Sometimes teaching kids reading comprehension can be a challenge for us because it seems so much less concrete than other skills. Students can write out how they’ve solved an equation, build a model, or write us an essay because they’re tangible. However, it can be difficult to assess comprehension because so much of it is happening in the student’s head (and we don’t have a big ol’ window into there).
I know that so often we rely on reading a chapter or a passage, then asking general questions. That strategy certainly isn’t wrong, but it’s not the only thing we can do. It can get redundant and sometimes it just tests students’ ability to recall basic information instead of teaching them how to really think about what they’ve read or what they should be doing with that information.
What is the purpose for reading?
So many issues our kids have when reading can be solved by having them sit back and ask themselves why they are reading before they begin. Setting out without any kind of specific purpose is a surefire way for them to not only not remember what they read, but not care about why they’re reading in the first place!
This takes some practice, but it’s extremely important and it’s a good thing to have kids begin doing before reading the texts they do with you in class. Once they start asking themselves why they’re reading over and over again, it will start to become a habit and will help them in every subject, not just ELA (or whatever it is you teach).
What type of text is being read?
Our students have to be able to identify different types of texts and what their purpose is. Why did the author write this? Was it to entertain, to teach, to inspire, and so on. It’s important that they know that we have to read different types of texts in different ways.
Give them lots of examples of this. I read Where the Crawdads Sing a heck of a lot differently than I do a Biology textbook. Same goes for an opinion piece in a newspaper versus a Shel Silverstein poem. I could go on, and on, and on here.
Start practicing with your students around reading different types of texts. Ask them why the author wrote the piece. Have discussions as a class about what kinds of questions they should be asking before reading different types of writing. Students should be using different strategies while reading for each type of writing. Practice post-writing strategies that differ from text to text. These can include things like graphic organizers (news articles, textbooks, etc.), highlighting important vocabulary (poetry, novels, etc.), asking follow-up questions (opinion pieces, informational texts, etc.).
Scan for important information
Before students begin reading their text and after they’ve identified what type of text is being read, should scan the reading for information. Have your students practice scanning headlines, photos, questions and information in sidebars, and so on before they read.
These chunks of information are quick and easy to look over, and will give students a good idea of what’s to come. Scanning how to page(s) are set up will give them an idea of what is going to be discussed. Headings can help them form ideas and questions. Photos can pique their interest. Sidebar notes can help them delve a little bit deeper or discover related content.
Scanning before reading is always an important idea and should lead to students asking themselves questions they’re hoping to have answered by the time they’re done reading.
Give students a task while reading
It isn’t just students who read a paragraph, get to the end, and realize they don’t remember a thing they’ve just read. I do this, too. All the freaking time! Sometimes I read a sentence three or four times and still don’t know what it says! When this happens, I know it’s because I’m not reading with purpose (or sometimes because I have to look up some of the words).
Giving students something to do while they’re reading makes sure that they’re reading actively. Things they may want to do while reading are, answering certain questions, completing a chart, looking for examples of something (like personification), trying to find specific vocabulary, and so on.
Sometimes I’ll have students read over the same passage a few different times with a different task each time. I guarantee, they’ll know the passage in way more depth doing this than they would just reading through once with no purpose or plan.
Use graphic organizers
I wish I could write a love song, propose to, and marry graphic organizers. They’re wonderful, and perfect, and I love them as much as Kanye loves Kanye.
Having students fill out graphic organizers while or after reading is a great way for our students to practice organizing their thoughts, and to learn how to read with a purpose. It also helps reinforce that it’s normal and often necessary to read through a text multiple times to fully understand what they’ve read and gotten the most information out of it.
The best thing about graphic organizers is that they’re plentiful online – so you can likely find one you’re looking for. Or, you can easily make a quick one to fit perfectly with the material you’re covering.
Teach students how to write notes
A lot of students reach junior high or high school never having learned how to take proper notes. Often we assume kids will just know this skill or that someone else has taught them, especially the older they get.
It’s worthwhile to take the time to really show students how to take effective notes – even if they’ve learned this before, a little extra practice never hurt. And, if they’ve never learned before, you’re really helping to set them up for success.
I personally like to teach kids the Cornell system as it’s pretty universal. You and the students can find a ton of helpful stuff around Cornell note taking online, and there’s even a lot of online templates to use to practice. I suggest going over the note taking method as a class, have kids practice during a lesson, lecture, video, or so on, and then breaking them into small groups or pairs to discuss.
Practice a few times so that they really get the hang of it!
Can they explain what they read?
If students have completed all of these pre-reading, during-reading, and post-reading activities, but then they can’t explain what they’ve read, there’s an issue. Students should always be able to tell you, their peers, and so on all about what they’ve read. That’s the marker that they actually understand something.
Challenge your kids to teach a classmate about what they read, lead a peer discussion about it, or summarize it in their own words. If they’re unable to do this, they need to go back to the material. This is also a sign that they may need more one on one support from you or an educational assistant.
Has the purpose been fulfilled?
Finally, has the actual purpose for reading been completed at the end of reading. For example, did the student effectively learn about the causes of World War I? Or were they able to identify adjectives used by the author?
If they can confidently say “yes” when you ask them if they’ve completed their task, then they’ve done their job correctly!
What do you think? Are these tips helpful? How do you teach reading comprehension with your students?