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What are Effective Reading Comprehension Strategies?

Reading strategies and reading units are quite different. Often times the teaching of reading strategies gets lost in the mix of teaching reading units. While teaching reading units such as themes in literature and understanding character development are important, I have found that teaching students how to apply reading comprehension strategies is critical in helping them grow as independent and self-monitoring readers.

While reading strategy instruction can be overwhelming at first to plan and implement, it is important to teach reading strategies explicitly. This allows students to be exposed to multiple techniques to help themselves as readers and truly comprehend the text at hand. When students apply a variety of reading strategies as they read, it helps them become active readers. This is important because active reading keeps students alert as they read. When students are active readers, alert, and applying multiple strategies as they read they are able to understand the text at a deeper level. By teaching reading strategies with explicit instruction, students are able to:

  • see a given reading strategy in action multiple times
  • learn how to apply it to their own independent reading
  • have the opportunity to practice the strategy in isolation
  • build their reading strategy repertoire 
  • learn how to apply more than one reading strategy when reading complex texts

I truly believe in the power of teaching reading strategies explicitly and am often asked many questions about reading comprehension strategies instruction in my classroom. I have compiled the questions I am most frequently asked to help you make decisions about how you want to approach the teaching of reading strategies in your upper elementary classroom.

how to teach Reading Comprehension Strategies

What are effective reading comprehension strategies?

Reading comprehension strategies help readers make sense of the material that they are reading. Proficient readers use multiple strategies as they read to make the most of the text. The most frequently used reading strategies upper elementary students utilize as they read are:

  1. Activate Background Knowledge
  2. Predict
  3. Visualize
  4. Monitor and Clarify
  5. Question
  6. Infer
  7. Summarize

What is the difference between reading strategies and reading units?

There is a big difference between reading strategies and reading units, both are important in the upper elementary reading classroom. Reading strategies are the techniques that readers use to understand the books that they are reading within different reading units. Reading units are focused units of study around a given reading topic or genre such as character understanding or learning about mysteries. To understand how reading strategies and reading units are connected, let's use a unit on character understanding. Within the reading unit of character understanding, readers will use all of the reading strategies previously taught to help them better understand the characters they meet. For example, they will predict what the character will do, visualize a character in action, infer how a character might be feeling, and question why a character did something. Without explicit instruction on how to use each of these reading strategies, students will not be able to dive deep in character understanding. We can NOT expect that students understand what it means to predict or infer, it must be modeled and taught.

Is there a specific order that you teach reading strategies?

upper elementary reading strategies lessonsYes!! Since reading strategies build upon each other, it makes sense to teach reading strategies in the order that allows students to build upon each and begin to practice using multiple reading strategies at once. Here is the order that I teach reading strategies: activate prior knowledge, predict, visualize, question, summarizeinfer, and monitor and clarify. When I teach a new reading strategy I always use previously read books. This is a must in my classroom! By using books that students have already heard before, they can focus on applying the newly learned strategy instead of focusing on comprehending the book. The exception to this is when teaching predicting.  Students should practice making predictions with newly read material.

How do you come up with reading strategy mini lesson ideas?

The reading strategy mini lesson objectives that I use always begin with wan introduction of each strategy where modeling takes place to allow students to see that reading strategy in action. Students describe what I am doing as a reader, and then we discuss what the strategy is, how it helps students as readers, and how they can put it into action independently. (Grab free strategy mini lesson ideas at the bottom of this post.) Once you introduce each reading strategy allow students time to try them out. Observe and confer with students so that you can teach any additional mini-lessons based on the needs of your students. Do not spend more than a few days teaching each reading strategy. Students will be able to have additional practice trying out each of the reading strategies as they learn new strategies and while you are knee deep in teaching reading units. (Grab free strategy mini lesson ideas at the bottom of this post.)

How do you differentiate reading strategy instruction?

What are Effective Reading Comprehension Strategies?
There are many ways to differentiate reading strategy instruction, the most effective is to make sure that students are reading books that are just right for them! This will ensure that students are able to practice the reading strategies appropriately instead of being hung up on comprehending a book too difficult or not being able to apply higher level comprehension strategies to a book that is too easy. Although I strive to have students practice reading strategy work in their own independent reading, sometimes it is necessary to provide students with a short text to practice the strategy. This is when I use task cards. It allows me to differentiate and work with each student individually, practice the strategy a few times, and then send them off to their independent reading book. I also differentiate reading strategy instruction by using a variety of graphic organizers that allow me to scaffold as needed to support students. Some students may be ready for open ended organizers right after instruction while some would benefit from a structured frame to help them organize their thoughts. By constantly assessing students, both formally and informally, I am able to differentiate reading strategy instruction for each student.

What are Effective Reading Comprehension Strategies?

Reading strategy instruction is a must for every upper elementary reading classroom. It builds student independence, encourages self monitoring while reading, and promotes critical thinking of the texts students are reading. The work that you do teaching students how to apply reading strategies will help students grow as readers as they dive deep into the reading units that you are going to teach later on in the year. Lay the ground work now and watch them succeed all year long!

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reading comprehension strategies upper elementary


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8 Picture Books to Honor and Remember September 11th

september 11th upper elementary activities

Being a classroom teacher I am naturally drawn to picture books. I love reading picture books to address and meet reading and writing standards, support social emotional learning, address behavior issues, and to help enhance content area lessons. Picture books have helped me over the years get words across to students when sometimes my own words have failed. It is no surprise that picture books have become the cornerstone of my September 11th lessons beginning with the first anniversary of September 11th in 2002.

I was in my second year of teaching on September 11, 2001. One minute I was beginning the first lesson of the day, a grammar lesson on using commas, and the next minute my principal was taking over my class and I was driving home to say goodbye to my husband, a NYPD officer, who was just mandated to go into work.

Being a NYPD wife, New Yorker, and elementary school teacher made the next months extremely difficult.  The days were filled with high emotions both at school as both my students and colleagues all lost loved ones during the attacks. There was also no relief at home since my husband was working around the clock at Ground Zero. While talking in depth about the events that took place that September day was something that did not take place in the classroom that year, I knew that I wanted
to make sure that on every anniversary September 11th was not just acknowledged, but was honored and remembered in the best possible way.

With September 11th being such a delicate topic and part of history to discuss, especially with elementary students, turning to picture books was, and still is, a must for me. The following picture books are among my favorite books
to read during September.  They are perfect to read aloud to simply honor the day, spark meaningful discussions, or kick off social studies lessons in your classroom. Grab FREE activities to use with any of these books at the bottom of this post.

september 11th upper elementary activities
September Roses
By Jeanette Winter
This book is a beautiful short story offering one of many examples of kindness that took place in the wake of this horrible event.  Your students will be inspired to do random acts of kindness after listening to this sweet and true tale.

September 11th Then and Now By Peter Benoit
This book is a nonfiction short chapter book with real photographs that tells the informational side of the events that took place on September 11th. This book provides background knowledge for students and will help guide your classroom discussions and answer student questions.

This book is a flashback story to 1974 when Philippe Petit walked on tightropes between the towers in New York City. This book offers happy memories and a description of the towers when they were first built.

september 11th upper elementary activities
This story is one of my favorites. It is a story written in poetic form and tells a story of hope. This special chapel and community by the towers stood tall that day, literally and figuratively, helping others, while everything around them crumbled. Without many details of the events, the story is still told about what happened on 9/11. I highly recommend this book. (Note: Grab this from your local library. I have not been able to find this in any book store or online at a decent price.)

By Maira Kalman
This book tells the story of an old retired fire boat that came out of retirement to help the firemen and citizens of New York after the Twin Towers collapsed. This book is a positive tale that truly illustrates how the community came together after the attacks in New York and will inspire students to work together to help others.

september 11th upper elementary activities

By Don Brown
Written by a New Yorker who lost many friends during the attack, this book is a detailed and specific retelling of the events that took place on 9/11. I would recommend this book for students fifth grade and older.

September 11th 2001 
By Nancy Poffenberger
This book is a basic retelling of the events of September 11th with kid drawn and friendly illustrations. It provides an overview of the day without many specific events. Perfect for any grade.

By Carmen Agra Deedy
This book is a very gentle true story of one African man’s recollection of September 11th.  It truly brings to light how the whole world felt and also suffered for Americans after the events and tragic losses of the of 
September 11th.  Beautifully illustrated, this book shows how every person from all corners of the world wanted to give what they had to America. I love this one!

Remember September 11th in your classroom with one, or more of these picture books*. Today, September 11th is also known as Patriot Day. It is a great opportunity to not only honor the victims and heroes of the September 11th attacks, but to also honor our country, the freedoms that we have, and the people who make our country great. If you are looking for informational text to help support your lessons, you can see the formal activities I use with my students HERE.

Love using picture books in your classroom, too? Read about my favorite fall (non-Halloween) picture books, winter (non-holiday) picture books, and community building picture books to kick off your school year.

*affiliate links: “Think Grow Giggle is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.” (source: Section 5)

september 11th picture books and activities upper elementary


How to be Organized for Reading Conferences

organizational tips for reading conferences

I am often asked how I organize my materials, and what materials I bring along, when I hold reading conferences with my students during reading workshop. Having a designated reading conference toolbox or basket is a great way to be prepared, organized, and house all the materials that you need when you confer with students individually. By creating a toolbox or basket of the materials that you need ahead of time, you are able to use the time you have with students effectively, and not scrambling around looking for materials. Some of the materials in my toolbox are specific to a unit, so each time our unit or area of reading focus changes, I swap out those materials.

reading conference conferring guideHere is the low down on what is in my reading conference toolbox that I bring along to every reading conference I hold!

  1. Conferring Guide to stay on track
  2. Data Collection Forms or Notebook 
  3. Reader Take Away Cards
  4. Reading Strategy Teaching Points (Grab the set of teaching points that I use at the bottom of this post.)
  5. Previously Read Picture Book
  6. Previously Read Chapter Book
  7. Basic Supplies: pens, pencils, highlighters, sticky notes, book marks
  8. Reward Stickers for reader shutouts during mid workshop break

Be sure to bring along both a previously read picture book and chapter book that was just recently read with the whole class during the unit you are currently in. These books are so important to bring with you as you can refer back to them when teaching and modeling with the student during your conference time. Since the book is familiar to them, they will be able to focus on the learning of the reading strategy you are teaching them, and NOT the comprehension of the book.

No matter what is in your reading conference toolbox, make sure it is items that will help you make the most of your one-on-one time with your students to discuss the books that they are reading and to help them grow as readers.

We are so excited to get this school year rolling and helping you focus on easy classroom management! Check out these other classroom management ideas for upper elementary!

Six Classroom Management Ideas for the Science Classroom // Samson’s Shoppe

Managing Your Science Labs // The Owl Teacher

3 Tried & True Tips to Start the Year Off Right // Tried & True Teaching Tools

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classroom management tips upper elementary


4 Simple Ways to Engage Students in Meaningful Mathematical Discourse

math upper elementary common core

If your students are like mine, they love to talk! They love to talk about anything and everything...what happened on the bus, their favorite podcasts or TV shows, what their younger brother or sisters are up to, and even what book they are reading. But when it comes to engaging in meaningful math discourse, it can sometimes be crickets! I learned quickly that even though my students loved to talk, they did not always love to talk about their mathematical thinking.  The fear of being wrong often set in and kept my students as quiet as mice during math.  This was a mindset that I wanted to change and change quickly.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) defines mathematical discourse, as "ways of representing, thinking, talking, agreeing, and disagreeing ."  When students are engaged in meaningful math discourse every day, it provides you with many opportunities to listen into their conversations with peers and get a better understanding of what concepts students fully grasp and which ones remain a struggle for them. It also provides you the opportunity to give on the spot support, take anecdotal notes, and informally assess students. By providing students with the time and appropriate tasks that are specifically designed to spark these types of math discussions, students grow as mathematicians at a quick rate. They strengthen their own mathematical skills, help their peers' level of understanding, and learn from others' knowledge, too. Mathematical discourse in the classroom is a win for everyone involved!

With all of those benefits taking place in one math lessons, engaging students in mathematical discourse is a MUST DO in every upper elementary classroom. Follow these easy to implement tips to get your students discussing math in meaningful ways this school year.

Plan Explicit Instruction

As with any expectation you have, having students engage in mathematical discourse is something that needs to explicitly be taught.  Taking time at the beginning of the year to explicitly teach the expectations you have for math discourse will allow students time to practice how to talk about math problems and strategies with partners in meaningful ways. I always create class anchor charts of how to engage in math discussions with my students during the first few days of school. I use prepared math discussion stems and discussions questions that I expect students to use when they work with their partner,  as a guide to get our discussion going. I always am sure to include students' ideas on the charts, too. Just like turn and talk expectations during reading workshop, students are expected to make eye contact with their math partner, refer to the problem at hand, stay on task, and use the discussion prompts and questions given to them to guide their discussion. As the year progresses, students will not need the prompts and questions as they have fully embraced these prompts as their own, but they should keep a copy in their math journals as a reference. Another expectation that I explicitly teach is for students to use specific math vocabulary in their discussions. This means that they can refer to unit specific math terms on our word wall, from our journals, or from our math alphabet. By being specific, students conversations will truly serve as a tool to increase their understanding. As with any new skill and classroom procedure, be sure to model, model, model your expectations.  Grab FREE math stems and questions to engage students in mathematical discourse at the bottom of this post.

math discourse grade 3

Create Safe Partner Zones

When it comes to expecting students to engage in meaningful discourse it is important to create a classroom climate that welcomes mistakes! Students must absolutely feel safe to share their mathematical thinking, especially if they know they do not understand a concept. One way that I create a safe zone for students is by giving them two different math partners. (These math partnerships change every marking period.) Students have a red and green partner during math.  Red partners are partners that are at the same math level and green partners are partnerships of one higher math student and one lower math student.  Students develop strong and trusting relationships with both types of partners and are able to learn from both, too. Having both types of partnerships gives all students the chance to shine, help others, get support, and work as a team to complete any task. Most times, red partners are used during instructional work times and green partners are used during math mini-lesson instruction and discussion.  By having designated go to math partners, students will feel safe in your classroom environment and begin to take risks knowing that someone will always have their back. Their interest in solving math problems increases, too! Read more ways to strengthen your classroom community HERE.

Use Manipulatives

When students are given simple manipulatives to encourage participation and discourse, excitement and involvement increases tremendously. Two simple manipulatives to use to increase participation in your classroom discussions are paddle dry erase white boards* and agree and disagree cards. Students love to use the paddle dry erase boards to show their work and compare their thinking.  Kids love holding these by the handle and These are so easy to stack in the classroom and take up very little space. Agree and disagree cards are simple cards that you can make to provide students the opportunity to agree or disagree with their partner or classmate's thinking. Students love using these cards and the best part is that when students agree or disagree, they have to provide a rationale to support their opinion. Try these FREE 3rd grade math error analysis tasks to get students agreeing, or disagreeing with mathematical work. 5th grade version HERE and 4th grade version HERE.

Teacher Tip: When copying your agree and disagree cards, color code your cards so you can see quickly who agree or disagrees with a given answer.

math discourse grade 4

Provide Specific Math Tasks and Prompts

While it is possible to ask students to discuss any question in math, including how to solve an equation, the most meaningful discourse takes place when students are knee deep in problem solving and error analysis tasks. Problem solving activities require critical thinking and understanding, planning steps to solve, and then completing multiple steps to figure out the solution. Error analysis math tasks are also a great way for students to work with math partners to engage in meaningful math discourse. These are especially perfect for math discussions as students are expected to agree or disagree with how a problem was solved and explain their rationale. 

Talking about math truly helps students understand math concepts and self-reflect on themselves as mathematical learners. Math discourse aligns with the Mathematical Practices set forth from the Common Core State Standards. Remember,  just like any other lesson or activity, engaging students in meaningful math discourse must be planned.  You can use any problem solving activity that you already have to try this out, but instead of having students head off to work independently, pair them up, send them off with math discussion stems and discussion questions, throw in some manipulatives, and get ready to listen in and support your learners as they begin to love solving and discussing math tasks! Their interest in solving math problems increase, too! Read more ways to get your math students to LOVE math problem solving HERE.

math discourse grade 5


How to Get to Know Students as Workers and Partners

back to school get to know you activity

As teachers we know that nothing motivates students more than working with a partner or within a small group. This is true for all subject areas. When a partnership or small group works well together there are so many benefits. Some include students engaging in meaningful discourse, taking ownership of their own learning, taking risks and sharing ideas, learning from others, and of course strengthening their collaboration and teamwork skills. And these are just a few! We also know that when a partnership or small group does not work well together no learning takes place, arguments develop, and student relationships become strained.

getting to know you back to school activity
That is why I love to spend some time at the beginning of the year getting to know how each of my students like to work, their learning style, and what type of partner they want to work with during project time and cooperative group learning. By discussing this with students and getting them to discuss it with each other, students quickly learn these important lessons:

  • Friends do not always make the best working partner
  • Everyone has their own learning and working style
  • The stronger a group is, the better they can work and learn

The classroom discussions that take place during the first week of school about individual learning and working styles are my favorite. They not only help me get to know students and better plan partnerships and groups, but it also helps the students to better know each other and their learning styles', and build classroom community too!

Grab this easy to use and engaging partner activity that I use during the first week of school to help you get to know your students AND to help your students get to know each other at the bottom of this post. (See more back to school getting to know you activities HERE.)

back to school getting to know you activity

Click through to find more Back-to-School activities and freebies to help build relationships from the first day of school!

Get to Know Your Students with the 4 C's of Engineering // Kerry Tracy

back to school activities upper elementary


How to Hold Students Accountable During Independent Reading

upper elementary reading workshop

If your classroom is like mine, than there are many different reading times throughout the day.  There is formal independent reading time during reading workshop, silent reading after specials or recess, and the all encompassing  "read a book" direction that you give when a time filler is needed.  This means that students are probably reading different books, at different times, throughout the day. With each different reading time comes different objectives and expectations for students. Often time the expectations can become muddled if students do not fully understand the difference between each reading block of time. Taking the time at the beginning of the year to explain the different types of reading that will take place in your classroom is a must! It allows students to understand how they will be held accountable and helps them to select appropriate books to read during the different reading times throughout the day. So what exactly does each of the reading times look like?

Independent Reading

In my classroom, independent reading is the time that students are reading on their own during reading workshop or reading instruction. This means that the students are working on a specific skill or strategy that was taught and discussed in class, and are now trying it out in their own, self-selected, just right book. Although the students self select a book during independent reading time, there is direction given to them before they choose the book. This means that if we are working within a character unit, students are expected to select a chapter book with a strong main character, not a non-fiction book about scientists. During this reading time, students are held accountable for their reading through a variety of ways. The reading that students complete during independent reading time is always accompanied by a task designed to help them meet the reading objective of the day.

Here are some ways that I hold the students in my classroom accountable:
  • Students take reading notes on a graphic organizer or stickies (grab FREE  reading graphic organizers at the bottom of this post.)
  • Students  meet with me for a one-on-one reading conference to discuss the reading work that they have been doing  (read more about reading conferences HERE.)
  • Students meet with their reading partner to discuss a specific reading prompt that I give them about their book during our reading workshop break time (read more about the mid workshop break HERE.)
  • Students complete a reading accountability tracker to submit so that I can get a pulse of  the strategies that they use while they independently read (see the accountability tracker that I use HERE.)
reading workshop set up grade 5

On any given day, students will do one or more of these accountability check ins. This is because independent reading time is intentionally designed to help readers grow. Students are given explicit instruction on how to improve their reading skills and then expected to put those newly learned skills into action during their own independent time. Students understand that this reading time is always linked to an objective and has a specific purpose. This type of independent reading time gives students an opportunity to work towards meeting the common core literacy state standard: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

Silent Reading

independent reading grade 4Silent reading looks quite different than independent reading in my classroom. Silent reading is a time for all students to read for enjoyment. This is not to say that they do not enjoy the book that they are reading during independent reading time, but during silent reading, students are reading a book that they choose. This book can be a book on any topic, any genre, and any text type with no one asking them questions about what is happening in the book or what reading strategy they just used. It does not have to be a book that is based on our current reading unit. It is the equivalent to us as teachers reading a book for pleasure on the beach, versus us reading a professional book for a book club or college course. Students may select to read the same book for silent reading as they are reading at home, but they should not read the same book that they are reading during independent reading time.  During silent reading, or SSR, or DEAR, or whatever your school calls it, the expectation may be that you are also silently reading to model to students how important it is to read. This is a great thing to do, just make sure to not use this time to work with small groups. No student should lose their silent reading time. Having a silent reading block is perfect to help students unwind after recess or during the last ten minutes of the day, which can lead nicely into a reading dismissal time. Silent reading usually runs for at least 15 minutes and can go up to 25 minutes depending on the day's schedule.

"Read a Book!"

independent reading grade 3I cannot even begin to count how many times at the beginning of the school year I say, "Read a book." Students quickly learn that when they are done with an activity or there is a transition time, they are to read.  Students understand that this direction to read is referring to their silent reading book, not their independent reading book.  There is no accountability when students read a book during snack or down time, which is why they are not to read their independent reading  book. This reading time is similar to silent reading time, however it is at different times throughout the day, there is no set amount of time for reading, and all students may not be reading. During this time, students love to read magazines or informational texts as they know their reading time may come to an end abruptly. 

independent reading reading workshop
With so many different times to read during the day, each with different purposes, it is so important to set the expectation right from the start of the school year for each of the different reading blocks. Reading picture books about reading books is a fun way to get the discussion going about reading in the classroom. How to Read a Book* is one of my new favorites! A quick anchor chart will also help students understand the differences and help them to select the best book for the different reading times you have set up in your classroom. 

Looking for upper elementary chapter book recommendations? Visit my Amazon shop to see the titles I always recommend to my own students.

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independent reading upper elementary

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