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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.
Teachers in grades 4-12 frequently complain that their students cannot read the content materials their districts have provided for them to use in content instruction. In addition to this problem, many teachers also say that while they were well trained in their content, they did not receive adequate preparation in teaching reading or helping struggling readers to master content texts. Thus, they feel torn between helping students become well prepared in the content material, they also know that students must receive better instruction in how to read the content materials as well.
In order to help students succeed in content instruction, we must help students activate what they already know about a subject and help them make connections between new knowledge and what they already know on the topic. We must stimulate their thinking and develop a motivation to read to find out specific information. We must help students establish preview the text and set a purpose for their reading so readers know what they will be expected to do with the text. By helping students make predictions about what they will learn from the text, we can also increase motivation and foster interest. By spending a significant amount of time “front-loading” our units, we can help students make better connections with the information they will learn. Anticipation guides, study guides or graphic organizers are a great way of helping students think about what they already know on a topic and then verifying their predictions and connections as a reading follow up. We must also take care to help students clarify and understand new vocabulary that may be important in the text and develop the concepts to connect the meaning to their existing concept bank.
While many content teachers have used Round Robin reading in the classroom, we know that this is not the best way to get students involved in reading. We need to identify collaborative ways that students can share in the reading and presentation of information within the class. Break up chapters by topic and have each group read a section, clarify their understandings and then make a presentation either in jigsaw “expert” groups or as a whole class presentation. Students will be more engaged and will retain more as a result of a more in depth reading of the assigned material. Game formats such as Jeopardy or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire are fun and can be used on a classroom Smart board or computer. Many versions of these fun and engaging games can be found on the internet.
Writing is also a great follow up activity for content learning teachers. Students can use writing to document their learning in academic journals or learning logs, to create reports, or to do more creative things such as create a reader’s theater, poem, or diary that relates back to the content material being learned. Even writing children’s books on content topics is a fun and helpful strategy to use to get students thinking about and clarifying their content understandings. You will find many more outstanding ways to help students develop comprehension and higher order thinking skills in Literacy Strategies for Grades 4-12: Reinforcing the Threads of Reading.
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.
It is during this period of our educational life that students are now expected to use reading as a tool for learning rather than spending most of their energy on mastering the skills of how to read. If students have been prepared well in the primary grades and have mastered their basic phonics skills they will not need to spend as much cognitive energy on decoding. the two greatest needs of students in grades 4-8 are building fluency skills, continuing to develop and build vocabulary and enhancing comprehension.
Reading is a participation sport. Just like a golfer has to practice hitting the golf ball on the golf course or the tennis player has to practice playing against a worthy opponent to improve their skills, students need to practice their reading to become more fluent and powerful readers. Practices like “Drop Everything and Read” time or DEAR or other sustained independent reading times are helpful to get children reading more. Students need to actively READ – not talk about it or do worksheets about reading – but actually practice their reading skills on authentic text in which they are interested and motivated to read. The more time children spend reading, the better readers they become.
Another good way to build student’s fluency skills is by re-reading a specific text to practice and refine it. Many of us figured this out as children in teacher’s classrooms where “round-robin” reading was commonly used. To avoid embarrassment, most competent readers counted ahead to see which passage they would be reading in front of their peers. They then practiced these passages several times to ensure that when they were called upon, they could be smooth and competent readers. While round-robin reading caused both competent and struggling readers emotional stress and we know today that it is an ineffective way to encourage good reading habits, the concept of re-reading and practicing a passage was the right way to improve reading. A great way to encourage children to practice re-reading and building fluent reading is by using fun techniques like plays and Reader’s Theater in the classroom. Children also can create podcasts of the material and actually put them on the internet for others to enjoy. Kids love it and fluency soars!
Once children can read with good phrasing, expression and intonation, the next step is helping children increase their reading speed. Research tells us that slow readers often lose interest in reading because it is a laborious task while readers who can read at a rapid pace, enjoy their reading and have more cognitive energy to devote to making meaning out of the words they are reading. Timed reading passages where children practice fluency can be good for increasing reading speed as can just simply increasing practice with material at an independent reading level. Practice with appropriate material also increases reading speed as children become more comfortable and well practiced readers. Again, as fluency increases and effort decreases, comprehension also increases and the brain has time to process the meaning of the text being read.
When reading is effortless and enjoyable, children can truly lose themselves in the plight of the characters or in learning about content in which they have an intense interest. Good readers often report “getting lost” in an engrossing novel or while reading about topics in which they have a deep interest. This is when reading takes on a special significance for our students. They are now reading to learn rather than learning to read.