Clarifying Mini-Lessons and Practice Activities


During the clarifying step of reciprocal teaching, students are asked to monitor their own comprehension of a passage, identify and explain difficult words and ideas, and use a variety of strategies to clear up confusion. Most students find it easier to identify words that they cannot decode or do not understand than to identify unclear ideas. Students must be taught to monitor their own comprehension by constantly asking themselves, “Does this make sense?” “Do I understand what I am reading?” It is our job to help students notice more as they read—to help them pay attention to story structure, text features, headings, etc. The clarification strategy helps students realize that they should always be monitoring their reading for meaning.

Red Flags

It is important to teach readers how to know when they are stuck on a word or idea. Cris Tovani teaches her students to recognize the following signals when comprehension is breaking down.

  1. The voice inside the reader’s head isn’t interacting with the text.
  2. The camera inside the reader’s head shuts off.
  3. The reader’s mind begins to wander.
  4. The reader can’t remember what has been read.
  5. Clarifying questions asked by the reader are not answered.
  6. The reader re-encounters a character and has no recollection when that character was introduced.

Source: I Read It, But I Don’t Get It by Cris Tovani, Stenhouse, 2000.

Fix-Up Strategies

Once students are taught to recognize when comprehension is breaking down, they need to learn how to repair comprehension problems. It is important for students to realize that all readers, even proficient ones, struggle with words and ideas. The difference is that proficient readers use a variety of strategies or fix-up tools to help them clarify. With explicit instruction, struggling readers can be equipped with these same tools. Not all strategies will work all the time, so it is important for readers to have a repertoire to pull from. Below are some strategies used by good readers.

Context Clues: It has been estimated that the average upper elementary age student encounters approximately 3000 new words each year. Since only 300-500 are taught through direct vocabulary instruction, students need to be taught additional strategies for learning new vocabulary independently. Using context clues is a beneficial way for students to acquire new vocabulary through independent reading, but many students need to be explicitly taught this skill. Modeling through think-alouds is an effective way to teach students how to derive meaning through context clues.

Adjust Reading Rate: Many struggling readers think that good readers read everything quickly. This is a misconception that must be cleared up. Proficient readers adjust their reading rates constantly—they speed up and even skim easy, boring, or unimportant parts and slow down to concentrate on difficult or confusing parts. They select the reading rate that meets the needs of the task at hand.

Substitute Another Word: Context clues help bring meaning to many unfamiliar words, but at times even this strategy fails. Substituting another word that makes sense in the sentence can often help a reader sustain meaning even if s/he cannot figure out the exact pronunciation or meaning of a particular word.

Sound It Out: Some struggling readers have a tendency to guess at words using only the beginning consonant. They need to be encouraged to look at the entire word, syllable by syllable if needed, and check to see if the sounds they pronounced match the letters in the word.

Look for Meaning: When a passage doesn’t make sense, when students aren’t able to construct meaning from the text, they aren’t really reading. They need to be encouraged to stop as soon as comprehension breaks down, and use one or more strategies.

Ask Someone: During reciprocal teaching, students are encouraged to ask other groups members for help in clarifying a word or idea.

Look for Word Chunks: Many struggling readers have a tendency to skim over words that at first glance appear too big or complicated. By teaching students to look for chunks in words, including prefixes, suffixes, and smaller words they recognize, even multi-syllabic words can be easily decoded.

Visualize: Creating mental images can help a reader more fully interact with and understand a text. For more on visualizing, see pp. 35-36.

Use Schema (Background Knowledge): Encourage students to stop and think about what they already know about a concept or text. Relating new information to existing knowledge greatly increases comprehension.

Use Sticky Notes: Sometimes it’s not practical to stop reading to look up a word in the dictionary or even ask someone. Putting a sticky note on a page containing a confusing word or idea and returning to it later often helps students maintain their focus during reading and reminds them to return to the text for clarification later.

Read on: Sometimes when comprehension begins to break down, the best thing to do is to continue to read on. If reading on does not help, the reader must not continue to read—he must find another fix-up strategy.

Reread: Often, simply rereading a text will clear up confusion. Point out to students that this doesn’t always mean rereading everything. Sometimes rereading a couple of sentences or a paragraph is sufficient. Even skimming what has just been read can be helpful.


A powerful way to teach clarifying and make metacognitive processes explicit to students is through teacher think-alouds. Try using a short piece of text such as a nursery rhyme to model the decoding of a confusing word. Demonstrate how to use the fix-up strategies described above. Be sure to emphasize that the purpose in using these strategies is to construct meaning from the text.

Providing Prompts

As students are learning to monitor their understanding, it is often helpful to respond to their attempts with prompts to jump-start their problem solving processes.

  • Does that look right?
  • Where’s the tricky part of the word?
  • Why did you stop?
  • I like the way you worked on that word.
  • I like the way you figured that out.
  • You almost got that. See if you can find what is wrong.
  • You’ve got the first part of the word right. Try that again.
  • Try it another way.
  • Check the middle of the word.
  • Does that make sense?
  • Does that look right?
  • Does that sound right?
  • Does that look like another word you know?
  • Look at the prefix, suffix.
  • Cover up the end of the word.
  • What strategy can you try?
  • What else can you try?
  • Start from the beginning and read it again.
  • Can you think of a word that would make sense?


Many struggling readers continue to plow through a text even when they don’t understand what they are reading. This partner activity forces students to slow down their reading process and focus on the meaning of the text. Students are taught to:

READ only as much as their hand can cover.
COVER up the part of the story they just read.
REMEMBER to think about what they just read.
RETELL what they just read to a partner.

Source: Revisit, Reflect, Retell by Linda Hoyt, Heinemann, 1999.

Guess the Covered Word

This is an activity that requires students to use several strategies to cross-check to decode unknown words in a text. On an overhead transparency display several sentences or a paragraph. Using sticky notes, cover several key words in the text. Have students read the first sentence, saying “blank” for the covered word. Make a class list of possible words that could fit in the blank. Students will be relying only on word length and meaning during this step. Next, uncover the beginning consonant or consonant cluster (everything up to the first vowel). Have students revise their guesses. Now students will be cross-checking using word length, meaning, and beginning phonemes

Source: Month-by-Month Phonics by Patricia Cunningham and Dorothy P. Hall, Carson-Dellosa Publishing Company, Inc., 1998.

Sticky Notes

Review strategies used by good readers to clarify words and ideas. Give students two sticky notes of different colors—one for clarifying a word and the other for an idea. Have students silently read a selection. After they have read the text, ask them to go back and find one word and one idea that they had to clarify or that they still need to clarify and write them on the respective sticky notes. Have students share their sticky notes and strategies they used for clarifying.

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