How To Help Students Improve Their Academic Reading
by Grant Wiggins, Authentic Education
As the first phase of bringing closure to these blog posts on literacy at the secondary level, I want to offer a tentative list of recommendations that I believe follow from all the research cited in the previous posts. I will say more about each principle in follow-up posts, as well as offering brief bibliographic and graphic-organizer resources in support of each idea. (I offer some initial thoughts on Principle #1, below).
Questions To Understand How To Teach Reading
Do students understand the real point of academic reading?
Ensure, repeatedly over time, that students understand the bottom-line goal: successful self-regulated comprehension of challenging texts as a whole.
Do students understand that the aim of instruction is transfer of learning?
Make this year-long goal crystal-clear all year. Design instruction backward from autonomous transfer of a repertoire of meta-cognition and comprehension strategies. Vary the tasks, contexts, and texts to ensure that students learn to self-prompt and transfer, regardless of prompt or task specifics; decrease prompts and reminders over time, sometimes suddenly, to see what learners do when unprompted.
Am I using the right texts for making clear the value of strategies?
Choose some challenging texts very carefully in which the key strategies are likely to be elicited and helpful. (Provide key background knowledge and/or anticipation guides and/or KWL exercises, as needed, so that the focus is on comprehension.)
Do my students understand the difference between self-monitoring understanding and knowing what they might do when understanding does not occur?
Distinguish metacognitive self-monitoring from comprehension strategies. Metacognition precedes use of reading strategy: I have to realize that I am not getting it first.
Am I attending to the fewest, most powerful comprehension strategies for academic literacy?
Focus on at most 3-4 comprehension strategies that underscore key aspects of text meaning-making (e.g. summarizing, main idea, questioning the text, author purpose).
Am I helping them build a flexible repertoire instead of teaching strategies in isolation?
Teach two strategies back to back in a gradual release way, but then ask students to compare the strengths and weaknesses of each (and as compared with others already taught and practiced) with different texts, to make clear that flexible self-prompted use is the aim.
Do students have sufficient general understanding of the strategies (which is key to transfer)?
Generalize from using each strategy to the strengths and weaknesses of all of them. (Re-visit such anchor charts and edit them as further insight emerges.)
Am I doing enough ongoing formal assessment of student comprehension, strategy use, and tolerance of ambiguity?
Constantly formatively assess student comprehension of new texts, with gradual lessening of prompts and reminders. Assess for comprehension; for a self-analysis and self-assessment by the student of what strategies were used, with what benefits; and degree of persistence in face of difficulties. Keep eliciting all lingering misconceptions: focusing only at the word level, rigid use of only one strategy, no strategy.
Some thoughts on Question #1: Do students understand the real point of academic reading?
As a number of quotes in this series suggest, many students do not understand either the point of reading deeply or how it actively occurs in their minds. This is a key issue: until and unless the performance goal is crystal-clear, we can predict that many students will in good faith yet unwittingly do the wrong things.
For instance, we learned in the research that non-expert readers tend to focus almost exclusively on word by word reading; and see comprehension, therefore as about the question: did you understand all the words? They need constant instruction, reminders, and (eventually) critical feedback that this is NOT the goal. (Hence, my Kant example in Post #1)
That’s why I wrote the first post in the series, more generally: we need to understand what readers actually do when we ask them to ‘read’ (without prompting them to do specific things while reading). Scary, true story: I taught in a fine academically-demanding HS. Back in the day, when the 11th and 12th-grade courses were all electives, this boy said he wanted to drop my course after the first week (which was legal, if I gave permission). When I asked why, he said: well I just can’t memorize that many pages each night.
That’s what he thought reading was – in the 11th grade of a good academic school.
So, we have to combine Question #1 with Question #8 – ongoing formative assessment – not just of comprehension but process.
Some instructional advice. A great way into making clear the point of reading is to give older students Aesop’s Fables–with the Morals removed. Use this as a key model for the year: the point of the story is not about foxes, goats, or hares; the point is a general life lesson that we are to infer from the story. Model it once, do it as a group once, then ask students to take a new Fable and write out the moral. Then do a think, pair, share with friendly arguments about the pros and cons of each moral. Use this activity as needed throughout the year to remind students that drawing inferences about text is the ‘game’ of reading for meaning.
Expand the activity by using allegories, satires, New Yorker cartoons, advertisements, etc. to keep reinforcing the view that our job is active inferencing that leads to defensible meaning. For instance, someone sent me this recently which can be used as a quick formative assessment:
(I like this example because even if you supply the background knowledge, the comprehension challenge remains. Which is why background knowledge is necessary but not sufficient, core knowledge folks!!)
QAR by Raphael is one of the earliest and long-lasting books/programs to help teachers and students understand the difference between literal and inferential reading. Given a question, where are the answers found–in the text or in my head? It can be a vital resource for teachers in helping the struggling secondary student understand what inferential reading is about.
See also What Is SQ3R?
Socratic seminar and its variants offer another way to make clear that meaning-making is the students’ job–and that others will often come to very different meanings than we did. The critical understanding in the seminar is that there is no one ‘correct’ meaning – but some meanings are better than others, i.e. supported by evidence and a coherent and thorough account of that evidence.
Bottom line for Principle #1: Ensure that students know what the real desired performance is called “reading” and assume that they do not really understand what good reading is and requires.