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Sunday / July 21

Teaching Reading through Critical Comprehension

The goal of reading is the active construction of meaning. Each reader is a unique individual who brings a collection of information, a personal vocabulary, a set of experiences, biases, and personal identities to every text they encounter. When we read with the text, we typically draw upon common interpretations and thinking aligned with the dominant understanding of widely accepted beliefs (Janks, 2010). However, when we read against the text, we draw upon our understanding that no text is neutral. We call upon what we bring to the text to question the author’s ideologies and beliefs in our attempts to discover alternate narratives that challenge dominant understandings or viewpoints (Janks, 2010).

Each reader is a unique individual who brings a collection of information, a personal vocabulary, a set of experiences, biases, and personal identities to every text they encounter.

Critical comprehension requires deeper reading, going beyond a passive acceptance of information to consciously question the text, the world, and our own assumptions. By problematizing texts in this way, readers become critically conscious and challenge text to reveal power inequities often mirrored in society (Jones, 2006; Vasquez, 2010). Critical readers then seek a more nuanced understanding by uncovering silenced voices, omitted narratives, and hidden truths.

Critical readers question the text to examine what or who is included and also what or who is excluded and why. They consider who is benefitting from the information or the narrative and who is harmed by it. Critical readers explore other perspectives that are needed to weave a more informed and complete tapestry of truth. They acknowledge that the text creators may be biased and thus examine the origins of this bias, their credibility, and their authenticity. Critical readers also consider their own biases and how that may affect the way in which they interpret the text.

The ability to read with critical comprehension is important in the best of times, but is even more essential when certain voices are marginalized or silenced and access to information, multiple perspectives, or various news sources are reduced to those favored by only a few dominant voices.

Critical comprehension requires deeper reading, going beyond a passive acceptance of information to consciously question the text, the world, and our own assumptions.

Critical comprehension is not a scripted program, and it does not follow a step-by-step sequence. The focus of lessons should vary because it should be responsive to students’ needs, interests, curiosities, and con­cerns. Lessons will also vary based on the context in which texts are being used to offer perspective for teaching and learning (Comber & Simpson, 2001; Comber et al., 2001; Vasquez, 2014).

Here is an example of using a picture book to create space for students to engage in deep and critical reading and to explore stereotypes using a critical comprehension framework we developed (Kelly et al, 2023) that. The framework includes multiple reads of a text:

  1. This first reading of the text is intended to be much like that of a first viewing of a movie. It may be a full uninterrupted reading or a picture walk. This positions you to revisit the text guided by their questions, knowing where they want to pause and examine more closely, and which ideas they want to challenge and excavate.

  1. The second read focuses on common interpretations, dominant understandings, or widely accepted perspectives. This can offer a starting point for framing the return read to read critically.

  1. “Return read” is a term we use to describe revisiting a text after the second read with a specific focus to question the text, examine whose voices or experiences are centered or decentered, or challenge the status quo (Kelly et al., 2023).

Reading critically positions us with the power to make informed decisions to advocate for equity and justice. We can take action and be part of the change. Or we can choose inaction and be complicit in a system that advantages some and disadvantages others.

People have risked their lives to learn to read and write and fight for more equitable education, freedom, and a better life. This work begins with you. Now that you have seen an example of using the critical comprehension framework for developing lessons, we invite you to use the process to plan for a lesson, unit, or topic you teach. Review the standards and the curriculum for your grade level and consider how you could reimagine the curriculum to include the framework. You can explore this further with our new book Critical Comprehension: Lessons for Guiding Students to Deeper Meaning.

Written by

Katie Kelly is a Professor of Education and Coordinator of the Literacy Graduate Program at Furman University in Greenville, SC. As a former teacher and literacy coach, Katie’s teaching and research interests include engaging children in meaningful literacy experiences and practices to foster lifelong literacy, equity, and justice. She is widely published in several peer-reviewed journals including The Reading Teacher and Voices from the Middle. She has co-authored three other books: Reading To Make a Difference: Using Literature to Help Students Think Deeply Speak Freely and Take Action (Heinemann), From Pencils to Podcasts: Digital Tools to Transform K-12 Literacy Practices (Solution Tree) and Smuggling Writing: Strategies that Get Students to Write Every Day, in Every Content Area (3-12) (Corwin). She can be contacted on Twitter @ktkelly14 and by email katie.kelly@furman.edu.

Lester Laminack, Professor Emeritus, Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina is now a full-time writer and consultant working with schools throughout the United States and abroad. He is the author of over 25 books for teachers and children. His academic publications include Climb Inside a Poem (Heinemann) Cracking Open the Author’s Craft (Scholastic), Bullying Hurts: Teaching Kindness Through Read Aloud and Guided Conversations (Heinemann), The Writing Teacher’s Troubleshooting Guide (Heinemann), Writers ARE Readers: Flipping Reading Strategies into Writing Instruction (Heinemann), The Ultimate Read Aloud Collection Fiction and Nonfiction (Scholastic). Lester is also the author of several children’s books. He is available for professional development and school author visits. You can contact him via his website www.LesterLaminack.com and follow him on Facebook or on Twitter @Lester_Laminack

Vivian Vasquez is a Professor in the School of Education at American University in Washington, DC. She is a former pre-school and elementary school teacher. Her interests in creating spaces for critical literacies, in early years classrooms, began while she was a kindergarten teacher in the early 90s. She has published numerous articles and book chapters, and she has authored or co-authored fifteen other books including the award winning Negotiating Critical Literacies with Young Children. Vivian’s honors and awards include the Outstanding Elementary Educator in the English Language Arts Award, the NCTE Advancement of People of Color Award, the AERA Division B Outstanding Book of the Year Award and The James N. Britton Award. The NCTE Early Childhood Assembly honored her with a scholarship in her name – The Vivian Vasquez Teacher Scholarship. She can be reached at vvasque@american.edu.

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