A Few Comprehension Resources

I was looking through old documents on my computer and found some things that I decided to provide as a resource.  I must have put these together originally for a class I took, but I can’t remember now.  Enjoy.

Questions to ask Yourself While you are Reading:

Does this phrase/passage make sense?

How do I say that word? (when you come to a word you don’t know)

What does that word mean? (when you come to a word you don’t know)

What did I just read?

What is the main idea?  How can I find it?

What are the implied meanings of this passage?

How does this connect to the real world, to my life, or to something I remember?

What is the author trying to say?—what is the message?

Close Reading Questions:


            Read the problem 2 or 3 times

State what the problem asks you to solve

Select data that will help you solve the problem

Decide if there is a formula you can apply

Set up an equation/chart/graph

Sketch to help you see the problem

Does my answer make sense?

Graphics and Charts (any subject area):

Look at the graphic and read the title—what does it tell you the graphic is about?

Read all of the text in the graphic

Think about the information—how does it relate to the topic?

Ask:  “what’s important?”

Connect this important info to life and experiences

Prompts for Making Connections

How does this information apply to your life?

What feelings did the reading raise for you?  Why?

What have you learned about yourself by studying this (event/person)?

What new information did you learn from the article that the book didn’t discuss?

Ideas for Teaching Vocabulary

Predict and clarify:  write some vocab words on the board and have students predict what they think the meaning is.  Then, preview the reading—bold faced words, titles, graphics (etc…) and write a refined explanation of the word.  Next, read the sentence/passage with the word and show students how the passage tells you about the word’s meaning—get the meaning down if the students don’t already have it.  They can move to doing this independently with reading material they can handle and they can share their responses with the group.  Help them refine their explanations/definitions into phrases they will remember.

List, Group, Label:  Brainstorm a list of words associated with a topic.  Categorize the words into different groups/headings.  Explain why words are in certain groups/headings (this is a group activity).

Ways for Students to Keep Track:

Learning Logs:  a small notebook or handmade book where students jot down what they learned that day in the subject.

Inquiry Log:  like a learning log, except that students write down further questions they have on the topic and you address that question with additional resources or activities—this can be part of the learning log as well.

Fast-write:  before learning do a freewrite where students write all they can think of about the topic in a short amount of time…after learning, this would be a technique where students write all they’ve learned about the topic and their thoughts about it in a short amount of time.

Coding System (sample you can use):         √ = agree with this point

X = disagree with this point

* = new information

? = don’t understand this

­­underline something interesting

Here is a PDF of some generic Graphic organizers as well.

Vocabulary Work and Students With Behavioral Challenges

Vocabulary development is something I often go back and forth about—from thinking it’s very important, to thinking it’s only relatively important.  On the scale of what I do when I teach, formal vocabulary work is often toward the bottom; but I’m working with students who have achieved fairly little success in school, added to their difficulties with language to begin with.  My students often come lacking even with the ability to formulate paragraphs, though most can do sentences accurately.  Many come from homes where reading was not just unimportant, but also ignored in favor of TV, disorder, and conflict.  I see a great need for vocabulary to be increased because of the increased demand on literary understanding—though, realistically, they aren’t going to be seeing or probably using “vocabulary words” outside of school.

I think that a component of vocabulary development, at least for teachers, is to know your goals for the vocabulary words.  I know that my students generally aren’t college bound.  To get them to graduate from high school (and often they are the first in their family to graduate) is what I’m helping them with.  So vocabulary work that I do with them is on words I know they are probably going to hear or see in the news or in court or in a future job.  I know many of them are not going to be above grade level on standardized tests—I know that even getting them to grade level is going to be a significant challenge since many of them, even though they are in high school, read at the 3rd to 4th grade level.  Having a student who reads outside of school as a hobby and who has a large vocabulary is fairly rare, but I do have them occasionally.  They are the ones who usually become the role models for the vocab work and can help the others learn the words faster.

What I know about vocab work is not to have students “look it up, write the definition and use it in a sentence.”  That’s boring and not useful, especially for students with learning disabilities and reading comprehension issues and behavioral issues. One of the most useful things I do with my students is have them relate a new word to something familiar to them—however odd it might be; some of them used the idea of “police coming over” as what would make them  remember the word seethe.  Words need to be “owned” by the students if they are ever going to really know and use them.  In my class, we create a big chart of words that we are learning and we can move them around and group them by adjectives, verbs etc… Or we can group them according to characters we are studying—which ones go with which characters or actions from a story.  They also use the words to create lists of related things in their own lives.

Vocabulary Instruction Activity Ideas

Effective vocabulary instruction needs to be structured in such a way that students can connect definitions to their existing knowledge.  Students also need to learn word roots, prefixes and suffixes to help them figure out new words they encounter as well as be exposed to different definitions, synonyms and antonyms.  Instruction should also occur regularly and students should encounter words frequently.  The teacher should model good thinking strategies about a new word as well.  Classifying and grouping objects is also a good strategy for helping students build vocabulary.  Further, students should understand how words relate to each other and go together.  Finally, there needs to be a lot of reading and writing in an effective vocabulary instruction program.


  1. “Which word doesn’t fit.” This is an activity that you can do when students have learned enough words because it can be done as a review activity.  It requires them to remember the definitions, but it also makes them think about how the words go together to find out which one doesn’t belong, and students have to explain their thinking.  This activity can be varied among age groups and ability levels.  I have done this successfully with high school students with significant reading disabilities (and emotional disabilities).  This activity requires some important pre-planning (you can make it as easy or as difficult as you want), but it can encourage some really creative thinking as students try to eliminate words.  Finally, you should never make spelling the thing which eliminates a word–always make it relate to the definition.  Here’s an example:
  2. thwart         censure           impede            disdain
  3. woe            disdain             arbitrary           anxiety

This activity exposes students to words and requires them to figure out how they relate to each other.

  1. “True or False.” Here is an example of an activity where students need to remember the definitions (or they might even have the definitions in front of them) then they have to apply what they know to answer whether the question is true or false.   To make this a little more difficult you could even have students correct the statement if it is false (using another vocabulary word or synonym you’ve discussed already).  I like to use this activity in conjunction with a book or story we are reading to help students relate the words to something meaningful.  The following  examples come from a test I gave on the stories “Dragonsong” and “The Iliad.”

When Menolly lacerated her hand it caused her to grimace in pain.

Menolly was apprehensive about leaving the sea-hold because of the Thread, but she was audacious enough to do it anyway.

The arrival of the new harper at the sea-hold caused a lot of fervor among the girls, even though Elgion was extremely belligerent.

Mavi does a pristine job of dressing Menolly’s wound and Menolly was gratified for it.

Achilles was seething when Agamemnon took away Briseis from him.

Troy was besieged for 12 long years before the cunning Odysseus thought of the Trojan Horse.

In an impetuous act, Achilles dragged Hector’s body around the city which caused Hector’s wife to become implacable.

This activity requires students to relate their knowledge of the words to their unit of study and to decide whether or not the usage is correct.  It also exposes them to the words again in a meaningful way.

  1. “Category” This activity is for when students are first becoming familiar with some new words (and after you’ve already done something like a Frayer Model with them).  You can use any set up which allows students to physically manipulate the words and move them into categories (such as a Smartboard, index cards or post-it notes).  This activity will require you to do some preparation and pre-planning to make the cards and the categories ahead of time.  Each student or small group will have a stack of cards or post-its, and each card will have on it a vocab word or a synonym of that word.  I like to have about 20-25 cards for students to use.  Depending on your unit of study, you could relate the categories to that or you could just give categories that seem to go with the words you’re working on.  Then you name the category and students place the cards into that category; you could even do this part in multiple ways: (post-it notes placed on posters around the room for students who need to move around, place cards in baskets, simply take the index cards out of the pile and make it a separate pile.  But I like to have students pick their cards before going around the room so they aren’t picking all the same cards as other people and avoiding thinking–you could also give every group or student different words so that doesn’t happen).  Here’s an example:  A stack of cards contains the words:  defiant, demure, anxious, elegant, enormous, populous, imaginative, secretive, besiege, impetuous, cunning, apprehensive, implacable, gratified, disdain, arbitrary,  impede, thwart, woe.    For the first category I might say, “Ways you might feel if you had money stolen.”  Students pick their cards and then explain their thinking to their small group or to you.  If those words were in, say, The Tell-tale Heart by Poe, then I might give a category like, “Words that relate to the setting.”  Students will come up with some pretty creative ways to defend their choices.  This activity requires students to think creatively and to see how words relate to each other.

Some Strategies to Teach Writing to Students with Disabilities

Today I read this excellent article on the Huffington Post:  “Fixing our National Writing Crisis From the Foundation Up.”   In the article, Graham discusses how student writing scores are pretty low considering that writing proficiency is required “for success in today’s knowledge-based economy” where “communication skills are more important than ever.”  He suggests that we go back to teaching foundational skills since they are the “building blocks of written language.”  There are seven things we should teach:  handwriting, spelling, vocabulary development, sentence construction, writing process, writing strategies and genre knowledge.  I can’t say that I disagree with any of those things.  In fact, addressing most of those seven things is how I’ve been approaching writing instruction with my students for many years now.  What I’ve found is that foundational skills are what so many of my students missed back in their early elementary school days, that they developed negative behaviors as ways to cope; they would be forced out of class or school in order to not have to deal with what they were unable to do.  As a result, as those students entered middle and high school with those coping strategies, they needed basic instruction.

My students all have emotional and behavioral challenges, but many of them have reading or writing disabilities as well.  Handwriting has historically been difficult to work on for my students.  Some of them have motor difficulties which requires them to have a scribe or to use software like Dragon.  So I haven’t done as much as I should have with handwriting; I mean, some of them can’t even read cursive writing.  Building vocabulary has also been a significant challenge because my students start out so much farther behind in their word knowledge than a middle class student does, so words you’d think they would know are not understood so meaning gets lost.  I’ll give you an example:  one student I had in the past didn’t know that “trapped” could have several connotations, so when he read the phrase, “he felt trapped,” that student could not make meaning from that.  I frequently pull words from third and fourth grade vocabulary lists to use with vocabulary lessons because that’s where my middle and high school students are at academically.

What I’ve had the most experience with is helping my students with a writing process that includes learning strategies, learning how to write in several different genres, and learning how to construct sentences.  Something I like to start with when I begin the school year is to train kids’ writing fluency.  My students are all in middle and high school and are quite adept at avoiding what they have trouble doing, so I need to ease them into writing and help them build some self-confidence so they will be willing to take more risks.  There are several things you can do to help with writing fluency:  STROOP tests (hold up an index card with a color written on it in marker–but the color of the word doesn’t match what the word says, ie: “red” written in blue marker.  Students need to say the color, not read the word);  a table of 4-letter words is shown to students for 2 minutes, then taken away, and students have to write down as many of the words as they can remember;  or category lists–where you name a category and students have 1 minute to list as many things in that category as they can (categories can be as simple as “things that are blue,” or more challenging like “crustaceans.”  Whatever kind of fluency activity you do, it can be a great writing warm-up, and I’ve had a lot of success with all of those activities with my challenging students.

Another tip for students who have significant writing challenges is to first do all “writing” verbally; talk it through with them while you model the skill.  This is especially helpful when you have students who have issues thinking, sequencing, and making movements at the same time.  It allows students to get used to the process you teach them without the added pressure of having to write (at first).  As students become comfortable with the process, then writing should be introduced slowly; first introduce it at the sentence level, and then move to the paragraph level, finally ending with longer pieces of writing.  Here are some lessons I wrote that help illustrate teaching writing as a process for students with significant challenges:  Writing Lessons

An Effective Way to Start the Class

Because I work with students with behavior and learning disabilities, and because my basic literacy class is shortly before lunch, I like to break up the time with short activities.  I always start the class with what I call a “brain stretch” to get them warmed up for class.  Today the brain stretch was to look at a group of pictures I projected onto the wall with an ELMO for 1 minute.  Then I covered the pictures and gave them 1 minute to write down as many things as they could remember from the pictures.  We then shared the results as a group.  Putting words to pictures is an important literacy skill because it helps kids learn to associate ideas together and it helps to build their vocabulary.