Improving Reading Skills Through Talking

Partnering on note taking, a strategy developed for struggling readers, helps middle and high school students process what they read.

Two high school students annotating a text
©Shutterstock/ESB Professional

As a former middle school special education teacher and current tutor of middle and high school students, I often work with older children who struggle immensely with reading and writing tasks. This issue impacts them in every academic area and, if not addressed, can eventually affect their motivation to learn and to come to school. Many students I work with receive extra support in their English or language arts class, but then are on their own or receive less support in their other academic classes.

I find that teaching these students reading strategies is vital to their success. However, when I began doing this, I found that often the reading strategies I use with my more advanced students—the Cornell note-taking system, SQ3R (short for “Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review”), and annotation—were not entirely effective with students who struggle with literacy.

Over time I modified my approach until I arrived at a method that worked well with all students, even those who usually resist any type of reading and writing. It hinges on the fact that most students—even those who don’t enjoy reading—really enjoy talking.

A Reading Strategy for All Learners

Preview: Have students go through the text with a partner before they begin reading, making observations about these guiding questions:

  • What do you notice about the text?
  • What do you observe as you look at the following: pictures, bold or italicized vocabulary words, title, headings, subheadings, and first and last sentences of each paragraph?

When one student makes an observation, their partner makes a tally mark if the observation is accurate. Students compete to see who can come up with more observations—accurate ones—within five minutes.

Read: Then each student will read one paragraph of the text silently. They may read it more than once, until they feel like they understand it. Students who have difficulty with decoding can wear headphones and use a program like the Read&Write extension for Google Chrome that reads aloud highlighted text.

Highlight important information: After reading a paragraph, students look back through it for important information and details. They can highlight these details with a highlighter or, if they’re reading a textbook, use a removable marker-like highlighter tape or a Post-it flag. It’s often useful to mark the Post-its with symbols like a question mark for questions or a star for important details and dates.

Collaborate and discuss: Each member of the team shares the following with their partner:

  • What important details did you find in the paragraph?
  • What questions did you have while reading?
  • Why did the author write this paragraph?
  • How would you summarize the main point of this paragraph using your own words?

Record: Students then reduce their comments to one summary sentence for that paragraph. They should number the paragraphs in the text and record the summary sentence for each one in a Google Doc. Students who have difficulty with language processing can use the voice-to-text feature on Google Docs, which automatically types what you speak into the microphone. Most students are very used to this type of feature from using a cellphone.

This reading strategy creates a set of notes, similar to annotation, where students have written down the most important information from each paragraph. The process of analyzing the text after each paragraph causes them to process the information more deeply than they might usually do when reading, making them more likely to retain and remember it. The interactive nature of the strategy—in working with a partner—and the use of technology make it fun for most students, but the strategy can also be used alone or with a teacher or paraeducator.

Study and Review

Following these steps while reading teaches students a valuable study skill, as the notes they create can be used later to study, write a paper, or review what has been read in order to answer questions. Students can also be taught the additional step of going back to their summary statements and creating a test question to go with each. They should be taught that this step is completed later—it's a way to review their notes.

Reading this way teaches students the thought process they need to use to become better readers and increase their comprehension. Working with a partner makes the strategy more fun for most students and assists those who struggle to find meaning in the text. The finished product creates a study tool that can be used any time a student needs to read and then refer back to that information.