Improve Their Reading While They’re Reading

You’ve set them up to read with understanding, but is there anything students can be doing while they are reading that will help them understand?  A lot of kids just seem to drift away when they start reading…

Students are taught “during reading” practices throughout elementary school. When they get to secondary school, teachers stop using the language of reading and stop reminding students to employ the practices their elementary teachers have taught them. Maybe we should take a step back. Here are several of those “during reading” practices that secondary teachers can encourage, too:

Self-monitoring: All readers need to stay on top of their understanding. Most of us do all right with stories, but when it comes to non-fiction, especially if the text is difficult, we can get lost–or drift away. One strategy that helps is to consciously summarize the text at the end of each paragraph or chunk of text. Many of us do this automatically. A teacher taught us the trick or maybe we learned it on our own.

So it is with students. If a student can’t articulate the main idea of the paragraph, then understanding is incomplete. Coach them to stop, summarize (to themselves) what they’ve just read, and then go on. That means reading will take longer. Tell them that taking longer is okay. Non-fiction, especially, is harder than fiction–words and concepts are new, not as easily assimilated as when you are reading a story.

This lack of understanding is also one of the main reasons plagiarism happens. The student doesn’t understand what he or she has read; thus, can’t summarize. What sometimes is called “laziness” or mistaken for deliberate cheating is really lack of comprehension. Have the student practice summarizing a chunk of reading aloud–as if explaining to a parent–before writing a sentence or paragraph for their research report.

Visualizing. Elementary students are taught to make a movie in their heads. If it’s fiction, they are taught to create a mental storyboard. If it’s non-fiction, they’re taught to diagram, chart, map, or create a mental table as well as storyboard the content. The very popular sketch noting, or visual notetaking, is a variation on this theme. Ask students to draw what they have read and see what happens. Some kids thrive on this way of processing information.

Relate to prior knowledge: When reading an informational piece, ask students to form hypotheses about the text (predict) rather than simply recall prior knowledge. They’ll read with the purpose, then, of discovering whether their hypotheses are correct.  Also, by NOT asking for personal experience stories (elicited by the “Have you ever…” question), their connections will be connections to real content, not just to the mention of a topic. For a really insightful description of this kind of questioning, read The Comprehension Experience. (If you’re local, borrow it from me.)

Make connections to the text as they read: This is similar to the concept of connecting to prior knowledge, but it’s about teaching students to make even more connections while they are reading than they already have. To consider how the idea they are reading is like, unlike, supports, contradicts, etc. something they’ve read, seen, heard, tasted, or experienced before. For example, any cook will tell you that when they read a recipe, they’re thinking not just about the ingredients for the recipe at hand, but how that recipe is a variation on another they know–how the addition of one certain spice and the removal of another will affect a taste they already know.

Recently, I watched a video of a teacher working with her 7th grade class on a percent problem. Before they ever learned the formula for solving the problem, the teacher asked the students to consider how this problem was like other percent problems they’d encountered and how it was different. Later, the students went on to solve the problem, of course, but first they considered “same” and “different” and that helped them make sense of the new problem.

Use text structures to help them understand: In fiction, text structure means the story arc. Students learn this structure from the cradle (if their parents read to them).  As humans, we’re “hard-wired” for story anyway. That means we try instinctively to make a story out of information we receive.

Except for chronological order (which is, of course, related to “story”), the structures of non-fiction aren’t so readily apparent: cause/effect, problem/solution, analysis, order of importance, comparison/contrast. Help students learn the markers for these structures so they can get a mental outline of the text before they start reading. For example, you can augment understanding by simply saying something like this: “In this article, the author discusses two different interpretations of this historical event and gives his opinion on those interpretations.” By outlining the article for the students, you’ve boosted their comprehension of it from the get-go. Probst and Beers eludidate non-fiction structures in their second Notice and Note book, Reading Non-fiction. (You can borrow this one from me, too.)

Question themselves: Do I understand? What can I do if I don’t? Where did I stop understanding? Should I go back? Should I slow down?  (The answer is “yes.”)

When a text is difficult because the content is new, or we’re tired, or too much is going on externally, all of us stop paying attention when we read. This can happen with fiction and non-fiction. Students have been trained to be conscious of having lost the thread. Most know to go back to the place where they last remember understanding and start over at that spot. As secondary teachers, we can remind them of that strategy for recovery.

Be conscious of skimming patterns: What students are liable to do when they first start drifting is to skim; that is, to puddle-jump across the lines of text, one line at a time. Skimming is a perfectly fine way to take in information when all you want is the gist or if it’s the first time through a piece of difficult text.  But all too often, this “academic” skimming turns into Z and F.

Z and F skimming styles are unconscious but entirely natural patterns of eye movement that web designers capitalize upon to ease our intake of social media and website content. Because so many of our students spend so much time on social media, these skimming patterns may have become second nature to them.

The layout of a social media page like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter is an F pattern. Google searches come back in an F pattern. Websites, especially places you want to order merchandise from, are set up to read in a Z. Neither of these skimming patterns is efficient for academic articles or for textbooks, whether print or electronic.

The task for us is to alert students to Z and F so they can monitor their skimming behavior and adjust to the kind of skimming that’s appropriate for academic texts and textbooks, whether in print or electronic: puddle-jumping.

 Reading comprehension is an amorphous, abstract thing. Our ability to understand what we read doesn’t grow in a linear fashion or at a measured pace. It’s hard to pin down–no different than holding on to a cloud. What we do know is this: The more we read, the more we understand; the more we understand, the more we bring to the next text we read. Learning how to help yourself understand what you read doesn’t end after elementary school, and there’s a lot we secondary teachers can do to boost our students’ understanding.

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