Reading comprehension tends to be an area in need of improvement in many schools with high concentrations of English Language Learners, Standard English Learners, and even some “high performing” schools admit that students can read but they don’t know what they’re reading. We tend to teach the same way we’ve been taught. However, there are new tools and research available today. If we’re still teaching how we were taught, it’s no wonder students are not understanding what they read. Here are four things I’ve been doing in a effort to increase reading comprehension…
- Fill in background knowledge with visuals. To borrow a film making adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Find something visual, auditory, or some realia that grabs students’ interest and helps them to understand the story. If you’re reading about Martin Luther King, don’t just tell them what a great speaker he was. Show them a video, play them the speech…it’s too easy to find these and download them now not to do it.
Pictures work too. You don’t have to make a powerpoint, just print out a picture! Mount it to construction paper, label it, and hold it up. If you’re reading about the city of Parmele, show them pictures of Parmele and locate it on a map. Reading about a guinea fowl?…show them a picture of a guinea fowl (or present a feather).
Where do you find these pictures? As long as you’re just using the pictures in your classroom, use Google Image Search. If you need to repost the pictures, then try these royalty free image sites. Don’t just open the book and start reading.
- Everybody reads, all the time. If you didn’t get the memo, popcorn reading is out (see: Goodbye Round Robin by Opitz and Rasinski). When one student reads, notice what the other students are doing. Most are probably not paying attention. If you have students read in a predictable group pattern, then they anticipate when they’re going to read, get ready, and then tune out again when their turn is finished You will see increased participation if everyone reads the story aloud at the same time.
- Have students discuss…not with you, with each other. Typical teaching involves a teacher asking questions to which the teacher already has an answer in mind. The teacher calls on the first student who raises their hand, hears the right answer, and then rephrases it further.Everyone who isn’t that one student answering is bored or not listening and all the students get the message that there is one right answer. Then we wonder why students aren’t capable of higher level thinking. We don’t expect it or even allow it in most classrooms.
Instead, ask authentic questions…ones that have no right answer, questions that really ask for an opinion or something that you really want to know an answer to. Lower level thinking questions are fine to begin with but don’t stay there forever.
Give students a chance to pair share or talk in groups. Sometimes they can share out to the whole group but they don’t have to. Resist the urge to rephrase everything students say as if we know more than they do. We don’t always.
The goal of having them discuss is to involve more students in the conversation and to ask them to think on their own in a safe environment but without the safety net of the teacher stepping in with “right answers” when things get tough.While students are talking, you walk around and monitor. Sometimes encouraging students to share what they’ve said in small groups with the whole class, sometimes asking followup questions to stimulate further conversation.
Note: If you’ve never done this before, the first few times you do it will be hard…pulling teeth hard. Don’t give up, it gets better.
- Explicitly teach comprehension strategies before and after beginning the lesson. Particularly if you are working from a reading anthology, the point of the reading is to practice using comprehension strategies, particularly ones which involve clarifying and lead to inference (these are the spots that tend to tie students up when they’re reading on their own).
I teach students that they’re not going to like everything they’re going to be reading. Sometimes I even tell them (when we’re done reading and already discussed it) that I don’t like a particular selection. However, the point is that even a story we don’t like is an excuse to practice our reading strategies.
By explicitly I mean you can’t just use the strategies and expect students to absorb them through osmosis. You need to emphasize the strategies you’re using by naming them and drawing attention to them.