George Lucas Educational Foundation
A young woman reads a heavily annotated book.

6 Techniques for Building Reading Skills—in Any Subject

Students need good reading skills not just in English but in all classes. Here are some ways you can help them develop those skills.
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As avid lovers of literature, teachers often find themselves wanting to impart every bit of knowledge about a well-loved text to their students. And this is not just an ELA issue—other disciplines also often focus on the content of a text. However, teaching reading skills in English classes and across the disciplines is an almost guaranteed way to help students retain content. Unfortunately, the tendency to focus on the content is a real enemy to the ultimate goal of building reading skills.

Without a repertoire of reading strategies that can be applied to any text, students are being shortchanged in their education. In order to teach students to read effectively, teachers must be sure that they are not simply suppliers of information on a particular text but also instructors of techniques to build reading skills. Here are some ideas on how to incorporate reading skills lessons into a curriculum.

Teach Close Reading Skills

Guide students in annotation by directing them to do more than highlight or underline. Encourage students to have a conversation with the text by jotting notes on the text while reading—this keeps students engaged and often increases comprehension. Annotations can include:

  • Defining new words
  • Asking questions
  • Coding recurring words and themes
  • Making personal connections to the text
  • Citing current events
  • Highlighting heading and subheadings
  • Summarizing paragraphs
  • Chunking
  • Categorizing information
  • Numbering and ordering
  • Drawing pictures

The list of possibilities is endless—the point is to have students form their own process when approaching a text. But don’t be afraid to give students specific annotation guidelines such as “annotate the writer’s characterization techniques” or “find examples of . . .” to help them focus. Annotations also help students identify which strategies work best for them as they try to process and understand information. The clip “Girls Read Comic” from The Big Bang Theory is a great way to introduce the concept of reading closely and its importance.

Appeal to the Senses

While reading is the work of the mind, incorporating the senses provides extra reinforcement for students who are still growing their skills. Reading passages aloud and verbalizing questions you would mentally ask while reading can be a great benefit to students. Students often have no idea how to ask questions, what type of questions to ask, or the frequency of questions, so modeling this skill is invaluable. This can be further reinforced especially for visual learners by using a document camera or overhead projector to write questions, mark key words and phrases, and interact with a text. And as always, encourage students to read with a pen or pencil in hand.

Guide Students in Setting Reading Goals

While writing goals are used regularly in the classroom, students do not assess personal reading skills on a regular basis. Begin the year by having students write a reader’s biography to gain insight into their reading habits, struggles, and successes; this serves as a foundation for discussions on setting reading goals. After reading a novel, nonfiction text, short story, or poetry unit, help students evaluate their reading skills: Did you feel confident reading the text? Why or why not? What parts of the text gave you trouble? Could you have used a different strategy to make reading the text easier? Students should evaluate goals on a regular basis and create new goals based on their needs and growth.

Vary Text Length

When approaching a particularly difficult text, break it up and offer it in shorter segments. Students often become discouraged with lengthy texts that require intense concentration. Giving smaller segments allows the students to digest chunks in pieces, acquire academic vocabulary, and build confidence.

Offer Opportunities for Choice Reading

Simply put, the best way to improve reading is to read, and students are more likely to read when they have a choice in the reading. Newsela and CommonLit offer a variety of nonfiction articles for choice (and CommonLit includes fiction as well); both sites include articles with various grade levels and across multiple disciplines. Classroom libraries built from donations, garage sales, and thrift shops encourage students to take books for personal reading. Ask students about their interests and make recommendations. Reading for pleasure builds transferable skills for content reading and should be encouraged, including in class.

Assess Content and Skill

Students should be able to demonstrate their skills in assessment, whether it’s formal or informal, formative or summative. Recall and comprehension questions are a good way to check for basic understanding, but teachers should then move to the harder how and why questions. Choose activities that require students to dig deep into a text, such as:

  • Facilitate a socratic discussion.
  • Create a playlist for a character.
  • Write a formal essay.
  • Make a meme for a character.
  • Present a mini-TED talk on research inspired by a text.
  • Create a mind map, literary 3x3, or infographic.

Most teachers already incorporate skill building in their classes to some degree; however, taking time to discuss and actively engage students in the process will keep skill development at the forefront of learning. The result will be students who not only make gains in reading but also have an understanding of how to become better readers.

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Tan Huynh's picture

Thank you, Anabel, for sharing these cross-content reading reminders. I especially like the close reading list you provided.

I like Kelly Gallagher's Deeper Reading process from his book with the same title. The process is basically as follows:

1. First draft reading: the teacher reads a section of the text aloud to "level the playing field"
2. Second draft reading: the teacher sends the students BACK to the text to find something specific (a symbol, a literary device, an event, etc)
3. Collaborative discussions: students work in small groups to discuss what they found and construct meaning together
4. Metaphor response: Use metaphor to help students think deeply about the ideas in the text.

I wrote about it extensive in this article

My FAVORITE reading approach is called Visible Reading. It's a blend of close reading with the workshop model. As I read the text aloud, I explain the reading decisions I make as a reader. Then I have students practice applying that strategy to construct meaning of the text. Students work in small groups to create meaning. Explaining the strategy that I use and letting them apply it to a shared text makes the reading decisions proficient readers make more visible.

I wrote about it extensively in this article and it includes videos of me teaching the process to my English learners.

sandracarswell's picture

"Classroom libraries built from donations, garage sales, and thrift shops encourage students to take books for personal reading."
Why do I read so many articles like this that don't even mention the school library as a source of reading material? Do you have any idea how much $ and time is spent to maintain an up-to-date collection of quality literature and, yes, high interest books, along with non-fiction to support content areas? And here we are, another article telling teachers to get donations of old books and shop thrift shops and garage sales. Maybe kids don't like to read old smelly used paperback books and if that is all they are offered, they might not even want to read.

Keith Schoch's picture
Keith Schoch
Sixth Grade Reading/LA Teacher from Bedminster, NJ

I don't think any teachers dispute the importance of the school library, but in too many cases schools have cut back or cut out the school librarian, and teachers and students are not allotted time to visit their school libraries. Then much of the onus of establishing a library falls on the classroom teacher. The schools themselves will make the argument that students can use the public library, but I suspect that even fewer students find the time and means to do that. For those schools that do employ full-time librarians with hours of access for everyone - well, then, no excuse not to take full advantage of what the library/media center provides.

Sangar Balisany's picture
Sangar Balisany
English Language Teacher and ELT practitioner

Thank you for reminding these techniques. They look intertwine with Extensive Reading characteristics.

Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
Middle school teacher

These are helpful suggestions, but there's a flip side, too: teachers shouldn't get so focused on teaching "reading skills" that the content becomes secondary. Why do adults read? It's not because we want to "make inferences" or "identify the main idea." We read because we want to find out something, or because we want to have an experience, or both. The skills we employ are a means to an end, not the end itself.

mike's picture

I like your response. In the end, we do enhance and develop our reading skills as a byproduct of learning the topic at hand. Also, most students already bring some reading strategies to subject matter reading. At a certain point in school reading to learn (versus learning to read) become increasingly the objective. Additionally, teacher discussion of salient points in the reading shows students what is important although it is more subtle and tacit if reading skills are not outwardly focused upon. Discussion and recall questions in textbooks do the same thing but are not as socially interactive as classroom discussion.

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