Teaching for Comprehending During Guided Reading

Here is some food for thought, “Comprehending is an active, meaning-making process, not simply an isolated outcome or product after reading” (Fountas & Pinnell, 2017, p. 469). It is important that we do not fall into the trap of asking a list of questions after a child reads a book and think that is sufficient enough to support and lift our students’ comprehending.

In their book, When Readers Struggle, Fountas and Pinnell write, “we need to teach hard for understanding” (p. 397). Without the appropriate support, students can become readers of more and more words but not readers that understand books beyond the literal level.

Although the focus of this post is comprehending within a guided reading lesson, much of this planning and thinking can be applied to other types of reading such as interactive read alouds and shared reading.

The following are not helpful in supporting comprehension during a guided reading lesson:

  • Always prompting the child to “sound it out” at the point of difficulty (Fountas & Pinnell, 2017, p. 470).
  • Putting all of the focus on pre-teaching new words before reading (Fountas & Pinnell, 2017, p. 470).
  • Asking a bunch of questions after the child reads (this is testing, not teaching!) (Fountas & Pinnell, 2017, p. 470).
  • Always requiring a “cold read” (Fountas & Pinnell, 2017, p. 470).
  • Having students do a “picture walk” on their own (Fountas & Pinnell, 2009, p. 409).

Before Reading

In her book, Literacy Essentials:  Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners,  Regie Routman writes about the importance of applying the whole-part-whole framework to our teaching (pp. 271-275).  A well-crafted guided reading lesson works in this whole-part-whole manner.  We start by giving the students a sense of what the whole story is about, we give them the pieces that will help them to be successful with reading and understanding the story and show them how those pieces fit within the story as a whole.

We want to begin our guided reading lesson by providing our students with a book introduction. Providing students with a book introduction doesn’t mean that we are giving away the book. It means that we are making a text that students can’t yet read independently accessible. We are supporting the understanding of the text which in turn makes for an engaging and enjoyable experience for students.

It is helpful for us to choose a short engaging text that can be read in one sitting. Short texts provide more opportunities to discuss texts in their entirety.  We start by giving the students a gist statement that tells what the book is about. During the text introduction, we have to be sure that we aren’t giving away everything that will happen in the book because then there would be no purpose for the student to read the text.

The teacher’s job, during the book introduction, is to peak students’ interests.  We need to provide motivation for reading the selected text.  Teachers can foster the thinking of their students by asking open-ended questions, “I wonder how ______ will solve that problem?”

We also want to provide students with any new vocabulary that they won’t be able to figure out the meaning of through context clues.

We may want to discuss the format of the book, the particular genre, or any literary language that might trip students up and impact their understanding of the story.

Depending on the teacher’s focus they may want to give examples of thinking that will support comprehending during the reading and the discussion after reading. For example, when reading non-fiction teachers may want to provide an example of important information.  We might say something like, “As you are reading today think about the important things you are learning and why the author chose to write about _______. We will discuss this after our reading.”  When reading a fiction story teachers could point about something important from the setting, characters, or the conflict (Fountas & Pinnel, 2017, p. 474).

During Reading

Teachers will want to be cautious when interrupting a student’s reading because it can interfere with the student’s flow and understanding. If a comment needs to be made it might be beneficial to wait until the child is turning the page to insert comments that support comprehending. “I wonder how ______ feels about that?”

The following are examples of prompts that can be used to support problem-solving using meaning:

  • “Think about what has happened so far in the story.”
  • “Use the picture to help you think about the story.”
  • “Are you thinking about the story?”

After Reading

After the students read the teacher should help to facilitate a short comprehension conversation. It is essential that this step is not skipped! Fountas and Pinnell write that “talking fuels the thinking” (2017, p. 470). When readers talk with others their understanding is deepened. We should ask open-ended questions and offer facilitative comments that help students respond to each other and expand upon their thinking. We might ask, “What are you thinking about this story?” or “What do you think about (topic of the story)?” (Fountas & Pinnell, 2017, p. 482). We want to avoid responses that feel evaluative in nature. Students will be less likely to participate in the conversation if they think you are looking for a particular answer.

We should use facilitative language to promote conversation and have students give evidence from the text.

“Does anybody agree or disagree with what _________   said?”

“Could somebody add on to what ________ said?”

“Talk more about that.”

“What were you thinking about?”

“Show us the part that made you think that.”

Teaching Points

Just as we can have teaching points about strategic actions we can also have teaching points centered around extending students’ comprehension within, beyond, and about the text. When considering the teaching point we can think about the behaviors we took note of while the students were reading “what made the reading difficult and what did the readers do well with” (Fountas & Pinnell, 2009, p. 420).

More specifically, we can think about how accurately students were reading the text.  If a student is having to do a lot of word work and is making many self-corrections the meaning of the text can be interrupted.  We also want to consider how fluently students read the next.  Were they reading the punctuation marks?  Did they use appropriate intonation?  Were they parsing their reading into meaningful phrases?  Lastly, we can think about ways in which the students were showing their understanding of the text.  Did they laugh at the funny part?  Did they make a comment as they were reading?  Did they appear confused about particular events?  We can pick a specific page to go back to and do a “close reading” of the text and focus on thinking that involves summarizing, predicting, making connections, synthesizing, inferring, analyzing, or critiquing.

Writing About Reading

Occasionally, we may want to have students write a short piece about their reading. We do not want to make students write after every book they read. While writing about reading helps our students extend their thinking if it is overused writing about reading can become a tedious chore. The writing piece stems from the discussion about the book or from the teaching point. There are various ways in which we can have our students write about reading. They can write about reading through:

Shared writing: The students do the thinking guided by the teacher and the teacher writes the message as the students watch.

Interactive writing: The students do the thinking guided by the teacher and the students and teacher “share the pen” to write the message.

Dictated writing: The teacher dictates a pre-planned message while the students write the message.

(Fountas & Pinnel, 2017, p. 494)

Students should understand that the purpose of writing about reading is to deepen their thinking and provide them with an opportunity to share their thinking.

This important work of making sure that our students are actively comprehending as they read various texts is the heart of reading.  Here are Marie Clay’s words as she provides her definition of reading,

“I define reading as a message-getting, problem-solving activity which increases in power and flexibility the more it is practiced. My definition states that within the directional constraints of the printer’s cue, language and visual perception responses are purposefully directed by the reader in some integrated way to the problem of extracting meaning from cues in a text, in sequence, so that the reader brings a maximum of understanding to the author’s message (1991, p.6).”

The bold emphasis is mine to highlight our role in guiding students to making meaning from their reading.  When we neglect to teach for comprehending students become “word callers” who miss out on the joy of reading.



Clay, Marie. Becoming literate: The Construction of Inner Control.  Auckland, New Zealand: Heinemann, 1991.  Print

Fountas, Irene C. and Pinnell, Gay Su.  Guided Reading:  Responsive Teaching Across the Grades (2nd edition).  Portmouth:  Heinemann, 2017.  Print.

Fountas, Irene C. and Pinnell, Gay Su.  When Readers Struggle:  Teaching That Works.  Portmouth:  Heinemann, 2009.  Print.

Routman, Regie.  Literacy Essentials:  Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners.  Portland:  Stenhouse Publishers, 2018.  Print.


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