'Twas the Night Before Christmas: Teaching Comprehension

As educators, we often teach basic reading skills, such as identifying letters, words, building vocabulary and spelling. However, when was the last time you specifically taught students about comprehension? We might think that as the student's reading skills improve, they will automatically have better comprehension of the content. After all, questions about the story require the student to understand the story; therefore, the student is demonstrating that he is comprehending the content, right? Well, yes and no! The student has to be able to read the story and understand the vocabulary words in order to comprehend. But sometimes students have to dive a little deeper into the story to pull out subtle clues that will help the student have a deeper understanding. Let's dive a little deeper into these two versions of the 'Twas the Night Before Christmas poem.

Comprehension: Classic Version

Download the classic, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas here.

The Classic version of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, includes many vocabulary words that are rarely used in modern society. Ask your students to find at least 3 old-fashioned words and then to look up the words. This is a great opportunity for students to use tech skills to access a built-in dictionary or to do an Internet search to define the word. Examples of old-fashioned words: sugar-plums, 'kerchief, sash. This poem is written using words that produce vivid images - how was St. Nicholas described? What words were used to make the reader feel that St. Nicholas was quick? Ask comprehension questions, such as how did St. Nicholas get back up the chimney? Who saw St. Nick? Was St. Nick mad about being seen? Younger students may need to read line by line or by paragraphs in order and discuss these chunks of information in order to understand the poem in depth.

Read by Paragraphs

Written documents use the paragraph format to organize the information - often each paragraph will have a topic sentence, support sentences and conclusion sentence. While the sentences in a poem may not be as defined, lines are grouped into stanzas, much like paragraphs in a document. Paragraphs are used to break the written content into sections; however, this organizational information is lost when reading straight through the document using a screen reader. When using a screen reader and reading for comprehension, it is important to learn to read by paragraphs instead of using a command to read straight through the material. Reading by chunks (paragraphs) will help the student organize the information into bite-sized pieces.

Reading by paragraphs also requires that the student actively engage with the document by providing a command to read the next paragraph - helping the student to stay focused on the reading. Also, that little bit of extra time before reading the next paragraph also provides the student with an opportunity to quickly think about and comprehend what was in that paragraph. Students tend to mentally take note of that paragraph before hearing the next paragraph. Initially, students may need to be guided to read by paragraphs; stopping to have the student summarize the paragraph aloud before moving to the next paragraph will reinforce the concept of reading in chunks. Most students will subconsciously note the number of paragraphs in a short story or poem and hopefully what is in each paragraph, making it easier to go back and find specific information.

Comprehension: Second Version

Download the second version of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas here.

Most students are familiar with the traditional 'Twas the Night Before Christmas poem; however, the second version is probably new. Ask the student to read through the poem and then summarize the poem - allow the student to figure out the poem! For students who quickly picked up that the poem is about naughty Boxers (type of dog), ask them to find words in the poem that provided clues that the poem was about dogs (puppies, lick, etc.) and why the dogs were naughty (shredded wreath, tree missing limbs, etc.). For students who did not understand the poem, ask them to read the poem again. If appropriate, read line by line or paragraph by paragraph and discuss what each section means.

Additional Activities

Have the student write his own 'Twas the Night Before poem. Discuss ideas such as the Night Before another holiday or an event, such as the Night Before the 4th of July, Night Before Spring Break, Night Before First Day of High School, Night Before the Band Concert, etc. Provide bonus points for using specific vocabulary words, using metaphors or descriptive phrases (Classic version used wonderful descriptive words!). Provide sets of rhyming words that students can choose to use or a set of descriptive words/phrases.

What else can you teach using one or both versions of the "Twas the Night Before Christmas" poem(s)? Here are some ideas:

  • Reading skills: braille (paper braille or refreshable braille display
    • Basic reading skills
    • Contractions
    • Increase reading speed (read more than one time)
    • Build vocabulary (What is a Sugar-Plum? Clutter?)
    • Rhyming words
    • Comprehension 
  • Listening Skills (reading with a screen reader)
    • Basic listening skills
    • Increase speed of screen reader (read more than one time, increasing the speed each time)
    • Listening comprehension
  • Tech skills:
    • Read and pause commands
    • Navigation
      • Navigate by letters to check spelling (How do you spell Blitzen?)
      • Navigate by words to find a specific vocabularly word (Lustre)
      • Navigate by lines to understand what that line means
      • Navigate by paragraphs for general comprehension (chunk of story)
    • Find (JAWS is control+F)