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Reading between the lines


by Lynden Punnett Tue, Sept 6. 2011

The use of comprehension questions as a basis for determining passage difficulty is not without its challenges. Is a question easy or difficult to answer because of the text or because of the nature of the question?{{more}}

Can the question be answered based on the reader’s background alone (text independent) or is an understanding of the text required (text dependent)?

Do all comprehension questions measure the same abilities and the same tasks for the reader or do they vary?

Finally, is there a system used to identify those text meanings that a reader is expected to comprehend and recall?

Readers can efficiently process a text and still have difficulty comprehending what has been read. This is typically thought to be due to discrepancies between the content of the text and reader background knowledge. The current research, while continuing to take its cue from the reader, uses readers’ retellings as the source for understanding text difficulty.

Retellings, rather than predetermined comprehension questions. Additionally, the use of retellings as a measure of reader comprehension has a well-established history in the research literature.

A text alternating between the present and the past across five different episodes further complicates a story, with each change in episode and time, a change in narrator occurred. This constant movement in time and place by the storyteller can wreak havoc on a student’s comprehension. Furthermore, because readability formulae fail to capture or measure such complexities, teachers may fail to teach such complexities. Teachers, in working to promote the comprehension abilities of their students, might consider using retellings to guide their instruction. This might be as simple as having students list the major ideas in what they had read and then building instruction based on the gaps.

Ref. Journal of Research in Reading Volume 33, Issue 3, August 2010

How can Précis help Reading Comprehension?

The précis strategy effectively enhances reading comprehension, particularly in the case of students of lower reading ability.

A précis, as any dictionary will tell you, is a “summary of a text; an abstract”. It is from this French word that the English word, ‘precise’, originated. The French word itself originated from the Latin praecidere, meaning ‘to curtail’.

The précis is valuable because it forces the student to express a story or a thesis in his or her own words. This is the level of comprehension. Being able to restate something using one’s own words indicates an understanding of the original story or paper. Teachers can therefore use a précis to determine whether a student understands what has been read. The précis also provides the student with a concise review of the material read. It is by definition a summary and often there is not enough time to study the original story or paper; a précis gives the student material to study to refresh his or her memory about the original text read.

A précis must be clear and concise. Précis exercises demand reading with concentration, so that you understand and retain the substance of what you have read. It is only when you can grasp the main ideas of a passage that you can summarize it. In this demand for concentrated reading, the exercise is similar to Reading Comprehension.

Writing précis teaches you to avoid vagueness, haphazard arrangement of facts, irrelevant details and repetitions. You learn to choose the correct and effective word in a particular context, construct sentences which are brief yet full of information, and put your facts and ideas in a logical pattern.


Identify Key Words

Teaching main idea follows a specific sequence: students must first be able to identify the key words or topic of a sentence, then a paragraph, and finally a longer selection.

  •  1. Identifying the key words of a sentence
  •  2. Identifying key words or topic of a paragraph
  •  3. Identifying the topic sentence of a paragraph
  • 4. Recognizing an explicitly stated main idea of a paragraph
  •  5. Inferring the main idea of a paragraph
  •  6. Recognize relationships among main ideas in related paragraphs in longer selections
  •  7. Inferring relationships among main ideas in related paragraphs in longer selections.

Use a small, sample sentence to identify key words. Once mastery at the sentence level is shown, move on to identifying key words of a paragraph. Do not put the words into a sentence yet. Just highlight important words and discuss what they mean within the paragraph. Either read a paragraph out loud or direct them to read it carefully. Then:

  •  Write a phrase together about what each sentence says
  • Identify the one idea that all of the sentences say
  • Write the main idea in a complete sentence using your own words
  • Find the sentence that best sounds like your complete sentence

The beauty of this is that it is teaching the students to monitor their own comprehension. You are also teaching that the main idea can be found anywhere within a paragraph, not just at the beginning.


This is actually quite similar to steps 3 & 4, except that now the students will need to match their “own words” main idea with an implied one from the text – inferring. Continue using the same four steps but at higher levels of thinking. Inferring is the critical step towards mastering reading comprehension. Along with fluency, it is an excellent predictor of future reading success. To help students find the “MAIN IDEA” Try the analogy of filleting a fish.. Using a simple story or piece of prose ask students what they think is the ‘main idea’. Draw a fish on the blackboard. At each suggestion of relevant information remove pieces of the fish until just the bones are left ( the bones represent the literal bare bones of the story); at the same time writing the suggestions for all to see. Now the students must replace the flesh onto the fish using the brief suggestions so that the fish can be made whole again and the main points of the story are intact. Students can refer to the story to see that all main points have been included and are disregarding the more unnecessary pieces of information. It’s a fun activity. Spidergrams are also useful at being able to focus the student on the main idea, whilst putting down information in particular boxes The boxes can then be numbered so as the student knows which piece of information needs to be written first and so on.

Lynden Punnett holds a Dip.SpLD (Dyslexia)