a book, magazine or video) You could ask students to explain the reasons for their wide reading choice, based on an examination of the book cover.
    – diagrams and captions (in instructional or informative text selected from a subject area other than English)
    – photographs (accompanying feature articles, news reports, web pages)
    – headlines (of newspaper or magazine articles)
    – headings (in informative or instructional brochures and on web pages)
  • Brainstorm (use an online tool such as what students already know about the topic of, for example, a non-fiction text. As a class, draw up a list of questions that the text might be able to answer, thus providing a focus for their meaning.
  • Ask students to predict likely key terms for an text on a given topic eg an article from a sporting magazine or a website. Discuss the meaning of these terms.
  • Ask students to make hypotheses about the author’s purpose in writing a particular text eg to present information, to entertain, to persuade.
  • Discuss with students the likely audience for a text.  How might a knowledge of that audience influence the content and the language used by the author?
  • Analyse linguistic structures and features of a variety of diagrams, especially those to be found in nonfiction books and online, to ensure students understand the conventions involved in constructing and reading visual representations. (For example, graphs of various kinds, flow charts and infographics.)
  • Discuss the ways in which students will need to approach the reading of a text, depending on the purpose in reading eg
    – read very carefully in order to remember the content for later recall;
    – read for pleasure, not worrying about how much is remembered;
    skim a text in order to gain a general impression of what it is about and to decide whether or not it will be useful for a given purpose eg providing information for a research project
    scan a text in order to find specific information, perhaps in response to comprehension questions

    Encourage students to articulate why they are reading and provide them with opportunities to read for a variety of purposes.


Good blogs and interesting ideas

Each week I read many blogs and tweets in which educators share ideas. Here is a random selection of recent blogs that have given me food for thought.

Top of the list for me is the blog written by American educator, Grant Wiggins. In this particular post, ( Wiggins says that, in their classrooms, teachers can be blind to what is actually happening and more likely to see and hear only what they expect.  In this way they miss the clues that tell them that their students do not understand.  Wiggins doesn’t think that it is an easy thing to pick up on  the clues, but he provides some concrete advice to assist teachers to do so.

Tanya de Hoog blogs as the PiEd PYPer. In some ways the main idea in this post ( is very similar to Wiggin’s idea: it, too, is talking about teacher awareness. Hoeg seeks to remind us that inquiry learning isn’t just about asking and answering questions.  Rather, she argues, it is about an ‘inquiry stance’, and ‘when we limit the inquiry stance to just asking questions, we limit the potential for meaningful and contextualized inquiry stance learning’.  Teachers need to be aware of all the different ways in which students demonstrate the inquiry stance. For me, this idea really opened up the whole notion of inquiry learning.

David Didau blogs as the Learning Spy. For this post he begins with a quote from Dylan Wiliam:

Getting students engaged so that they can be taught something seems much less effective than getting them engaged by teaching them something that engages them.

Once again, this post ( asks teachers to be aware of what is really going on in the classroom.  Just because the students are having fun, does it necessarily mean that they’re learning something?

Which is not to say, of course, that fun has no place in the classroom.  But its place is one that is planned for, purposeful and, most importantly,  inherent to the learning.

Teaching grammar in context – sentence structure

An understanding of sentence structure is both an important aid to comprehension when reading, and vital assistance for students who have been given the instruction: ‘Make your writing interesting!’ (An instruction, by the way, that is of little use unless students are given some clues as to how this might be done.)

So, how can an understanding of sentence structure be taught as part of the reading and writing that is done in the classroom?

  • Interest and style are created by sentence variety. Using only short or long sentences can be equally boring and monotonous for the reader. Demonstrate this to students by showing them a paragraph that is comprised of a series of short sentences, each highlighted in a different colour. Ask students to read the paragraph and to give their opinion of the writing, hoping to elicit from them that it is not very interesting. Encourage them to look at the way the sentences have been highlighted to explain that the lack of interest derives from the monotony of a series of short sentences. Ask students to suggest how it might be improved, or made more ‘interesting’ for the reader.Make the changes to the paragraph as suggested by the students and be explicit about what they have done in order to improve the writing.
  • Depending on their year level and previous experience with metalanguage, you might point out (or get them to identify) how they have changed some simple sentences into compound ones, or how they have created complex sentences by adding adverbial, adjectival or noun clauses. Draw particular attention to those sentences that have been left as simple sentences because you want students to understand that variety in sentence length can make writing more engaging.
  • Students might also suggest changes to the way in which the sentences begin – that is, instead of all beginning with a subject followed by a verb, they might suggest that a sentence should start with an adjective, adverb or phrase. Again, if they make these suggestions, be explicit about what they have done in order to create and emphasise the metalanguage for future use. In particular, ask students what effects are achieved by adding the extra detail.
  • Repeat this activity on another occasion with a paragraph comprised of a series of long sentences. Again, ask students for their opinion of the writing, hoping to elicit from them that it is not easy to read or understand. Encourage them to look at the way in which you have highlighted the sentences to demonstrate that they are all long sentences.  Get students to suggest changes to the paragraph and to discuss those changes as described in the previous activity.
  • Select a short, interesting extract from a novel to read to your students – for example, a description of a person that effectively creates a character in terms of appearance and behaviour; a description of a place that makes it seem particularly attractive, enticing, frightening or disgusting; or a retelling of an event which effectively conveys the pathos, humour or horror of the situation.Discuss their responses to the extract and then explain that you are going to look more closely at how the author has created this piece of writing.Display the extract on an interactive whiteboard so that it can be easily highlighted and marked up. Ask students to identify:
    – the kinds of sentences used by the author (simple, compound, complex, compound-complex).
    – where in the sentences the clauses  have been embedded (at the beginning, in the middle, at the end) or phrases added.  Depending on student experience, you might also ask them to identify the kinds of clauses and phrases.
    – particular words or images that help to create a vivid picture or mood. Again, depending on student experience, you might ask them to identify whether these words are nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs, and whether the images are similes or metaphors.
  • From time to time, when students are providing peer feedback on each other’s writing, identify a specific focus for them to concentrate on. For example, in the context of sentence construction, ask students to concentrate on providing each other with feedback about sentence variety. Ask them to offer explicit advice about where a peer might change a simple sentence to a complex sentence, for instance. Encourage them to use the metalanguage. For example, the peer feedback might be:
    Change this sentence into a complex sentence. You could add an adjectival clause to describe the car.
    Or, where students need a little more help, the feedback might be:
    Add an adjectival clause here to describe the car, such as:The car, which had been sitting out the front of our house for two weeks, seemed to have been abandoned.”’
    When you are providing feedback, be explicit about what you are doing so that you create a model for peer feedback – for example: ‘I’m giving Jay an example of an adjectival clause so that he can use one in his writing.’
  • If you encourage students to use editing and reviewing checklists when they are checking drafts of their writing, add a reference to sentence variety so that students become accustomed to reviewing their writing for more than spelling and punctuation. In writing conferences, encourage students to comment orally on their choice of sentence structure and to evaluate the effectiveness.
  • A short, simple sentence can sometimes be extremely effective; it is not necessarily the case that a long and complex sentence is always best. Demonstrate this for students by focusing on the shorter simple sentences in specific texts. Get them to identify, for example, how these sentences can be used to build tension and assist them to see this by substituting the short sentences for longer ones and examining the effect. Other selected texts might use short, simple sentences to grab attention, especially at the beginning of a text, or to sum up an argument. In a set of instructions, too, simple sentences might be more effective than complex sentences. Ask students to use these texts as models for their own writing, and encourage them to explain their choice of sentence construction, based on the effect they were hoping to achieve.

Teaching grammar in context – Verbs

How can you teach verbs in the context of reading and writing?  Here are some ideas:

  • Explore what happens if you change the modal verbs in a text. Select a persuasive text to share with the students on an interactive whiteboard. First get students to identify each of the modal verbs used, and then to change the verbs of high modality into verbs of low modality and vice versa. Ask students to discuss how the effectiveness of the writing changes.
  • To practise the use of modal verbs, have students write sets of rules relevant to the school context – for example, rules for using the library or for behaviour in the playground. They could write rules for both teachers and students.
  • Select (or write yourself) several very short stories written in the past tense. Cut the texts up into sentences and distribute one or two to each student. Ask students to rewrite their sentence/s in the present tense and then to find other class members whose sentences relate to the same story. (They will need to make use of language clues in order to do this.)When they have found all of the sentences in their story, they sit down together as a group and order the sentences into correct sequence to make the story. The group task is to check the tense of each verb to make sure it is accurate. Students could then underline each of the verbs and share their story with another group as a further check.
  • Ask students to work in groups to create a storybook about verbs. Students could take digital photos or download them from the internet and write three lines of accompanying text. The first line could be written in past tense, the next in present tense and the final line in future tense. In addition, each group could focus on a different kind of verb – action, saying, sensing, relating…
  • Ask students to find verbs in magazines and newspapers to make a verb collage of printed text and pictures. As a variation, different groups could focus on different kinds of verbs. The posters they produce could become teaching resources to display in the classroom.
  • Provide students with a series of letters that could have been written to an advice column in a magazine. Ask them to select one and write a reply. Tell them to be particularly aware of the way in which they use modal verbs. On completion, they could share their responses with peers who could comment on the use of modality, as well as providing feedback on the content of the letter and the effectiveness of the advice.
  • Travel articles often use a lot of modal verbs. Share a travel article with the students and ask them to identify the modals and to say whether they are of high or low modality. Ask them to discuss why the author might have selected one kind of modality rather than the other.
  • Analyse a procedural text to identify the use of action verbs in their imperative form. Use the text as a model for students to write their own procedural text and identify the action verbs they have used.
  • Explore the kinds of verbs used by the writer of a narrative. Encourage students to change the action and sensing verbs to create a different impression of a character.
  • In their own writing, encourage students to explain their choice of verb and the effect that they were hoping to create.
  • Share with the students a piece of writing that you have edited to make the verbs bland and ‘weak’. For each verb, get students to suggest alternative ‘stronger’ and thus more effective verbs. This is a good vocabulary-building exercise. Show them the original text, with the author’s choice of verbs intact, and ask them to discuss their their effectiveness. Perhaps they will decide that some of the verbs they have suggested are even better than the originals.