Search form

The Power of Comprehension with Drs. Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown

Blog_WH_Authors2LOur new literacy-boosting program Word Heroes is more than just a robust vocabulary program. It also uses close-reading and a variety of discussions and interactive lessons to build students’ comprehension.

We sat down with the authors behind Word Heroes, Dr. Isabel Beck and Dr. Margaret McKeown, to ask them a few questions about the importance of comprehension and the role of close reading.


Q: How does analysis of a meaty, conceptual word help train children to think? 

A: Analyzing a word—considering how the word’s meaning connects to other words, and thinking about how the word ‘works’ to help us understand information—is brain food. Our brains literally grow when we make new connections. Tying the meaning of a word to how it is used, to situations where it is used, and to related words creates real, physical connections in the brain.

Being prompted to think about what words mean and how words are used builds and deepens students’ thinking. It opens a whole direction for thought and analysis as students realize that words are not simple, separate entities with isolated definitions. Rather, students see that words are complex, meanings are nuanced, and individual words have varying levels of connection and overlap. This helps them to map the world of language and to begin to grasp the inherent complexity of thought and ideas.

Working with word meanings shows students how a complex set of features can fit together in various ways. Learning how to take words apart and sort them by their various components and features models strategic thinking for other complex concepts.


Q: How can we help students come away from a text with an adequate understanding of if the text’s surface meaning—what we like to call the ‘gist’?

A: We worry about the notion that understanding the surface meaning of a text is easy. So, we underscore that getting the surface meaning of a text is far from trivial and as most teachers know, many students, young and older, do not come away from a text with a reasonable understanding of what the author said.  Although not understanding is more typically associated with silent reading, it is also the case that many children do not develop a coherent understanding of a read aloud. Whether the text is read aloud or read silently by students, we suggest a procedure that models what a competent reader does. 

There is strong evidence that shows that when a skilled reader is reading, she or he is making sense of the material right at place in the text where their eyes are focused. The reader does not hold up understanding until he or she has completed a text or sections of text.  So, we teach students that readers should “take on” a text little by little and that one needs to try to understand the text that is right at the end of their nose.

Thus, we recommend interspersed reading and responding to sections of text (several sentences, a paragraph, and a page) in the context of reading as it initially occurs. Whether a teacher is reading aloud, a student is reading aloud, students are reading silently, research indicates that going back and forth between reading portions of text, and responding to teacher’s questions about that portion facilitates text understanding. 


Q: How can we help children move from a surface understanding of text (the 'gist') to a deeper understanding (the 'grist')?

A: Our view of deeper understanding of text, which we have coined as 'grist,' is akin to close reading. Our definition of close reading is keen attention to fine details of language for the purpose of appreciating authors’ craft toward figuring out how broader-level meanings are developed. Even children in kindergarten can be introduced to some literary techniques. Let’s consider personification—when an author gives human traits to a non-human character or object.

In a lesson, that we developed for young children for a classic two-stanza poem “Who has seen the Wind?” by Christina Rossetti, we took advantage of the poet’s use of personification to emphasize the power of the wind. The poem includes the lines “. . .when the leaves hang trembling, . . when the trees bow down their heads.” After working through the gist of the poem with the children, we asked them what the leaves do that only people and animals can do (“hang trembling”); what the trees do (“bow down their heads”), and then through some discussion and activities, we tell the children that describing things as if they were people is called personification—a six syllable word that is not very hard to say. 

Now to the second part of the definition of close reading—how the author's craft—in this case personification—contributes to the broader meaning of the poem. We discuss with students how the author’s use of personification brings to life the power of the wind. This analysis models a way for students to notice literary techniques and consider how they contribute to the broader meaning of a text. Students will see personification used again in many, many texts. If they know about this and other literary techniques, they are better prepared to consider how such techniques support broader-level meaning; in the case at hand, emphasizing the power of the wind.


Q: Why should we expect children in the primary grades to achieve a deeper understanding of text?

A: Young children are capable of remarkably deep understanding, if they are scaffolded when needed -- for example, by rereading a part of the text to consider how key information or authors’ craft contributes to deeper understanding of the text or why one character’s comments are always in capital letters and how that contributes to inferring that character’s personality. So, what is the point of keeping children to surface meaning, and asking them to deal with deeper meaning years later when they’ve had no model for doing so? They will not be nearly as prepared to delve into harder text later. The better question might be: Why keep students from pursuing deeper meaning? Why keep it a secret? 


Q: What is the last text you read closely?

A: (Margaret McKeown) I think I always engage in close reading when I’m reading a book that I really love. That is, I go back and reread, ‘closely,’ portions that I particularly admired or enjoyed. Or sometimes I check back to see what it was that seemed to be driving a character’s actions. The last book I recall doing this with quite a lot was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. After I finished it, I went back to revel in some of his marvelous language.

A: (Isabel Beck) When I’m reading something that is wonderful, or seems out of place, or triggers curiosity, I often go back immediately and reread. Currently, I am reading The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, for which he won the 2016 National Book Award. It is among the most intense books I have read. The book is not about the underground railroad as we know it—a network of people who help slaves during their escape to the north. Rather the book is a metaphor for former slaves on their journey out of the south. In Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, there is a real train that travels underground on which a young slave, Cora, boards for a journey from hell to different worlds where the train stops. 

The horrors of slaves’ treatment in the pre-Civil War South is brutal, searing, horrendous, excruciating, and initially, I was barely able to get through on first read. But Whiteheads language is extraordinary, and later I went back and dwelled on it. Consider this example, which isn’t grisly but is stunning: Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.

Related Interview: The Power of Vocabulary with Drs. Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown


Word Heroes—A Brand New Literacy Program

Click the image below to learn more about Drs. Beck and McKeown's brand new literacy program!