Thursday, February 3, 2011

Building a Mental Model: Help for Reading Comprehension

Sometimes I dive into the depths of ERIC to find new information and new ideas. I have a folder full of journal articles! Some I just look over briefly, others I read slowly, and still others help me to understand my classroom in a new way.

My latest find is this article by Gary Woolley. Woolley looks at past research and explains a variety of strategies that can be used to help students who read with fluency, but don't seem to comprehend as well as they should.

I'm so interested in this because it explores helping readers to build a mental model. A mental model is a reader's impression of the text, synthesizing what is in the text with the reader's prior knowledge. Successful readers build elaborate, complex mental models, pulling on many ideas. Less successful readers...well, we can't go inside their heads to see what their mental models look like, but we can guess that they are underdeveloped.

Drawing ideas from the text can help students to build better mental models. As students try to portray the details, they might need to go back to the text to fill in the details. Drawing helps students to understand how they need to combine the words in the text with the ideas and images from their minds.  (You can find more on visualizing in The Forest and the Trees. Here is a free visualizing practice page that can help readers to see how they need to change their mental models.)

Using manipulatives
Another way to help readers build a mental model is through the use of manipulatives. When students have concrete pictures or toys to move around, they can better imagine how characters and objects move through space. In this retelling nonfiction activity, for instance, students move around baby turtles to show how they hibernate in the winter.

For example, today I helped students read a text about the Great Chicago Fire. (This was one of the groups in the chronological order centers.) It quickly became obvious that the students were not building a developed mental model. Oh dear! For tomorrow's groups, I'm going to give students a map of the city and some markers to help them track the progress of the fire through the text. By giving them a concrete visual, I hope to help them build a stronger mental model.

Helping students to build mental models--and understanding how the process works--is the task of a lifetime. I'm fascinated by the chance to watch it happen!

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