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Coteaching Reading Comprehension Strategies in Elementary School Libraries: Maximizing Your Impact

Metaphor of the Elephant

In Seven Blind Mice, author-illustrator Ed Young retells the ancient East Indian fable, "The Blind Men and the Elephant." In the story, each blind mouse goes out to investigate the "strange Something" by their pond. Each returns to the group and describes a part of the "Something" by relating a shape to a familiar object. The elephant's legs are like pillars and its trunk is thought to be a snake. The first six mice comprehend only isolated parts of the elephant and as a result, come to incorrect conclusions. It is the seventh blind mouse who takes into account all of the parts and is able to fully comprehend the elephant.

Learning to recognize and contruct metaphors is one of the research-based instructional strategies that increases student achievement (Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock 2001). Educators can help readers use metaphors to relate the parts of an elephant to the seven reading comprehension strategies. The table below presents comparisons between an elephant's body parts and the seven reading comprehension strategies. Students can use these metaphors to better understand the role each strategy plays in reading comprehension. The metaphors are found on the downloadable bookmarks, Web supplements 2B, 2C, and 2D.

The Metaphor of the Elephant

Reading Comprehension Strategy Elephant Part Metaphor
Background Knowledge Tail Readers' background knowledge is like the elephant's tail; it follows them as they read and backs up their comprehension.
Sensory Images Ears Like an elephant uses its ears to hear and all of its senses to comprehend its world, readers use sensory images to make meaning with texts.
Questioning Tusks Readers use questioning to probe texts before, during, and after reading just the way an elephant uses its tusks to control and poke around in its world.
Predictions and Inferences Head Just as an elephant uses its head to think, readers use their heads in order to make predictions and inferences.
Main Ideas Legs Like the elephant's legs that bear significant body weight, readers analyze texts to determine main ideas that support the meaning of texts.
Fix-up Options Trunk Readers use fix-up options to regain control of reading comprehension like the elephant uses its trunk to manipulate its environment.
Synthesizing Whole Elephant Just as the white mouse in Seven Blind Mice put all of the elephant's parts together to make a whole, strategic readers use all of the reading comprehension strategies and combine information with their interpretations to synthesize and create knowledge.

Chapter 3: Activating or Building Background Knowledge: Although the tail is found at the end of the elephant, background knowledge comes first because without it, readers have no place to begin.

Chapter 4: Using Sensory Images: Sensory imagery symbolized by the ear follows because using sensory imagery is more than using visual information or visualizing. It requires readers to engage all their senses in order to make meaning. Sensory connections are also an aspect of our background knowledge.

Chapters 5: Questioning and 6: Making Predictions and Inferences: Asking questions, represented by the tusks, and making predictions and inferences, the head, require higher-order thinking skills that stretch the reader to go beyond a text's denotation on the page or screen in order to explore connotations.

Chapter 7: Determining Main Ideas: The legs, or main ideas, are next. Readers must analyze texts in order to determine the main ideas and to compose summaries.

Chapter 8: Using Fix-up Options: The fix-up strategy, or the trunk, allows readers to recover lost comprehension. It uses a set of options that can be taught one-by-one, but altogether they show the complexity of monitoring and recovering meaning.

Chapter 9: Synthesizing: And finally, synthesis, the whole elephant, requires that the reader use all the strategies to bring together ideas and evidence from multiple texts and combine it with their own interpretations to transform information into knowledge.

Active readers apply these strategies seamlessly in their reading process. Although the how-to chapters in this book isolate individual reading comprehension strategies, the strategies are interrelated. Strategic readers utilize multiple comprehension strategies as they engage with texts. The ultimate goal is to utilize combinations of strategies when they are appropriate to different types of texts, purposes for reading, and comprehension challenges.

The order of the chapters reflects one possible and logical sequence for building students' comprehension strategy repertoires rather than following the order of the elephant parts as presented in Young's book. Educators should always use their judgment to determine the best sequence or select strategies based on students' needs.


Marzano, Robert. J., Debra J. Pickering, and Jane E. Pollock. 2001. Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Young, Ed. 1992. Seven blind mice. New York: Philomel.

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Launched: March 2007
Updated: 3 June 2013

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