George Lucas Educational Foundation

Supporting Students’ Meaning-Making in Reading Instruction

Teachers can guide students to connect their interests to class texts and to share their ideas in collaborative discussions.

May 9, 2024
shironosov /iStock

Recently I had the opportunity to immerse myself in the healthy buzz of animated conversation that occurs when meaning-making is at the heart of learning. Sitting in my colleague’s classroom, I found myself thinking about the importance of placing learning in students’ hands—providing opportunities, as my colleague does, for learners to share ideas, explain their perspectives, challenge each other, and refine their thinking. 

Meaning-making  is especially important in reading experiences, as reading is a dynamic process. And so, when reading, my colleague provides learners time to think deeply about topics, share their unique understandings with each other, and build community. 

In today’s educational landscape, meaning-making classrooms may seem like a luxury; after all, we’re in a constant state of competition, whether for learners’ attention or performance on standardized assessments. Yet we must prepare learners to be literate citizens in an information-rich world. This means designing experiences where they learn to be critical consumers of information and active participants in collaborative dialogue. It means providing opportunities to be meaning-makers rather than meaning-receivers. 

Here are several ways to begin.

Start with ‘Why’ 

Building a meaning-making classroom driven by authentic, collaborative dialogue requires prioritizing content and reconsidering what counts as comprehension.

Readers need a purpose, a reason to dig in and find meaning in the text; however, these “whys” should be broad. Consider using an essential question for the larger unit, such as “How do others see the world differently than I do?” Or introduce learners to a larger project or task connected to the text. 

I’ve found that these broader contexts hold learners accountable to their reading but limit the surface level-skimming often associated with guided note activities that don’t underscore a larger purpose.

Activate The Mental Velcro 

Set learners up for success by activating their prior schemas using quick collaborative activities. The goal here is to tap into the text and spark discussion. Marilyn Jager Adams refers to prior schemas as a form of mental Velcro, because they provide spaces for new knowledge to stick. My favorite Velcro activation strategies include interactive anticipation guides (Four Corners or Maȋtre D’) and a quotation mingle.

In an interactive anticipation guide, students consider their stance in regard to teacher-generated prompts or questions and share their thinking with others to pique curiosity and activate their understanding of a topic. In a quotation mingle, learners consider a sentence from the text, then meet with classmates to share their sentences and make predictions. In this activity, learners begin making-meaning before they ever encounter the reading. 

Let Kids Do the Lifting 

Comprehension is about meaning-making, not memorization of facts or transmission of information. Build opportunities for learners to extract their own meaning from text through note-making. When learners make notes, they’re responsible for translating concepts and ideas into their own words (or visual images). This shifts learning from a passive to an active process, leading to greater retention of ideas and concepts, higher engagement, and personally meaningful learning.

If note-making is a new practice in your classroom, consider using a think-aloud and a document camera (a small, flexible presentation device that allows you to display images and objects in real time) to model for learners how to extract meaning from text. For example, you might place a short text under the document camera and annotate in real time, showing learners what you find personally meaningful. Learners at all levels benefit from explicit modeling. 

You might also introduce note-making with a teacher-created text guide. Through scaffolds, a text guide focuses learners on key concepts from the text while holding them responsible for meaning-making. 

Sketchnoting, on the other hand, is an open-ended visual note-making strategy that allows learners to use a mix of words and images to make meaning of the text, further strengthening connections to content. Sketchnoting allows learners to make connections, synthesize, summarize, and focus on the content in ways that are most meaningful to them. 

Give Time to Talk 

It’s important for students not only to make their own meanings of texts but also to share their understandings with others. Dialogue is the most effective means of engagement and helps learners refine their thinking as they negotiate, challenge, and share their ideas. 

When students make meaning of texts, their interpretations are varied. Collaborative dialogue, then, invites learners to develop or deepen their understandings together. And this skill is transferable to life beyond school; when we let kids talk, we extend their engagement beyond answering questions or preparing for a test, promoting deep and critical thinking, which is more reflective of the real world.

Dialoguing about a text may be as simple as a turn-and-talk or other structured thinking routine. These discussions are powerful, can occur frequently, and offer opportunities for all learners to have ample participation. 

Socratic seminars are another avenue for engaging learners in reading-based discussion and exposing them to diverse perspectives. I’ve witnessed kids coming alive during these learner-driven dialogues as they share their ideas with each other. Sentence stems are a useful addition to Socratic seminars to encourage using inviting, affirming language and to scaffold entry points for reluctant participants. Sentence stems I’ve found most helpful include supporting learners to agree, disagree, clarify, or add on to the ideas of others. 

Regardless of the structure you choose, discussion is an integral part of the meaning-making process. 

Establishing a collaborative, meaning-making culture in the literacy classroom doesn’t happen overnight, but if you commit to making these shifts in student participation and engagement, you will soon experience the healthy buzz that permeated my colleague’s classroom, inspiring young learners.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Literacy
  • Curriculum Planning
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use

George Lucas Educational Foundation

Edutopia is a free source of information, inspiration, and practical strategies for learning and teaching in preK-12 education. We are published by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.