Sunday, August 31, 2014

Mental models for comprehension

    If it's the beginning of the school year, I must be talking about mental models! In reading, a mental model is a reader's representation of the text. It's no exaggeration to say that everything I do in reading for the rest of the school year will depend on whether or not students can build rich, elaborate mental models based on the details from the text.
A view of my school from the hillside. After our mental
models discussions, we went to the hillside to try to
draw a map of the school, using our mental models and
what we saw.

    If I can teach students how to access and talk about their mental models, then I can quickly figure out where comprehension is breaking down. These lessons need to start early!

   This year, I began with just a few images and sentences. Students were sitting up on the carpet, close enough so that I could quickly look at them and see their reactions. (This is so much easier with fourth graders than with sixth graders.)


    I started with this because it is so simple. I asked, "What are you seeing in your mind? Why?" It is really amazing that just a few marks on the page can make everyone picture the same thing!  Except--our cats weren't really the same. Without information about what the cat looks like, everyone was picturing a slightly different cat. This is what readers do all the time.

  The cat sat on the bed.

   I showed this sentence, but did not read it aloud. I wanted students to do this step. Then we talked about how our mental models changed.

The giant cat sat on the bed.

    When kids start to laugh at this sentence, I know that they are making mental models! Students liked talking about how their mental models updated to reflect this new information.

The giant cat sat on Mrs. Kissner's bed.

   Now more kids laughed, and interestingly enough most of them looked at me as soon as they finished reading the sentence. This is a totally natural reaction. To show them how they can use their mental models to build an inference, I asked, "How do you think I would feel about this?" They shared different emotions--scared, mad, unhappy--all of which could be supported. They don't know me very well yet so they don't know that a giant cat on my bed would probably make me feel curious, intrigued, and appreciative.

    The next step was to have students work with partners to figure out some clues that an alien left. At the start of the year I always have trouble foreseeing how students will do with various activities, and this one was no exception. Students talked and shared as they worked, and some were truly puzzled by the clues.  This was all good information for me! After all, when we read longer texts they will need to build even richer, more detailed mental models...the more I know about their processes, the more I can offer the right support.

    If your students would like to know more about Zomack, he is in the story "Boring, Boring, Boring" included in the Visualizing PowerPoint and Activities pack. If you have already downloaded it, do check out the new version with updated formatting and more activities.

    Taking the time to develop the importance of a changing mental model is vital. As transitional readers move from stories with picture support to stories without picture support, they need to work much harder to build mental models and visualize concepts from the text. Taking the time to set this up from the start is important for later success.

Other posts about mental models
Clicks and Clunks and Mental Models
Helping Kids to Build Mental Models
Help for Word Callers: Using Manipulatives


  1. Emily
    Do you do this before or after the visualizing assessment?

  2. Great question! It works well both ways. Right now I am doing it between the two visualizing assessments--hopefully I will be able to see some growth.