Encouraging Students to Read for Deeper Comprehension
Attentive coaching and carefully crafted assessments guide high school students toward literacy skills that last a lifetime.
We’ve all had moments when a student has read an assigned document or chapter but retained little. Whether they didn’t take the time to look up new words, seek help for confusing portions, or reread conceptually or linguistically demanding sections, the results are often clear when you check for understanding: The student’s responses might be correct but lack nuance or complexity.
Good reading is a learned skill, and it’s particularly challenging when distractions are plentiful. Practice helps students read in a mindful manner.
Scaffolding and the First Read
Sometimes the size of a reading intimidates students. Break up the reading into manageable chunks. After each chunk, ask a single question or give a short comprehension quiz. This strategy can be particularly helpful for students who have learning disabilities or struggle to read for other reasons.
Students often find it advantageous to just read a new text without having to take notes, annotate, or think about an assessment—an initial, unencumbered feel for substance and language can set them up well for deeper understanding later. Encourage students to take that first pass at texts or passages aloud in class, without stopping to analyze; you can clarify points and help with pronunciation along the way.
After that once-over read, have students read again; then they’re primed to read for nuance. At this point, you can incorporate some of the recommendations below.
Annotating the Text
Annotation, or text talk, helps students conduct a dialogue with reading materials. This conversation can take many forms.
If you’re using digital resources that allow students to write on the text, encourage them to define unknown words, ask questions, or make comments in the margins, or use symbols to express surprise, pleasure, anger, confusion, or agreement.
Font colors or highlighting can also help them connect with the digital text. Sometimes a standard color system is helpful—for example, pink for key points, green for confusion, and yellow for quotes. Students can also highlight in separate colors facts or phrases that they think will definitely be on the test or might be on the test.
If students have a physical notebook, they can use it to do the following:
- Define unknown words.
- Write down the two or three most important facts from each of the reading’s subheads.
- Complete a KWL chart for the lesson (or each portion of the lesson).
- Implement a note-taking strategy such as the Cornell Strategy or any other method while reading the text.
You can periodically check and grade physical notebooks too.
Short Written Responses
I’m a fan of short writing assessments—even ones that are just a sentence. When students decipher concepts simply and succinctly, they’re primed to contemplate what they read at a deeper level. Summarizing, for instance, obliges them to read the text several times, identify key concepts and main points, and decode complex passages.
Try asking students to summarize a lesson or chapter in five to seven sentences. If the reading is broken up into sections, ask them to summarize each section in a single, grammatically correct sentence. Students can read their sentences or share them on the board.
Fill-in-the-blank notes or questions rarely rise above Webb’s Depth of Knowledge Level 1, “basic recall of information.” Nonetheless, they can be an important first step in reading comprehension.
Try giving students a rudimentary exercise or even worksheet in which they fill in missing words related to the assigned reading. For example, I give students a “guided reading” that requires them to answer very basic questions or complete fill-in-the-blank questions that correlate identically to the reading.
You can also try a comprehension quiz that demands a close reading of the text. With a mix of multiple-choice, matching, and fill-in-the-blank questions, the quiz shouldn’t require strategic or extended thinking—students will only need to demonstrate the basics by locating and reproducing information in a straightforward manner.
Depth of Knowledge Level 1 assignments work best as a stepping-stone for further analysis.
Oral assessments in the style of an informal conversation also work. After students complete a reading, ask a series of prepared questions; unprepared follow-ups and queries can also be effective and more natural. With this approach, students tend to read the material carefully, knowing they might be put on the spot.
When preparing the questions, keep track of the pages where students find the answers to the questions. If a student has difficulty answering a question, I say, “Read page 32. I’ll get back to you in a few minutes.” Then, I move on to another student, making sure to circle back to the original student after allowing enough time for them to find the answer.
When students create their own assessments using an assigned text, they often read in a new and dynamic way. Ask them to create their own study guides and reading comprehension quizzes for their classmates.
Their reading comprehension quizzes can consist of fill-in-the-blank, multiple-choice, and matching questions. If you want to challenge students even more, introduce them to Webb’s Depth of Knowledge and ask them to create a few questions that satisfy one of the higher levels of thinking.
Teachers are accustomed to reading, we like reading, and for many of us reading is easy. This is not the case with all of our students. Before we employ any strategies, we first need to empathize with those for whom reading does not come so naturally.