So here was my teacher struggle. My first grade classroom was a mixed-ability group with students on both ends of the special needs spectrum. Some kids were served for learning disabilities. Others were served for gifted and talented. There were also kids who were performing as expected on grade-level. Of course, that made meeting all my students’ needs a challenge. No doubt, this is the case in classrooms across the country. In fact, differentiation is not just a buzzword in education. It is an evidence-based instructional framework that permeates nearly every aspect of our work with children.
First Grade Reading Instruction
Students with special learning needs, like English Language Learners or students with learning disabilities, are served in inclusion classrooms as much as possible. This was my classroom from year to year. Some years I had the ESOL homeroom, and others I had the inclusion homeroom. Of course, every year I had the BEST homeroom! Even though these students had unique learning needs, I loved every minute of it!
During my reading flex groups, a specially-trained inclusion or ESOL teacher pushed into my classroom. Their work was to serve students with TCPs and IEPs in a teacher-led flex group. So, their flex group activities were teacher (me), teacher (her), technology. This was great for these students! Namely because they had learning support built into every reading rotation every day.
On the other hand, my gifted students were served using a weekly resource model. To clarify, one day a week they left my classroom for an entire day to go to the gifted teacher’s classroom. In the gifted classroom, they worked on an curriculum that incorporated above grade-level science and social studies content standards.
Now, don’t get me wrong. On the whole, these students enjoyed going to gifted class. But, it did not connect to what we were doing in our classroom. Moreover, it did not provide them with the daily acceleration they needed. In other words, this model of service was great for these kids one day a week. However, it did nothing for them the other four days a week. It was up to me to challenge their thinking across the curriculum every other day. For these students, we needed a meaningful independent rotation while I worked with another group of learners.
My First Grade Reading Comprehension Struggle
As with being a teacher of firsties, I needed to primarily address foundational reading skills for students performing on grade-level. This means independent reading rotations were largely based on first grade phonics, decoding, and fluency skills. Remember, my inclusion group had teacher support most days with the inclusion teacher. If there was a day she couldn’t serve them, then they worked on phonological awareness and phonics skills during their independent rotation. Their work even included instruction and practice with sight words.
However, my above-level students had already mastered these early literacy skills. Furthermore, they were also reading above the year-end oral reading fluency benchmarks. Eeek! I needed to challenge these kids even beyond our grade level expectations. We needed to work on reading comprehension.
Reading Comprehension Programs
Many teachers and schools use a program like Reading Counts or Accelerated Reader (AR) to measure students’ comprehension on independent reading. And, I did too, for a while. Yes, my kids could take tests on their library books. They could even earn points for prizes from our media specialist. But, who just wants to read and test everyday during reading flex groups? In case you didn’t pick up on my sarcasm, it’s no one. Not one student wants to do the same exact thing every single day. Students will quickly become bored of the monotonous cycle of read, test, go to the library, read test, go to the library. Take my word for it. You will start to see off-task behavior from even your most well-behaved kiddos.
Admittedly, it would be very easy on me to just use AR as their independent group activity. That involves literally no planning at all on my part. But, as it happened, I ran a pretty tight ship in regard to classroom management. In particular, I expected all of my kids to be engaged and working. Talking, collaborating, working together to complete tasks was one thing. Misbehavior was something else entirely. We had way too much to accomplish in an already short period of time. To be sure, there was no time to stop my teacher group instruction to redirect, reprimand, and/or reteach small group expectations. What is more, my kids knew we meant business during small-group time.
Reading Comprehension Activities for Above-Level First Graders
Given these points, I brought in a variety of activities to engage my high achievers during their reading rotations. Some of the activities included author studies. Other activities included book circles and research projects. They worked together to learn about pumpkins in October, and penguins in January. In fact, they loved working with the media specialist to find the best resources for their research!
Another fun activity that my first graders loved was the book guides I created for them. These book guides are a quick and easy reading comprehension activity. They are perfect for reading flex groups. The brochure-style format makes it something novel. This layout also helps students to self-pace and manage their task completion. They aren’t overwhelmed by seeing everything all at once. Each section of the book guide has a slightly different vocabulary or reading comprehension task. Despite this being a paper-pencil activity, these are certainly not just another worksheet.
A Variety of Reading Comprehension Activities
As for me, I especially loved using the book guides. In addition to challenging my students to interact with the texts differently, it allowed students to think critically about the story. The variety of question types made for engaging collaboration and conversation during out follow-ups!
One of the activities the students especially enjoyed was the crossword puzzles with Tier 2 vocabulary words from the story. Many first graders had noticed their grandparents and other caregivers completing crossword puzzles. Subsequently, it made the kids feel grown-up getting to solve their own puzzles. One little girl even made a cross-curricular connection. She told me, “You know, Mrs. Hare. This is kind of like when we use the chart chunk puzzles in math.” In this instant, my day was made! (Here’s a peek of what she was talking about!) Puzzles are an excellent way for children to develop problem-solving and planning skills.
The book guides have other activities in addition to the crossword puzzles and reading comprehension questions. Students have opportunities to make text connections. Their comprehension is also illustrated by literal illustrations! Students are tasked with designing a new book cover before generating their own questions about the text. Oh yeah, the questions they write have to be of different difficulty levels. Talk about critical-thinking!
When to Work on Reading Comprehension
I loved using these reading comprehension activities during my differentiated reading group rotations! As it happens, they’re not just for flex. They are versatile. As a matter of fact, these quick checks for comprehension can actually be used anytime before, during, or after reading! They can be used for morning work. The guides work well for homework. Likewise, they also make a great extra credit book report.
Teachers can use them as an anticipation guide before reading. At the same time, they are useful as scaffolded support during reading. Used in this manner, they make an excellent book companion. You could also use them as a measure of comprehension after reading. In this case, you could have students complete the guide without referring back to the book.
With my on-level readers, I would sometimes bring these reading activities in as a fun way to wrap up a fluency and comprehension lesson. We would work on them after our repeated reading fluency practice with the text. In short, would use the story’s corresponding book guide at the teacher-table to hold a small-group book study. Even though comprehension was not the focus for this group, it is still an important skill to work on. The book guide made it easy to work on reading comprehension for just a few minutes each day.
Who Needs Reading Comprehension?
Most of the book guides are geared toward first and second grade. However, they would be great for upper elementary students who are reading below grade-level. Conversely, these guides can also be used with kindergartens students who are ahead of the game! In my experience, I would definitely recommend it be a teacher-guided activity if using it with these little ones.
In conclusion, we know we must use differentiation to meet our kids where they are. I’ve shared different types of activities I use to challenge my high-achieving first-graders. Now it’s your turn! I love hearing about what other teachers are doing in their classrooms. What types of activities do you include during your reading groups? I’d love to hear from you. Comment below or connect on social media!