Try “Say Something” for Comprehension in Any Subject

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One of the problems I’ve noticed when working with adolescent readers is that many of them do not monitor comprehension. I often ask them if they have had the experience of BMS (Blank Mind Syndrome) after they have read a paragraph, page, or chapter of a text. Almost universally, they all say they have. I have too. Oftentimes, this can stem from a lack of monitoring.

Monitoring comprehension is simply “checking in with yourself” as you read. Readers who monitor well generally stop periodically to ask themselves questions about what they have read, make connections to their experiences, or realize when they experience Blank Mind Syndrome and try re-reading. Those that check in often can realize they are confused after a few paragraphs rather than a few chapters. What a time-saver!

Many students learned about these monitoring comprehension strategies as elementary students. However, I’ve noticed that, as secondary students, several do not actively use them when reading becomes difficult. This phenomenon is as true for striving readers as it is for Advanced Placement students. If the text is simple for the individual student, he or she cruises along happily because he or she is seemingly involuntarily monitoring. It’s just what we all do when texts are easier. But, once students encounter more complex texts, it is essential that they monitor comprehension intentionally. Many don’t. This leads to reading without comprehending or simply stopping the reading process.

One of my favorite strategies for having students practice monitoring comprehension is Say Something. I first learned about Say Something in Kylene Beers’ awesome book When Kids Can’t Read — What Teachers Can Do: A Guide for Teachers 6-12. If you have never read the book, it is a resource I turn to frequently — even several years after reading it the first time. You must check it out some time.

Here is the gist of Say Something.

Essentially, students read text with a partner, stopping periodically to make predictions, clarify unclear information, ask questions, make comments, and make connections. Students enjoy the social aspect of the strategy, and most report that they “actually understood it” when they use it. When they cannot do one of the five things I mentioned when they stop, they must re-read, focusing on trying to use one of the strategies intentionally. Once they begin using the strategy, I have noticed students utilize their background knowledge in these conversations with one another to better understand the text, explicitly making connections and points that I would never think to suggest. It is truly powerful. It is imperative, though, to explicitly link the conversation students have during Say Something, to the internal conversations they should be having when they read independently. This can best be done through giving students opportunities to use the question stems from Say Something while they read independently. They can share their thinking in this way through short annotations.

One of the latest ways I’ve been experimenting with Say Something is adapting it based upon disciplinary literacies. Different from general content-area reading strategies, disciplinary literacies are ways of thinking that must be utilized to become proficient in different fields. So, as I am reading a social studies text, I may need to monitor differently (perhaps thinking about the context of time period when reading a primary document) from when I read a science text (reading to understand complex multi-step procedures).  If you would like to learn more about disciplinary literacies, check out

Through a collaboration with a math teacher, I have developed a Mathematics-Focused Say Something for students to use as they are reading the investigations in their math textbooks. It is still in the development phase, so please feel free to offer input.

In addition, I would like to develop subject-specific Say Somethings for as many areas as possible, so I welcome your explanations of the type of thinking students need for reading in your discipline in the comments area.

3 comments

  1. As math students read a problem or investigation they need to determine what the necessary information is and what strategies could be applied to solve. Adding something to your Starters for these skills would be great!

  2. I made “Say Something” cards to use with my middle school science classes. It was a good tangible reminder of what they needed to do during reading. I’m wondering if you could do a digital version of this too. Maybe read the document in a google doc and “Type Something” in the comments box. Google Docs has it set up now so that you enter the document in suggestions mode. When you type in the document, it automatically opens the comment box. I could imagine kids typing comments sitting next to each other, then having conversations about the comments and the text.

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