How To: Differentiate Instruction with Reading Comprehension Passages

A teacher once asked me to stop by and talk to them about the work I was doing with my intervention students from their class. This time of the year, I’m doing all the usual differentiated instruction stuff with the students. I’m teaching them syllable patterns, teaching them phonics, sight words, and the ever-critical skill of paying attention. Another thing I’m doing with intermediate (3rd through 5th) struggling readers is giving them reading comprehension passages with questions.

Another meeting: our principal was asking us what we thought our testing grade students needed to improve on our state tests and I said they’re not doing enough reading comprehension passages. I admit this is an old technique. It’s one that has fallen out of favor, and I think that’s a bad thing.

Why Use Reading Comprehension Passages with Questions?

Sometimes, when teachers work with struggling readers, there’s a lot of word work going on. But few of the students are getting a chance to be using their newfound skills on actual passages. This is a mistake.

I believe intermediate students need to do reading comprehension passages.They need to do this until they’re comfortable with reading passages and answering questions about the passage. If for no other reason than because that’s what the state tests are made of. But the truth is, that isn’t the best reason for doing it.

Drilling Down to What Struggling Readers Need

Naturally strong readers, like the people who end up teaching school or writing blogs, often can’t remember being unable to comprehend what they’ve read. Their learning process from phonics understanding to reading understanding was so swift that they never noticed it. Slower learners need more practice. And one way they can get this practice is to give them a passage they are able to decode, ask them to read it, and then give them questions.

Even slow reading students who are well below the oral reading fluency expectations for their grade level still need to read passages every day. They also need a way to know if they’ve understood. Comprehension questions give them that knowledge.

Where Did Comprehension Break Down?

Even better, comprehension questions allow you, the teacher, to go back over the passage and show them where their comprehension broke down. In this way, they can begin to do what skilled readers do. Skilled readers monitor comprehension as they go. You may notice yourself pausing and going back to start a sentence again. But most kids don’t intuitively know how to do this. Many will never learn to, unless explicitly shown. They’ll just say “the (material) was too hard.” And then give up.

This is “Meta-Cognition”

We are dealing here with what researchers call “meta-cognitive reading strategies” or thinking about reading. This area of reading acquisition is part of the reason why teachers get wound up about phonics not being enough. Because while phonics is critical and without it, there will be no reading, meta-cognition is critical too. Without meta-cognition there will be no thinking about reading, and that is what reading is about.

Reading comprehension passages allow students to develop this skill. By using comprehension questions, reading comprehension passages take the students by the hand and lead them back to where their comprehension broke down, when there is a wrong answer and they check their work.

Setting Up for Reading Comprehension Practice

This type of work is often done during “independent time,” or what we call “centers” or “daily five” in primary. The time when the teacher is working with small groups, and everyone else is working on their own.

Reading comprehension passages are easy to differentiate, you just level your readers (I know, that’s a thing in itself) and get passages on the level of each reading group. The passages can be kept in a folder with the students’ names on them and the students can come pick them up in independent time.

It is true that for maximum accountability the teacher would grade the reading comprehension passages themself. I think this is critical at least some of the time. Once a week, perhaps, the class should get a passage each, read it, do the questions, and have the teacher grade them. That said, if they’re doing reading comprehension passages every day, they could self check their work some of the time.

And … They’re Having Fun!

As long as the passages are ones that the students can actually read, I have observed this to be a highly enjoyable activity for the students. This week we have read passages about a 17-year-old bull rider, we have considered the argument about whether middle school students should be allowed to use cell phones in class. We read about a grandmother, son, and granddaughter growing a tree. And we read a myth about a artist who painted the stars in the sky. Before we started, I worried about every passage, will they find this interesting?

And each passage the students love. The passages are interesting, but perhaps part of the reason they love reading them is because they are really reading. And for many of our struggling readers, the experience of successfully reading a paragraph and answering questions correctly about it is positively exciting.

It should be exciting for us too. Beyond all the benefits, including brain growth and social well-being, that come from reading in the abstract. Beyond the fact that most elementary teachers love reading just in general. Besides that when the students take their state tests they will be able to do a better job. And they will feel better after that happens, too. Because they are like baby birds learning to fly.

And The Principal Visits

There was an unique happiness in the class we did these passages. When we were reading the story in which an artist painted the stars and moon on the sky. And the principal came in. Perhaps he wanted to observe what I had said about using passages.

The students all had their stories in front of them and they were all looking at the words intently, reading along. One student had chosen the wrong multiple choice answer to a question, and I was helping her to determine why the answer was incorrect. We were considering the overall meaning of the story. One of those “inference” questions that always is difficult.

The principal stayed only a minute and left.  I was proud of my students. They were clearly working hard and learning.

What I Recommend for Struggling Readers During Independent Time

When I go this week and meet with my teacher friend about helping the struggling readers, I will mention these strategies with comprehension passages:

  1. Walk around the room and observe the papers and make sure each student is on task.
  2. Question students individually and make sure that they determine the correct answer, with help if needed.
  3. Students who are not progressing quickly need more targeted teacher questioning, and students who are doing well, less.
  4. Have a method for accountability. Check the passages yourself at least once a week.

Where to Get Reading Comprehension Passages

  • You can get the passages on Newsela
  • or Reading a to z
  • Most Basal Reader adoptions (Reading Street, Wonders) have reading comprehension questions somewhere. Often they come in the answer key bank of soft cover books of weekly tests, benchmark tests, blackline masters, etc.
  • SRA Reading Laboratory offers leveled reading passages from easiest to hardest, in a boxed kit, and this is a resource I use a lot.  Apparently after being out of print for years, SRA Reading Labs are back in print (thanks to Science of Reading, no doubt) and you can buy one on Amazon for about $1000, or a used one for $300-600 at Ebay.
  • You can get a them from the website of the old Mailbox Magazine.
  • They are generally available in the curriculum section of the bookstore in soft-cover teacher teacher book form.
  • I have reading comprehension passages for sale on my Teachers Pay Teachers site, and actually TpT is a great resource for finding leveled passages if you don’t have easy, inexpensive access to these elsewhere.

So if you need a differentiated instruction technique that covers the whole class, that prepares kids for standardized testing, that is not in fact boring, and which the students can often do all by themselves, I recommend reading comprehension passages.

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