Reading Comprehension: Set Them Up to Understand

I’ve been immersed in the world of reading comprehension and strategies for teaching reading for quite a while now. My last post was about reading e-texts successfully, but for the next several weeks I am going to back up and write about reading comprehension itself, especially as it applies to secondary students and teachers. The next several posts are specifically for classroom teachers of all subject areas, but if you’re a parent reading this, the concepts and strategies I outline constitute a significant part of the reading comprehension instruction in an American classroom.

Did this ever happen to you? Your college professor told you to read a huge chunk of text by, say, Wednesday and come to class prepared to discuss what you read.  Because the topic was new to you, it was sometimes hard to figure out what to focus on. You got to class and found out you’d paid attention to things the professor didn’t think were important at all. High school and middle school students have problems like this, too. 

We teachers can set our secondary students up for success in the same ways elementary teachers do.  First of all, we can “preview” what’s important. Here are some ways to do that: 

New words: Think about the important vocabulary that the students will encounter in the reading you’ve assigned. If the words are technical, and they’ll be encountering them for the first time, you can increase their comprehension by explaining those words before they read the text.  For example. You might say, 

“When you read tonight, you’re going to come across these three words: ________, _______, and ________.  They’re really important to understand, so here’s what they mean.“

And then explain. 

When the student encounters these words in the text that night, it will be for the second time, not the first, and they’ll already have a little bit of “prior knowledge.” That will help them make sense of the new term in context. 

Create a Trailer: Alert students to a key scene in a story or a concept in non-fiction so they’ll know when they get there that this matter is important.  Naturally, you don’t want to spoil the suspense or give away so much they won’t read the chapter, but you might say something like “In tonight’s reading, Juliet is going to fake obeying her father. Pay attention to what he does next. It will be important to the rest of the story.”  

You can go farther than hinting at a significant scene and even dramatize an upcoming chapter. You still don’t give the ending away, though. The point of a trailer is to build suspense, not satisfy curiosity.

If it’s non-fiction and the students will be reading about a new concept–say a principle in biology–explain the basic concept first. When they read the details, they’ll already have the main idea and will be filling in the blanks.  

Refresh and Move Forward: Take a minute to summarize the previous day’s reading. That quick summary creates the flow that’s so necessary when you’re working with information that moves from one point to the next. 

Set a purpose: Explain to the students why they are reading something. Understanding skyrockets when students know the purpose and what they are going to be doing with the information. Here’s part of why: The reading method they–or I–employ usually matches the purpose for reading.

  • If I am reading for basic information, I may skim the selection.
  • If I am reading to understand an argument, I’ll read the selection carefully.
  • If I am reading for specific terms that I’ll be expected to remember, I’ll scan.
  • If I am reading to add to prior knowledge, I will make the connections as I read.
  • If I am reading for amusement, I’ll probably read in a comfy chair.

Make an explicit homework assignment: This is related to the purpose. If it’s basic information you’re after, supply a graphic organizer or a guided reading sheet or even a set of questions to direct the reading. Let students know they’ll be quizzed on the material (if they will). Let them know if you intend to go over the information or if you plan to take off from there on the assumption that they understand all the basics. If you’re not going over the reading, but they’re expected to understand it, they’ll read more carefully if they know that ahead of time. 

Even if you do intend to discuss the reading in class, without a task to complete–like filling in a graphic organizer–many students will skim the text, not read with attention. Here are some other ideas for explicit homework assignments.  Notice how differently a student would read a text for each of these assignments.

  • Select what you think is the writer’s strongest argument and explain why.
  • As you read, think of another story (or character, or situation, etc.)  that is like this and explain how they are alike.
  • Keep a timeline of significant events.
  • Copy 5 figures of speech the author uses in these ten pages and name the figure of speech.
  • Write down what you thought was the most surprising part of the story so we can take a class poll and discuss why these parts were surprising.

Make sure they know how to use the tools they have in their hands: Many secondary students still have trouble understanding the function(s) of the parts of their textbooks. They may never have been shown the index, for example, so they don’t know what it’s for. 

Here are the usual parts and common text features of textbooks:

  • title page
  • diagrams
  • sidebars
  • table of contents
  • labels
  • highlighted text
  • headings
  • illustrations
  • italics
  • photographs
  • graphs
  • bold print
  • tables
  • captions
  • color coding
  • charts
  • bulleted lists
  • bolded words

Secondary students generally have the most trouble understanding the difference between the Table of Contents and the Index. If they’ve never used the Table of Contents or the Index in their texts, they will not use these two tools well in a reference book that is NOT a textbook. In fact, they have to be explicitly shown how to use these two aides to understanding. So, if you are sending them off to research something, be sure to remind them that the Index will help them find a specific topic and the Table of Contents will reveal the organization of the book and the main ideas.

When a science teacher (for example) says “Read pages x to y,” many students think “read” means reading like a novel in English class. If you teach a subject that relies on charts, maps, diagrams, tables, and illustrations to deliver information, be sure to tell your students that valuable information is packed into these study tools and that they should pay attention to these parts of the text, too. Once again, the students have to be explicitly shown. 

Finally, obvious as it is to us, many students think the color coding, fonts, and different font sizes in a text are artistic flourishes. Even the text features like these are deliberate keys to understanding. Make sure your students are aware of these text features. 

All of these “before reading” strategies have been taught to students by their elementary teachers, but secondary teachers can learn from them: A little pre-reading instruction goes a long way toward understanding what you read.

 

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