Keys to Literacy Newsletter
Fall 2011
Volume 8

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 Our quarterly newsletter provides guidance and resources related to literacy and comprehension instruction in grades 1-12.  We hope you find the tips and resources helpful in your teaching... and feel free to forward to your friends and colleagues!   

In this issue:  
Teaching Comprehension in Primary Grades

Teaching Tips:
Comprehension in Primary Grades
Joan's Photo
Comprehension strategy instruction should begin as early as grade 1, and it should be explicit and practiced with all types of classroom reading.

The Institute of Sciences released a guide, Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade, in which the authors offer 5 recommendations:
  1. Teach students how to use reading comprehension strategies.
  2. Teach students to use the text's organizational structure to comprehend, learn, and remember content.
  3. Guide students with focused discussions on text meaning.
  4. Select texts purposefully to support comprehension. 
  5. Establish an engaging context for teaching comprehension.
The report adds that teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency is essential for beginning readers, but that primary teachers should also provide explicit instruction in comprehension strategies. Students should be taught to apply these to both narrative and expository text.

The most effective strategies for grades 1-3 are similar to those for grades 4 and up: activating prior knowledge and predicting, questioning, visualization, monitoring, inference practice, retelling and summarizing. The report also emphasizes the need for a "gradual release of responsibility" model of instruction.  

While many assume that schools using a core reading program are adequately teaching comprehension strategies, Dewitz, Jones and Leahy (2009) found otherwise. They analyzed the 5 most widely used core reading programs and concluded that:
  • These programs advise teaching too many skills and strategies, diluting the emphasis on critical skills.
  • Comprehension instruction in these programs is not explicit enough, rarely promotes the gradual release of responsibility, and does not provide sufficient practice.
Click here for the article and here for an interview with Dewitz.

We believe that main idea skills should be introduced as early as kindergarten because these skills are so basic to comprehension. For early readers, the emphasis should be on categorizing and that paragraphs are built around a main idea. Through read alouds, students can apply strategies to complex ideas even before they can read complex text.

We also find that young children are able to learn other activities from The Key Comprehension Routine, like topic webs, two-column notes, summary, and question generation.
Recommended Resources for
Comprehension Instruction in Grades K-3
Four BooksIn addition to sources noted above, we recommend:

Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Snow & Burns, Editors) is an excellent resource with recommendations for comprehension instruction.

Block and Lacina's chapter Comprehension Instruction in Kindergarten Through Grade Three in the Handbook of Research on Reading Comprehension (2009) is heavy on research, but very helpful.

The comprehension chapter in Vaughn and Linin-Thompson's book,
What's new in adolescent literacy?
Four Books


Check out this article:  Literacy Coaching in the Middle Grades by McKenna and Walpole. 

A July 2011 Policy Brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education, Assessing Deeper Learning, posits that new literacy assessments need to measure deeper learning competencies than current high-stakes assessments do. It summarizes the work of the Comprehensive Assessment Consortia, who have been developing more rigorous assessments linked to the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS). 


Other policy briefs from the Alliance:
Two other recent articles highlight the growing problem with literacy skills among high school graduates:
Keys to Literacy News

As mentioned above, we introduced a new version of our Key Comprehension Routine professional development program specifically for grades 1-3. It has been very well-received! For more information, click here.

We are pleased to announce that Joan's paper about adolescent literacy was recently published in the 3rd edition of Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills (Judith Birsh, Ed.). The chapter, Adolescent Literacy: Addressing the Needs of Students in Grades 4-12, is one of several that address all aspects of literacy instruction for both general and special ed students. Click here to order the book and here for a summary of the chapter.

 A message from

Joan Sedita

Joan's picture 
In reviewing the research about teaching comprehension in primary grades, I learned that there has been little explicit instruction of comprehension strategies at this level. One study* found that only 16% of K-3 teachers include comprehension strategy instruction as part of their literacy curriculum.

Many teachers do read and think alouds with their students, but that is not the same as explicitly teaching strategies such as generating questions, identifying main ideas, or using a graphic organizer. 

I was also surprised by the findings in the Dewitz, Jones, & Leahy article about the lack of quality comprehension
 instruction  in elementary school core reading programs.

When we decided to adapt our Key Comprehension Routine for the primary grades, we made sure to incorporate the evidence for teaching strategies most effectively in these early grades.

We have developed a helpful model to explicitly teach comprehension strategies in the primary grades. We have chosen only the most essential strategies, and we emphasize explicit instruction and a gradual release of responsibility approach that is necessary for effective comprehension instruction


Happy Fall!


-Joan Sedita 

*Neuman, 2001 in Pilonieta & Medina, 2009
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