Comprehension Toolkit Series

From Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis, known for their work with schools and educators on teaching comprehension strategies, the Comprehension Toolkit series provides everything needed to help students understand, respond to, and learn from nonfiction text. The lessons in the Comprehension Toolkit series model research-based strategies and give you an explicit framework for your teaching. Through carefully crafted learning tools including language, lessons, and professional support, the Toolkit helps you to design your own strategy lessons to develop independent readers and learners across any content or curriculum.

Coming in early 2016: Comprehension Toolkit series for grades 3-6, Second Edition.
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  • Overview

    Through its carefully crafted teaching framework, the Comprehension Toolkit series contains the curricular resources needed to implement the classroom-tested, ready-to-go lessons that will help you teach key comprehension strategies when reading nonfiction texts in a variety of instructional settings:

    • Whole-Group Instruction for grades K-2 and 3-6
    • Small-Group Instruction for grades K-2 and 3-6
    • Short Nonfiction for Guided Reading and Independent Practice
    • ELL Support
    • Staff Development
    • Resources for PLCs
    Download Toolkit Samples
  • Strategy Books

    Instruction in The Comprehension Toolkit series centers on six strategy books organized around fundamental comprehension strategies:

    • Monitor Comprehension identifies ways readers keep track of their thinking and monitor their understanding as they read.
    • Activate and Connect alerts students to the impact background knowledge has on their learning and supports them to connect the new to the known.
    • Ask Questions highlights how readers can use questions to clarify unfamiliar ideas and discover new information.
    • Infer & Visualize (K-2) and Infer Meaning (3-6) teaches students how to use context clues and text evidence to crack open the new concepts and big ideas in a text.
    • Determine Importance helps students identify, organize, and share the important ideas and information in a text.
    • Summarize and Synthesize encourages students to go beyond the simple restating of facts, to pull together their thinking, and use all the strategies to understand big ideas.
    Download Toolkit Samples
  • Informational Text

    The Comprehension Toolkit series lets students explore comprehension strategies through engaging, real-world informational texts.

    • Articles from magazines for elementary and intermediate grade students
    • Short informational articles specially written for the Toolkit series
    • Posters from TIME For Kids Bigger Picture Edition and National Geographic Young Explorer
    • Optional trade books referenced in the Toolkit lessons
    Download Toolkit Samples
  • Professional Support

    Resources for teachers that introduce and extend the Toolkit's core lessons.

    • The Teacher's Guide shares the philosophy behind Toolkit, describes the components, and shows how to use the Toolkit in the classroom.
    • The DVD (grades K-2) and CD (grades 3-6) provides print and video resources including slideshows of an active literacy classroom; and downloadable research articles, and full-color lesson texts.
    • Extend and Investigate (grades 3-6) shows how the Toolkit strategies reach across the curriculum and provides strategies for content area reading and research, textbook reading, test reading, and a variety of practical bibliographies.
    Download Toolkit Samples


As teachers, we take kids' thoughts, ideas, and opinions seriously. We design instruction that engages kids and guides them as they grapple with the information and concepts they encounter in school, particularly as they read informational text. The Comprehension Toolkit series focuses on reading, writing, talking, listening, and investigating, to deepen understanding of nonfiction texts. With a focus on strategic thinking, Toolkit's lessons provide a foundation for developing independent readers and learners.

Cultivate a Culture of Thinking and Understanding

The teaching and learning focus in The Comprehension Toolkit is on comprehension instruction, including:

  • monitoring comprehension
  • activating and connecting to background knowledge
  • asking questions
  • inferring meaning
  • determining importance
  • summarizing and synthesizing.

Understand, Remember, and Use Informational Text

The Comprehension Toolkit provides an alternative to the traditional assign and correct curriculum. Instead, the teaching and learning focus is on strategic thinking and explicit instruction via modeling, practice and application. The Comprehension Toolkit is designed to help kids negotiate informational text, to think about what they are reading, and to hold that thinking so that they understand, remember, and use it.

The Gradual Release of Responsibility Framework

The reading strategies in The Comprehension Toolkit are taught through a gradual release of responsibility framework. We provide explicit instruction through modeling and collaborative practice, and then provide opportunities for independent practice and application.


Series & Components

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Related Articles

Companion Resources

Presentation Materials

The following slide presentations can be used to introduce the Comprehension Toolkit series to adoption committees or as part of an inservice plan for launching the series in your school. The series and component overviews in each slide presentation are provided in an easy-to-access PDF format. You can print out each four-color presentation onto transparencies or view electronically through Acrobat Reader. Select "Full Screen" in the "View" menu and advance pages using the arrows on your keyboard.

  • The K-2 slide presentation describes the thinking, organization, and components in The Primary Comprehension Toolkit.
  • The 3-6 slide presentation describes the thinking, organization, and components in The Comprehension Toolkit, Grades 3-6.
  • The K-6 slide presentation describes the thinking, organization, and components shared by The Primary Comprehension Toolkit and The Comprehension Toolkit, Grades 3-6.
Comprehension Toolkit Series (Grades K-6)
Primary Comprehension Toolkit
Comprehension Toolkit (Grades 3-6)
Toolkit Texts (Grades 3-6)
Chapters from the Teacher's Guide

In addition to the professional support built into each unit book, the Teacher's Guide in each Toolkit offers select chapters on specific pressing concerns.

Common Core Correlations

Guiding Principles

Traditionally in schools as kids read to learn, they were asked to remember a litany of isolated facts. And lots of kids did this pretty well-remembering the information just long enough to take the test. We finally understand why we remember so little from all those years of schooling, but still got decent grades. We memorized countless facts and quickly forgot them. What is the point of learning and forgetting, learning and forgetting, over and over again? Perkins says that "learning is a consequence of thinking. Far from thinking coming after knowledge, knowledge comes on the coattails of thinking." It's so obvious; when we think about and actively use what we are learning, we remember it. When we memorize isolated facts, we forget them.

We need to find ways to move from a culture of memorization to a culture of thinking and understanding. The Comprehension Toolkit provides an alternative to the traditional assign and correct curriculum. Instead the teaching and learning focus is on strategic thinking and explicit instruction via modeling, practice, and application.

We use the following principles to guide us as we build a classroom community of thinkers and learners. Teachers and kids take responsibility for and collaborate to build a thinking environment. A shared sense of purpose guides learning-- all members of the classroom community view themselves as thinkers, learners and teachers.

The following are the principles that guided us as we developed The Comprehension Toolkit

Creating an environment that fosters and values thinking

When we honor kids' thinking, they learn that their thinking matters. Students and teachers feel free to take risks as learners when they know their thoughts, ideas and opinions will be treated respectfully by others. The room arrangement mirrors the focus on learning and thinking with meeting spaces for small groups, a comfortable spot where the large group can gather, and desks or tables in clusters to promote conversation and collaborative work.

Nurturing thoughtful, curious readers and thinkers

Passion and wonder are central to life in a thinking classroom. Students enter our classrooms brimming with curiosity about the world and are encouraged to view learning as a way to better understand it. Engagement soars when kids listen to, respond to, and challenge each others' thinking.

Real world reading

Much of what adult readers read is short nonfiction: newspapers, magazine articles, memos, directions, essays, editorials etc. Often in school, students engage in focused content reading and have little opportunity for real world reading. Both are essential. When kids "read widely and wildly" as Shelley Harwayne says, they are far more likely to find content that intrigues them and propels them to investigate further. This also helps build background around all sorts of topics so kids have a reservoir of knowledge from which to draw.

Teaching strategic reading within a gradual release framework

Strategies that proficient readers use include monitoring comprehension, activating background knowledge, and connecting to personal experience, asking questions, inferring meaning, determining importance, summarizing and synthesizing. We teach these strategies through the gradual release of responsibility framework. We provide explicit instruction through modeling and guided practice, and then provide opportunities for independent practice and application. Students learn to use these strategies flexibly, across a variety of texts, topics, and subject areas.

Monitoring comprehension and leaving tracks of thinking

When readers read, it is not enough to simply record the facts, they must merge their thinking with the information to learn, understand, and remember. They pay attention to the inner conversation they have with text, leaving written tracks of their thinking to monitor their understanding.

Creating a common language for talking about thinking

Comprehension strategies offer a common language for understanding and discussing what we read, what we write, and what we think. Without a common language, it is nearly impossible to talk about anything substantive.

Meeting individual needs and differentiating instruction

One size does not fit all. We consider how our instruction, materials and assessments can be adapted to students with varying reading proficiencies, learning styles and language backgrounds. Instruction occurs in a variety of groupings-- large groups, small groups, pairs, and with individuals.

Teachers as thinkers and learners

Teachers can set the standard by being thoughtful readers and learners themselves. When teachers model their own thinking and support students to think when they read, everyone in the classroom has the opportunity to experience learning as understanding.

Co-constructing meaning

Teaching and learning involves a process of co-constructing meaning. Both students and teacher weigh in with their thinking. We co-construct meaning in large groups by turning to each other and talking, in small groups, in conferences, and through discussions.

Making thinking visible to hold, remember and share it

One of the best ways to promote thinking is to provide opportunities for kids to share their thoughts. To make thinking visible, we gather, record, chart, and talk about our thinking.

Fostering a "strategic spirit" to engage kids in learning

David Perkins suggests that it's not enough to be able to think strategically; we have to want to do it. Tasks that require students to actively use, evaluate, and synthesize information are much more likely to engage kids. When kids are compelled by what they are learning, they are more likely to be motivated to think, question, and investigate.

Constructing learning around texts kids can sink their teeth into

Allington and Johnston suggest that "one of the best ways to increase student thinking is to make sure you have a curriculum that provides students with things worth thinking about." We need to provide text and materials that encourage kids to expand their thinking.

Collaborative reading, writing, and discussion leading to purposeful talk

Throughout the day, students have opportunities to respond to reading in a variety of ways including talking, listening, writing, and researching. Responding in both small and large groups provides a chance to learn from each other and hear each other's perspectives, opinions, thoughts, and concerns. When students engage in purposeful conversations, they articulate their learning and have opportunities to change their thinking based on what they hear.

Ongoing performance-based assessment

Every time we teach a lesson, we are assessing kids' thinking, reflecting on our teaching, and planning for subsequent instruction. Conferring with students is the best way we know to assess learning needs. We read and listen to students' many responses--Post-its, forms, journals, conversations, etc. We assess 24/7 and we evaluate (give grades) after students have had time to practice.

Instructional Practices

Instruction in the Toolkit series is based on the following instructional practices.

Modeling thinking

We model how we read ourselves; to share our struggles as well as our victories. We peel back the layers and show how we approach text and in that way demonstrate for kids how understanding happens.

Coding the text

We leave tracks of our thinking directly on the text or on a Post-it, in a notebook, etc. We might record our questions, confusions, thoughts, or highlight and underline important information, circle unfamiliar words, or star something we want to remember.

Text lifting for shared reading

We place a copy of the text on an overhead projector or post it on a chart as students work from their own copy. We think through and code the text together to understand and process the information.

Observing, noticing and sharing language and reading behaviors

While modeling, we ask kids to observe and notice our responses and reading behaviors. When we stop, the class discusses what they noticed, writes about what they observed or creates an anchor chart of behaviors they observed.

Anchor charting

We construct anchor charts to record kids' thinking about a text, lesson, or strategy so that we can return to it to remember the process. Anchor charts connect past teaching and learning to future teaching and learning. Everyone weighs in to construct meaning and hold thinking.

Reading, writing, and talking

Kids read, code, and respond to the text individually and then talk to each other and share out the process and the content.

Interactive reading aloud

As the teacher reads aloud, kids respond in writing. The teacher stops occasionally to provide time for them to turn to each other and talk.

Purposeful talk

We provide opportunities for kids to talk purposefully in a variety of structures including turning to each other and sharing during whole group instruction, jig-sawing the text in small groups, small group reading and responding, paired reading for discussion, and conferring.

Scaffolds and forms

We provide a range of response options including graphic organizers, double and triple column forms and response starters to support kids to leave tracks of their thinking so they can better understand it.

Using our own literature and reading experience to model reading

We bring in text we are actually reading to illustrate how we use comprehension strategies to make sense of and understand our own reading. In this way, students come to view us as readers and observe our authentic process.

Rereading to clarify meaning and expand understanding

Going back over a piece of text to show how we clarify confusion as well as demonstrate how thinking changes when we reread.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is the Comprehension Toolkit research based?

The pedagogy and curriculum of the Comprehension Toolkit are grounded in research-based principles. For an overview of the key principles that underpin the Toolkit lessons click here.

Can I use the Toolkit in my reading workshop?

The essential components of comprehension instruction fit seamlessly into a reading workshop model. In the Toolkit, we model, thinking out loud as we read to kids and showing them how we think through and respond to text. Next, we guide them to think about text with us as we read and respond to it together. Once kids have a thorough understanding of the task, we send them off to read and respond on their own, with a partner, or in small groups. During independent or collaborative practice, we move around the room conferring with kids in order to provide individualized and differentiated instruction. Instruction is tailored to meet the needs of each and every child. At the end of the workshop, we come back together as a group to share learning and to build a community of learners through conversation and discussions about reading.

The only difference we can see between PTK instruction and the reading workshop model is that when we introduce comprehension strategies and practices for the first time, our lessons take longer than standard minilessons. Our lessons are more like "maxilessons" than minilessons, and for good reason. We spend more instructional time modeling and guiding so that we can explicitly teach the reading and thinking strategies. We typically model our own thinking and guide kids through a good portion of text so that they have a clear idea of what to do. Then kids try this out themselves when they are ready. But we don't do Toolkit lessons just once. We teach them multiple times in different texts. Subsequent lessons to review and practice thinking strategies can be much shorter, more in the realm of minilessons.

We've found the Toolkit lessons especially useful in a reading workshop model because the reading and thinking strategies are cumulative. Kids build a repertoire of these that they apply across many texts and genres. Kids use any and all of the strategies during independent practice. Kids internalize the comprehension strategies as tools they can use to understand whatever they read independently as well as books and articles they discuss in literature circles, inquiry groups, etc. Most importantly, kids come up with a myriad of creative ways to write, think, talk, and draw about their reading.

How have teachers integrated the Toolkit into their reading workshop?

In one kindergarten we know well, the kids spend several weeks at the beginning of the year "marinating" in nonfiction of all varieties, the classroom awash in nonfiction. The teacher conducts minilessons in nonfiction literacy, modeling her thinking and then sending kids off to practice on their own. Tubs of nonfiction books cover the tables. Post-its, pencils, and markers are readily available for kids to draw something they learned or mark a spot where they wondered with a question mark as the teacher moves around the room conferring with them. Each day at the culmination of the workshop, kids share out at the circle.

Every week or so, the teacher introduces a Primary Toolkit strategy in a longer launch lesson and then reviews that same strategy in her minilessons over subsequent days. For instance, kids spend two full weeks learning about different features, making a class Feature/Purpose book, noticing features in books, and beginning to use features as they draw information they are learning. As the kids are introduced to the idea of noticing new learning, they continue using features in their responses. Toolkit instruction in this classroom is about writing as much as reading, so in the workshop each day, kids talk, draw, and write, using invented spellings and their growing knowledge of sound/symbol correspondence to record their new learning. Most important, the kids keep using the strategies they have already practiced on a daily basis during reading workshop

Can I use the Toolkit with a balanced literacy or guided reading program?

The Toolkit addresses comprehension instruction within the balanced literacy model. There are countless programs addressing phonics and phonemic awareness, fluency, and other important elements of literacy instruction. We've focused our curriculum on comprehension-to make sure that instruction in this all-important aspect of reading is explicit, robust, and thoughtful.

Within a balanced literacy framework, the modeling and guided practice portions of Toolkit lessons are a good fit with instructional read-alouds and shared reading. Kids are up close, and we use large-format text such as big books and posters like the TFK posters as we read to and with the children. As we move into the guided practice portion of the lesson, kids often have clipboards so that after we talk and respond together, they write their own responses to leave tracks of their thinking. While they are still up close where we can carefully observe them, we check to see that they are ready to try the task in small groups or on their own.

The Toolkit fits like a glove with guided reading practices. Toolkit comprehension lessons are perfect for teachers to use as they meet with small guided reading groups. Typically, the guided reading lesson reinforces and reviews a strategy we have taught in a whole-group lesson previously. The small, flexible, needs-based guided reading group provides an opportunity for teachers to design explicit instruction to meet kids' shared learning needs. As kids read in multiple copies of the same text, we use the Lesson Guide to provide instruction. The Lesson Guide supplies the lesson moves and language that can be applied to any text and works seamlessly with leveled guided reading books. The small guided reading group is ideal for assessing how kids use and apply comprehension strategies as they read, giving teachers a good idea of what to teach next.

Often children who are not meeting with the teacher during guided reading time work collaboratively or independently, usually in centers. As part of center work, we have set up tables with books, Post-its, writing paper, markers, etc., so that kids can use the strategies and response options we have introduced in Toolkit lessons. This all-important independent practice focuses kids mainly on reading, with short responses that reinforce the strategy that has been taught. Kids might mark a Post-it with an L and record new learning, draw a picture to demonstrate thinking, or ask a question to clarify confusion. The emphasis is on authentic response that contributes to learning rather than responses that simply keep kids busy while the teacher is working with small groups. Kids need to stay busy, but they need to be busy with meaningful work.

How have teachers integrated the Toolkit into their balanced literacy program?

One school uses the Toolkit in their balanced literacy program. After teaching all of the kids the lessons in the Monitor Comprehension Strategy Book, the teachers teach Toolkit lessons in small, needs-based guided reading groups. The school is steeped in comprehension strategy instruction, so some second-graders, for instance, already have a strong foundation in making connections and questioning in nonfiction text. So the teacher begins Toolkit instruction for them with the Infer & Visualize strategy book. Other guided reading groups may be working on activating and connecting to background knowledge or asking questions, depending on their needs.

In another class team of first-grade teachers work together to plan out Toolkit instruction over the first months of the school year. Kids are already familiar with nonfiction as a genre, so the teachers introduce one Toolkit lesson at the beginning of each week. The launch lesson is completed in one longer block, and after the teacher models, the kids spend much of the first day in guided practice with partners in the meeting area. In this way, the teachers observe everyone as they confer with kids, making sure kids understand the strategy and are ready to try it on their own. Teachers note those kids who need additional small-group practice so they can review the lesson in small, flexible needs-based guided reading groups on subsequent days.

The following day, after a brief minilesson to review the strategy, kids disperse to centers to practice the strategy with nonfiction books at their respective levels. At each center, teachers place an example of responses based on lessons taught previously-a sample Postit marked with a ? or an L, or phrases that kids might use in their written response, such as "I wonder . . . " or "I learned." Centers are set up so that kids can be as independent as possible while the teachers pull small groups for instruction. Small-group guided reading lessons include review of strategies already introduced at the beginning of the week. Lessons are adapted to the needs of different groups, so that instruction is differentiated.

At the end of the guided reading session, each class comes together to share their learning-in this way the teachers can make a quick assessment of what kids accomplish independently in the centers.

Can I use the Toolkit with a basal reading program?

Most basal programs have plenty of leeway for integrating Toolkit comprehension instruction with the selections in the anthology. First of all, anthologies are great sources of additional text for kids. So feel free to use whatever Toolkit lesson fits best with selections in the anthology. Also, some users of basal programs have told us that their anthologies lack enough nonfiction to provide kids with solid practice in informational text reading. So integrating the Toolkit and its texts with a program provides much-needed, engaging nonfiction for kids.

One thing we have noticed about the comprehension element of many basal reading programs is that although strategies such as asking questions and drawing inferences are mentioned throughout the Teacher's Guide, the basal does not explain how to teach comprehension explicitly. We have yet to see a basal program with robust, in-depth comprehension instruction at its core. Good news! You can't get much more explicit or robust than the Toolkit for comprehension instruction. The Toolkit gives you both the teaching language and teaching moves to teach a variety of comprehension strategies. So we recommend using the Toolkit comprehension lessons to ramp up basal lessons. The Lesson Guides in the six Strategy Books provide an explicit way to teach Toolkit comprehension lessons with a basal text.

How have teachers integrated the Toolkit into their basal reading program?

In one district, teachers use their whole ninety-minute literacy block every Friday to teach a full Toolkit strategy lesson. Then, on the following Monday through Thursday, kids practice the featured comprehension strategy in selections from the basal. They also do the skill sections of the basal program. When Friday comes around, another ninety-minute Toolkit lesson immerses kids in thinking and sets the pace for the following week. This plan evolved because the district recognized that the comprehension instruction in the basal program was too limited to grow powerful readers who use comprehension strategies to understand what they read.

Can you use the Toolkit to teach science and social studies?

Many schools and teachers use the Toolkit across the curriculum, expanding into science and social studies. Often teachers using highly scripted reading programs simply make the content areas the home of strong comprehension instruction, using the nonfiction topics and materials these potentially fascinating subjects offer kids. Download a chapter from the Teacher's Guide on this topic.

In one second-grade classroom, Toolkit strategies are introduced as an integral part of science and social studies instruction. As the teachers plan the required weather curriculum study, they incorporate Toolkit instruction, which they continue to use in subsequent social studies and science units throughout the year. To build background knowledge, kids read and respond to a variety of nonfiction, including books, charts, videos, maps, newspaper articles, and online sources. Kids notice new information and ask questions as they read and view all these different sources. They write and draw what they are learning, using features such as close-ups, labels, and captions.

Toolkit lessons focusing on both note-taking and summarizing and synthesizing information provide ways for kids to organize the information they are learning and create books, poems, posters, and other projects to share knowledge. In this way, reading, writing, and thinking strategies become a means to an end-investigating new topics as kids learn about the real world.

Can I use the Toolkit for summer school instruction?

Because the Toolkit is an intensive course of study designed to help students access and learn from nonfiction texts it is an ideal summer school resource for students who need additional support in learning fundamental comprehension strategies. For a summer school literacy guide that will help you plan a summer school curriculum and assess student progress click here