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The Textmapping Project
A resource for teachers improving reading comprehension skills instruction

Struggling Readers Need to See the Big Picture
Using scrolls to infuse literacy instruction with strategic purpose.

How do we teach poor decoders to be good comprehenders? Down in the trenches, where the battle for basic literacy rages on, it is difficult to see a way around this fact: without decoding, everything else is irrelevant. Until you can break the code, you're dead in the water. This is the primary justification for the focus on decoding to the exclusion of comprehension skills in the early stages of reading instruction.

Yet there is an argument to be made that even individuals with the most basic level of decoding skills can become engaged in meaningful comprehension instruction; that poor decoders can compensate for a late start or perceptual and cognitive deficits by learning to be more strategic about their reading; and that teaching - from the start - comprehension along with decoding and fluency skills - and especially teaching visual comprehension strategies that focus on typography [note 1] - may help struggling readers maintain interest and stay with the program long enough to master the skills and compensatory strategies that they will need to become proficient readers.

Most literacy instructors focus their energies on teaching decoding and basic (word-, sentence-, and paragraph-level) comprehension skills: the ability to read road signs, to read a bedtime story to a child, to read and follow directions on an employment form, to read and understand an article in the local newspaper. But most instructors hope for more: that their clients might find new professional opportunities and personal enrichment through reading; that their clients might become informed participants in political and economic life; that someday their clients might be able to crack open a novel, or a particularly complex and meaty magazine article - perhaps something about the next election or the economy - and say to themselves, "I can understand this. I'm not overwhelmed. I'm not going to get stuck. I know exactly what I need to do in order to enjoy this...or understand it completely and accurately...or gut it quickly and grab what I need from it".

These are different reading purposes, and each requires a different outlook, a different attitude, a different strategic approach, and a different set of skills. It is important - in fact, critical - that struggling readers should be shown this from the start, and should never be allowed to lose sight of it. Literacy instruction that does not show this is missing the real point, which is that reading is about comprehension; comprehension is driven by strategy; good readers comprehend because they are strategic. Absent this clear "vision statement" of what reading can and should be, struggling readers will not know what it is they are working for; they will stop too soon, pronounce themselves satisfied with what is clearly (except to them) an inadequate skill set, and perhaps never fully grasp how poorly prepared they are to succeed in today's information-driven economy.

Photograph: Teacher walking along, partially bent over, with a marker in hand, looking down at a scroll that she has unrolled on the classroom floor.To make it in this world, struggling readers (especially those with learning disabilities) will likely have to become more strategic than good readers. They will have to be better because they are starting from a deficit from which they may never fully recover.

The way to achieve this goal is to focus on strategy - to keep strategy in full view throughout all reading instruction. The essence of strategy (from Greek, Stratos + Ag. Image: the commander-in-chief of an army) is the overview or survey (from Latin, Super + Videre. Literal meaning: the view from above). This is something lost in books. When you hold a book in your hands, you see the cover. The text isn't visible. When you open a book, you can only see two facing pages at a time. In short, you never see the text as a whole. In contrast, when you unroll a scroll, an overview is exactly what you see. You see the entire text - the entire length of the scroll - all at once. All of the elements necessary to thinking strategically are in full view.

With scrolls, the message is clear: The bits and pieces that make up the picture are important, but they are not the point. The point is the big picture - the whole text, taken as a whole, considered as a whole, understood as a whole. This is an important message for struggling readers to see over and over again, to absorb and to remember. It is important because so much of the struggling reader experience involves the drudgery of being stuck down at the word level, fighting to decode a complex message, with no end in sight, no idea where one has been, or is, or is going, and no idea what the end game is. Under these conditions, it is difficult - if not impossible - to maintain interest and motivation, let alone to understand the nature of strategic reading and what it takes to become a good comprehender.

The value of scrolls is that they make the message about whole texts and strategy explicit. Moreover, they provide a working environment in which struggling readers can easily learn to take control of their reading and master the process of actively engaging a text and making meaning. Scrolls are an excellent environment for learning metacognitive strategies, for developing and activating schema, surveying, sensory imaging, questioning, determining importance, drawing inferences, summarizing, and synthesizing. They are also an excellent environment - arguably, a superior environment to books - for learning decoding skills because they provide the emotional relief that comes with being able to work from both directions - "top down" and "bottom up"; to see the forest even while still struggling to make sense of the trees (i.e., decoding). Finally, scrolls make it possible for individuals who are capable of understanding concepts and information well beyond their reading level to tackle and make sense of high interest and even "inconsiderate" texts (i.e., challenging texts written for proficient readers, as opposed to texts which have been "leveled" and "packaged" for learning readers).

Scrolls should be part of every literacy instructor's toolkit. They provide a supportive environment for teaching and learning, infuse literacy instruction with strategic purpose, and illustrate a clear vision for what reading can and should be. Scrolls provide an environment that encourages struggling readers to think strategically and master the skills and compensatory strategies needed to become proficient readers. For these reasons, they are an indispensable tool for literacy instruction.

If you have a photocopier and a roll of tape, you can make your own scrolls. To learn more about scrolls and about how you can use scrolls to support literacy instruction, visit the following pages on the web:

Introduction to scrolls:|
Using scrolls:|
Making your own scrolls:|
Introduction to mapping:|
Instructional benefits of Textmapping:|
Frequently Asked Questions:|
First-time tips:|


Note 1:
"The selection and organization of letterforms and other graphic features of the printed page is the concern of typography. It deals with all matters that affect the appearance of the page, and that contribute to the effectiveness of a printed message: the shapes and sizes of letters, diacritics, punctuation marks, and special symbols; the distances between letters and words; the length of lines; the space between lines; the size of margins the extent and location of illustrations; the use of colour; the selection of headings and sub"headings; and all other matters of spatial organization, or configuration." From: Crystal, David; The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (1987), ISBN 0-521-42443-7 p.190.

This article has appeared in the following publications:

  1. Disabled Readers Group Newsletter, Vol.6, No.1, Fall 2003, published by the Disabled Reader Special Interest Group of the International Reading Association
  2. Wyoming Journal of Literacy, Vol.2, No.1, Spring 2004, published by the Wyoming State Reading Council, a state council of the International Reading Association

The author encourages publication of this article. Please see the small print below.

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Photograph: Teacher walking along, partially bent over, with a marker in hand, looking down at a scroll that she has unrolled on the classroom floor.

Copyright © 2004-2007 R. David Middlebrook
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