Some Thoughts on Comprehension: Adjusting my Perspective a Bit

I’m prepping for an upcoming presentation on teaching comprehension and what’s new in the research and I am realizing that I have to change my perspective a bit to provide my clients and their students with the “best case scenario” comprehension instruction.

Yes me, changing my perspective – it’s a strange thing!

Here’s how:

I realize that we have to focus equally on strategy work and fix-up work. Struggling readers have little to no control over what they’re reading and rarely understand that they are struggling when they are! Good comprehension instruction will help students figure out “Wow! I am having trouble understanding this.” or “I really need to go back and do some work with the text because I’m not getting this.”

Identifying that I’m in trouble in the first step in fixing it. I am struck by the idea that much of comprehension instruction is “here’s what it looks like when it’s done right” and not nearly enough, “here’s how you know you’re in trouble and here are a few things to do about it:”. We have to teach student that metacognitive awareness as much as the metacognitive control.

Also, teaching students to use strategies is ONE APPROACH in teaching students to comprehend – we have to go much deeper than the rote memorization of strategies and spend more and more time in discussion and modeling of what good readers do when they are comprehending and when they aren’t.

I have to work with teachers to become loose and fluid during comprehension instruction: have a goal for the instruction in mind, but use the myriad opportunities that authentically arise during the course of reading expository or narrative text to teach how to identify comprehension problems and how to fix them up.

Now for those who know me and know my near-obsession with explicit instruction, I’m not backing off of the teach/model/practice/apply foundation of teaching, I’m just coming to realize that grappling authentically with text IS PART OF the guided practice and application portion of the explicit teaching plan – some of it cannot be planned, but excellent teachers are prepared to respond to what comes up over the course of instruction.

It’s messy, straggly and much life real-life reading – it doesn’t always happen seamlessly the first time through, even for the best readers.

What do YOU think? Leave a comment below about what your experience is as you teach comprehension, what works for you, what doesn’t and what it all looks like in the classroom.

Differentiated Instruction Doesn’t Have To Be So Difficult!

It is very common in my work that teachers know exactly which kids might need extra support through differentiated instruction, but what frustrates them most is this: how do I know exactly what they need and then what the heck do I do about it?

One of the things I LOVE most about helping educators is taking something that’s really difficult or complicated and simplifying it – it’s very satisfying to see excellent teachers carry out important instructional work with the kids in a way that they haven’t before.

For starters, let’s define ‘differentiated instruction’ – for our purposes let’s say this: differentiating instruction provides more and different instructional time and materials for specific students in order to close the skill gap between these students and their grade level performing peers.

Simply put?  Kids have skill gaps and we need to fill them so that they can perform at grade level.

Here are the 4 Ds for Differentiating Instruction successfully:


Use a simple but to-the-point reading skill diagnostic assessment that is given one-on-one.  I recommend CORE’s Phonic Survey or Houghton Mifflin’s Phonics Decoding Screening Test. 

When you give this diagnostic you’ll easily find out the kids’ weak spots/skill gaps because they will ‘fail’ this portion of the test.  You’ll find the spots on the assessment that the students master (because they ‘pass’ it), then you know where they start.  


Figure out which kids have the same skill needs (they typically group together naturally, which makes grouping simpler!) and they become your targeted small group. 

Lots of questions arise about ideal group size – I say no more than 7-8, but more importantly I’m concerned with getting kids in a group with like skill needs.  If we have the wrong kids in the groups, then we’re wasting everyone’s time.


Start with 1-2 target skills at their lowest point of performance.  I call this “sweeping under the rug” – making sure that we get to the lowest skill need so that we don’t have to go back and re-sweep in the future. 

Map out the missing skills over 2 week chunks.  So, if I found out that my kids in a small group needed 3 concepts taught to them, I’d map out 6 weeks of small group instruction.

Each lesson should have DIRECT INSTRUCTION as part of the teaching.  The lesson should be explicit (teach, model, practice, feedback, feedback, feedback, apply, feedback, feedback, feedback…you get the point!) in nature and should not leave ANY room for interpretation or lack of clarity. 

Remember, these are kids who are frustrated, confused and struggling already – we want to clear the water, not overwhelm with implicit language or lessons!


The delivery of the lesson is critical to the students’ mastery of the missing skills!

Lessons should be highly structured (for behaviors and instruction), there should be lots of academically oriented feedback (“Wow Justin!  Awesome answer…I can tell that you worked hard to decode that word using the long /o/ sound!”), multiple repetitions on the same concepts until students are mastered on that skill (this ensures long-term storage), much review built into each lesson (some say 80% review/20% new) and lavish amounts of encouragement from the teacher.

Each week, at least, should end with a check-out – an informal quick test for each student designed by the small group teacher.  This quick-test will show the teacher whether the concept for that week’s small group instruction has been mastered or if the kids need more time. 

Here’s the really good news…you don’t have to be perfect to deliver a slam dunk lesson!  Whew!  If you work to be consistent and well-planned than you have a better shot at closing the skill gaps while differentiating instruction.

So, where do you start?  Start by getting your hands on a really good diagnostic and assess at least 1 child and see what you find.

I LOVE talking about how to differentiate instruction! (Yes, I’m a true reading geek)…so….leave your questions below or come on over to my Facebook page (www.facebook.com/jacksonconsulting) and let’s talk about this!


Prioritizing the Instructional Coaching Role to Maximize Support for Teachers

There is no doubt that if I could create time for coaches I would be a very rich woman. 

And if I were very wealthy, I probably would be writing this blog from Bora Bora, taking excessive amounts of breaks to jump off the hut into the water and grab a shell that would contain a 1 pound black pearl that the man who fans me with palm fronds would string onto a necklace…WAIT! 



Let me start again here.

Well good morning, fine educators!  I am so pleased that you have chosen to join me here on this fine morning/afternoon/evening as we delve into the art of instructional coaching and how to mentor.

Okay.  So that’s a little overboard, too.  I’m a gal of extremes…so sue me!

Really what I’d like to share with you is how to create more time instructional coaching by prioritizing your calendar and the work that you do.  It really will help you grasp how you will spend quality time with the teachers who need most support. 

So, here are some powerful but easy-to-implement actions in prioritizing the instructional coaching role.  I’m excited for you to make every moment with your teachers count – for them and for you. 

Tip One:  Privately organize (so as to not be evaluative) the teachers in your coaching cadre by intensive, strategic and benchmark in relation to how they’re performing in relation to your school’s instruction focus areas. 

Directly coach and have contact with the intensive teachers once a week, the strategic teachers at least once every 2 weeks and the benchmark/advanced teachers at least once a month.

Tip Two:  Create a coaching calendar to give focus to your instructional coaching. 

You are less likely to be pulled to substitute at the last minute for an absent teacher, attend a meeting on behalf of the principal or be pulled to fix the copier (ha!) when you are moving around your school with purpose. 

If people ask you to do something that might be outside of your position, you can say, “I would love to help – but I’m booked in classrooms until 9:30, I’ll check back with you then and I’d be glad to help!” 

What you’ll find is that they will have long moved on by the time you check back.

Tip Three: Schedule the debriefing of the coaching cycle during the pre-conference.  You will spend much less time chasing down the teacher in the end.  When you honor the teacher’s time, too, you strengthen the relationship!

Tip Four: Listen. Really listen.  Oftentimes, you’ll be able to have “coach-able moments” with a teacher that will lead you more informally into the instructional coaching cycle.

Use these times to pre-conference and before you know it, you’re right back into the coaching cycle and getting that teacher feedback and notes. 

Look for natural extensions of coaching in less formal settings – they can be your most fertile coaching locations!

What do you think?  Can you see how these little tips all add up to more coaching time?  I certainly hope you can see it, because I have so much evidence from the field that they DO work!

So, tell me which tip you’ll implement first…leave a comment!  I love to hear about YOUR next steps and encourage along the way!

Leaked From Our Private Coaching Circle! Prioritizing Vocabulary for Maximized Impact

Oops! We had a leak in the roof…and this video slipped from our paid inner coaching circle to YOU! For FREE!

In this "shot in the wild" video I discuss how to choose the vocabulary words you teach very very carefully – it’s not about teaching "the list", but about teaching the words that will have high impact on comprehending the passage or text.

Out with those really frustrating words to memorize and memorized-and-then-forgotten vocabulary tests…let’s work together to choose fewer words more carefully and then see the text comprehension SOAR! Here’s your job:

1. Take a look at the video

2. Write down3 "a-has" as you watch

3. Come back and post the "a-has" right here in the comments

Happy watching!

If you are interested in joining us in our private coaching circle, please check out this link and you can join INSTANTLY! There are tons of videos and comments from me AND like-minded professionals just like you waiting! jackson-consulting.com/online-products-services/at-the-blackboard-with-jill-coaching-circle