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While our brains are hard-wired for language, they were never designed for reading or writing. Those are behaviors that we have added to the tasks that we ask the human brain to do in our society. As a result, there are many reasons one child make not make as much progress in learning to read as another child may make.
Learning to read begins at birth or according to some experts, even while the child is still in the womb. The background knowledge that a child brings to the schoolhouse door does make a difference and has a direct correlation to how successful that child will be in school. Researchers say that the two strongest predictors of school success are a child’s proficiency in phonemic awareness and the size of the child’s vocabulary. We know that the gap between good readers and struggling readers develops as early as by the end of first grade. Without effective and timely intervention, this gap will continue to grow until there may be a gap of 4-5 years or more by the child’s high school years. Without help, struggling readers will most likely never catch up and they will either “tune out” or “act out” in classrooms all across the country.
All young readers must have a solid grasp of phonemic awareness to understand the “lilt” of the language and the sounds that various letters and letter combinations make. Secondly, they must be able to decode the words they encounter by understanding how to apply the English phonetic system to words. Beginning readers commonly learn to identify initial sounds first, final sounds second and then learn to distinguish how medial sounds change the meaning of the word. For example, the medial sounds in “book,” “back” and “beak” change the entire meaning of the word. Children must quickly recognize the meaning of the word and then be able to make sense of the context in which the word appears. Reading is about meaning out of the symbols on the page. If a child gets no meaning from the words, then reading has not taken place.
Much like math skills and understandings build, so too does reading skill. A child who has poor phonemic awareness skills will struggle with developing strong phonics skills. A child who has poor decoding skills, will find it difficult to become a fluent reader with good comprehension skills. The threads of reading must be solidly woven under each child if they are to become capable readers. Teachers must use good assessment techniques to find the “holes” in a reader’s tapestry and then work to fill those holes with appropriate and targeted instruction. Until the holes preventing the student from mastering the level where they are “stuck” are filled, little progress will be made moving to the next level of reading mastery.
Reading is a participation sport! Like the tennis player or the golfer, students only become better readers when they practice reading. We must take the time to model reading by reading orally to our students. We must find what interests our students and help them find text that is at the appropriate level of difficulty and motivating to read. Without meaning and joy in reading, students will continue to struggle and fight attempts to help them become better readers. We must help our students develop strong vocabularies and good background knowledge so they can relate to the material they read.
Reading must also be a social activity. As adult readers, we talk to our friends about books we have read or articles in our favorite magazines to reflect upon ideas or clarify meaning for ourselves. Our students must be given opportunities to talk about, think about and ask questions about the meaning of the text they read. Only when we act the ways I have outlined in this article will we succeed in helping our students become strong and informed readers who are ready for tomorrow.
Research tells us that there are certain things that good readers do as they are reading so that they can maximize their understanding of the text. First, good readers use their background knowledge to make sense of what they read. Good teachers know this and help students activate relevant prior knowledge before they ask students to read. Students who do not have a rich storehouse of background knowledge or who come from a different culture, need to have greater levels of pre-teaching before reading including visuals, introduction to new vocabulary, graphic organizers and appropriate realia to enhance their background knowledge prior to reading. When we connect first with our background knowledge reading is more meaningful for the brain.
Good readers create mental images as they read. I tell students that it is like seeing the “movie version” played out in their head as they read. Good readers create images of the characters in a story, the action taking place or pictures of the information which they are learning. Good readers become emotionally involved with what they are reading. How many times have you been so emotionally involved with a good book that you didn’t want to put it down? That’s what good readers do. They identify with the text and become engrossed in it. Help students think about the visual images they get from reading by using graphic organizers, having students draw pictures and verbally describe the mental images they are creating as they read various types of text. Use drawing and graphic organizers to help students visualize the text they are reading.
Good readers know that text should make sense and they know when what they are reading makes sense and when it doesn’t. Good readers know how to use a wide-variety of “fix-up” strategies when they lose meaning while reading. They use many strategies such as skipping ahead, re-reading, reading aloud, slowing the pace and re-reading and asking questions to help themselves problem-solve and reconnect with meaning in the text. Good readers understand that when they no longer understand what they are reading, they need to stop and figure out how to fix the problem before they continue. Teachers need to consciously help students monitor their own comprehension and teach “fix-up” strategies that students can use to problem-solve the reading task. They need to help their students understand that all readers lose meaning from time to time and that the trick is to have strategies to use to get back on track when this happens. You can find many great ideas to use to build strong high school readers in my book, Literacy Strategies: Reinforcing the Threads of Reading.
Good readers identify the most important ideas as they read. They understand how to distinguish between important information and unimportant information as they read. They can use the information that they have learned to synthesize what they have read and retell or summarize it. Good readers can provide an oral or written summary of the main points (or themes) of the text. They can talk about the text, question ideas presented in the text or mesh what they have read with their per-exising background knowledge on the topic to deepen their knowledge of the topic. Model reflective thinking for your students by thinking aloud as you process and think about different types of text. Teachers can help students develop this ability by asking them to write “gist” paragraphs or summaries, discuss the main points of a text and write questions that they have about the text after reading.
Good readers have an expansive vocabulary to talk about text. They can make comparisons between topics and characters because they have a good storehouse of adjectives to make effective comparisons. You can find lists of words that can help students be more specific when they describe characters in my book, Tests That Teach which is about helping students delve deeper into text meaning and understand text at deeper levels so they can do well on state assessments.
Good readers use their prior knowledge and information to relate to the text while they are reading. They make predictions about what will happen, what they might learn in remaining portions of the text, and how the information fits together in a sensible whole. They look for discrepancies or question what the author has written, look for answers to their own questions, draw conclusions, and create interpretations about the text based on both existing and new knowledge. Good readers understand that it is alright to disagree with an author’s position and that they can check other reference sources to see if the information they are reading is valid. In this internet age of rapid information, helping students evaluate information and look for source bias is an important skill that we must teach our students as consumers and users of information. They must know that all information isn’t “created equal.”
Good readers use time tested strategies such as SQ3R to think about what they are reading based on the title, chapter headings and support materials provided in the text. They look for answers to their questions as they read and take organized notes to synthesize important information. Good readers reflect on what they have read. They talk to others to clarify their questions or confusions and sort out key information to add to their own storehouse of knowledge. They mesh new knowledge with existing knowledge to build a solid set of beliefs and understandings about various topics. This is truly the goal of education.
A good way to help students think about what they read and increase their comprehension of the text is to use a method called Questions into Paragraphs. Developed by McLaughlin (1987) the QuIP procedure helps students think about text both before they read as well as after reading. Students develop or are given 3 related questions on the topic. They then respond to each question using at least two sources of text using an appropriate graphic organizer. Once information for each question has been gathered, students then synthesize the information and write one coherent paragraph summarizing the information. Once students are used to gathering, synthesizing and summarizing information to questions that the teacher provides, they should then be encouraged to identify their own related questions and complete the research, synthesis and summarization processes on their own. This is a great higher order activity that promotes not only deep understanding but higher level thinking as well.
Helping students visualize what they are reading helps deepen comprehension and also helps students retain information longer. Ask students to read a specific section of text collaboratively. When they have completed the text, ask them to discuss the material and to then create a picture, diagram or mind map to show what they have learned from the text. Students then present and explain their visual images to the class to help them clarify their own thoughts and connections. When students create a visual image that connects to the text they have read, not only is there deeper understanding of the material, but they have also stored the information in two places in the brain, thus, deepening retention.