Building Reading Comprehension Through Questions, Inquiry, and Sketchnotes

To comprehend or not to comprehend—that is the question. To do so illustrates a strong connection between reader and text, a connection that can only be made if students truly understand the words that are jumping off the page at them. So, how do we know? How do Mom and Dad know? But most importantly, how do the students know? Unfortunately, I’m not here to announce the findings of a landmark study that reveals the one, secret strategy that ensures all students are comprehending 100% of the text they are engaged with….

But I am here to share a few tips that have worked for me in setting the stage for students of all levels, backgrounds, and interests to begin taking charge of their understanding as they continue to grow as readers. I apologize if you came to this blog post hoping to learn the latest and greatest in terms of the traditional comprehension strategies: predict, synthesize, evaluate etc. Those are important and extremely valuable. I’m not suggesting they don’t serve a purpose, because they certainly do. In fact, recent research confirms the power of comprehension teaching and learning. Explicitly teaching comprehension strategies continues to be a wise choice in building reading achievement. I contend it is the process in which these strategies are introduced that oftentimes does not produce the desired results teacher are seeking.

Enter the work of Stephanie Harvey and Harvey “Smokey” Daniels. After reading their book, Comprehension & Collaboration, I was prepared to begin the journey towards meaningful and authentic work in literacy with my students. Their work inspired me to rethink the way I structured my literacy time with students as a classroom teacher, an approach I continue today as an instructional coach when working with teachers.

If we want students to comprehend the text they are engaged with, they must be interested in it. As Jennifer Serravallo says: “Without engagement, you have nothing.” We now know that in order to truly understand, you have to engage with other people. Empowering students to think critically with rich discussions brings a noticeable difference in students’ comprehension abilities. What follows are three tips to get started towards providing young readers with an inquiry tilt towards building purposeful and authentic reading comprehension.

Ask Questions

Reading is more than just a data cell on a spreadsheet; reading and comprehending are non-negotiables for success in mathematics, history, geography, science, and engineering, among many other fields. This was the first step for my students and me to begin the work towards asking better questions and to be mindful of our tendencies. 

What we discovered as a group during a whole-class read aloud of Endangered by Eliot Schrefer was that our questions were pretty thin. Thin in that they were not pushing our thinking to new levels or approaching the depths of knowledge to extend our views. The bulk of our questions fell on the blue and yellow cells, which produces mostly routine or conceptual thinking. I wanted my students to go deeper and move beyond the factual and predictive question stems and into the analytical areas. 

Question grids are a fabulous resource to use in small groups, pairs, or individually. The grid can be used as a catalyst for discussion or to take a deep dive into the text that has been read. Introduce question grids with your students and watch the quality of questioning grow exponentially!

Inquiry Circles

When readers have authentic opportunities to read, think, and talk together, their curiosity grows and ultimately leads to a stronger comprehension toolkit from which to pull. Adopting inquiry circles into literacy keeps readers’ interests, questions, and curiosity as a top priority. If students have already been introduced to the question grid and have some experience using it, the inquiry circles will become even more seamless in building active collaborators. Whether we work with beginning readers or advanced English literature students, we’re sunk if we can’t empower them to work in groups productively, actively, and responsibly. After all, reading is thinking. Not surprisingly, then, we need to provide structured opportunities for readers to talk, write, and draw about their thinking every single day. 

Start small when launching inquiry circles in class. Doing so will help provide a roadmap for students to build from as they continue to develop as analytical thinkers. In my experience, adopting a “gradual release of responsibility” model has proved to be exactly what my students needed to become fully engaged and self-directed when it came to driving their growth. Using this model, students were invited into the process as we created meaning together. When I first applied an inquiry model in our nonfiction literacy unit, I was blown away by the ownership my students possessed. I owe a great deal of that success in subscribing to gradual release. Doing so provided my students with plenty of opportunities to encounter the texts in question through teacher modeling, guided practice, collaborative/independent practice, and application.


Regardless of one's artistic abilities, everyone has the ability to become a visual notetaker. The idea of sketchnoting is based on a simple premise: ideas, not art! Providing students with the outlet to create meaning through icons, labels, structure, and text will help them better process the information they are hearing and seeing. Sketchnoting is much more than simply doodling. It asks readers to capture thinking visually, remember key information more clearly, and share what they have captured with others.

The research is very clear that various forms of visual notetaking have large benefits for our brains. Sketchnotes are actually a form of mnemonics, connecting images with information and significantly increasing our ability to remember what we’ve learned. In a 2009 study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, 40 participants were asked to listen to an extremely boring recorded telephone conversation. Half of them were instructed to doodle as they listened, and half were given no instruction. At the conclusion of the study, participants who doodled remembered 29 percent more information than their counterparts who did not doodle. Big gains for one pass at the topic—and it was boring! Imagine  what may happen in a classroom where sketchnoting is embraced and students use it as another comprehension strategy to create meaning? 

Because sketchnoting requires students to listen, maintain active hand movements, and create visual representations, it appeals to auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learning styles.

The above strategies have brought new levels of engagement to my students when it comes to their growth as readers. Each one providing a collaborative environment for learning that has student ownership at its heart. Teaching readers to think, how to select an appropriate strategy, and choose appropriate outlets to share their thinking makes all the difference. As a result, I have made the switch from telling my students what to do each day to showing, modeling, coaching, mentoring, and facilitating lifelong readers. 

Billy Spicer

Billy currently teaches in Lake Zurich Community Unit School District 95 in suburban Chicago. After spending a decade teaching 3rd thru 5th grades, Billy served students and teachers as an instructional coach. He recently spent time in the Bahamas with the Shedd Aquarium where he lived on a research vessel for a week conducting scientific inquiry. Prior to teaching in Lake Zurich he worked at Walt Disney World as a member of the Animal Programs department in entertaining, educating, and inspiring conservation action. He facilitates a passion for literacy, passionate learning, and social media to discover creative ways for students to meet their individual learning needs. Authentic and purposeful technology integration is a non-negotiable aspect in providing students with the tools to be successful. Billy earned his BA in Elementary Education at Illinois State University and a MA in Literacy and Reading from Benedictine University. He also enjoys hot dogs, coffee, and his ever growing collection of records. To learn more about his interests and passions in and out of the classroom, follow him on Twitter-@MrBillySpicer