Skilled readers build a mental model of a story and bring their world knowledge, personal experiences, and knowledge of literary conventions to it. They challenge the author. They build a tentative hypothesis of the text’s meaning, revising as new information arrives. They monitor their understanding and their own attention, re-reading where necessary, and adopting their reading metacognition to the demands of the text. Afterwards, they reflect on what they have read.

These are not natural abilities that we are born with, they are skills, gained through diligence and practice. But if your older child has not developed these skills independently, then you must teach them explicitly.

The study guide for The ‘City of Ember’ helps develop model-making comprehension skills. It is free.  However you will need at least one copy of the book for your student, and we recommend another copy for the tutor.


These exercises grew out of our work at the Community Reading Project. Our grade-8 students came to us typically reading at grade-2 level (or less), relying on memorized words and guessing from context and first-and-last letters. For the first six weeks we focused on the basics of word recognition: blending and segmenting, phonics, morphology, and fluency. We raced them through grade 2, then grade 3 books, then grade 4 books. They developed confidence and began to enjoy reading, we were thrilled. Then we hit a wall.

There is a huge jump in comprehension skills required to move from grade 4 books to grade 5 books. The earlier books are self-contained, directly-told, and plot-driven. Grade-5 books start to use imagery, setting, themes, and writing style to tell the story. Characters become more complex, their motivations more ambiguous. World knowledge starts to become more important.

For a grade-5 text, we selected “The City of Ember” by Jeanne DuPrau. A proficient grade-5 reader immediately realizes that the city is underground, a kind of survival bunker. But that is never stated directly – the book is written from the point of view of two 12-year-olds who have never imagined a larger world. Their strange little city is lavishly described from their point of view, the pleasure of the book is watching them discover Ember’s true nature.

Here’s what poor comprehension looks like. Our students accurately decoded the words and captured the surface gloss – they knew from the first pages that Ember’s sky was always dark, that Ember was running out of light bulbs, and that the flood-lamps frequently went out. They knew that the timekeeper sometimes failed to tells the light director when start and end each day by turning the lights on and off (so the night wouldn’t end or the day would go on too long), but that strangeness did not fire any corresponding light bulbs in their heads.  They did not look for meaning.

So we have prepared a study guide for ‘The City of Ember that tries to push them into forming their mental image, recognizing the author’s intent, and looking beyond the words.