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Tools for Teaching: Developing Active Readers

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
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Adults forget all that they do while reading. We are predicting, making connections, contextualizing, critiquing, and already plotting how we might use any new insights or information. Yep, we do all that when we read.

As teachers, we need to train students in each of these skills, and begin to do so early on. I was recently in a second-grade classroom where 70 percent instruction was in English and 30 percent in Spanish. Most of the children spoke Spanish as their first or home language.

As the students sat on the carpet and the teacher read to them, she'd pause every few minutes so students could ask questions or make a comment. Every student would start her/his comment by saying, "I would like to make a text-to-text connection, or I would like to make a text-to-self connection..." It was clear that these young children had been taught this analysis skill; they had been given a strategy and language to go deeper in the text -- and this an age where children are still learning to read.

In the Classroom

So the message is clear: Children, regardless if they are in the stage of reading to learn or learning to read, need structured opportunities to engage with text in deep and meaningful ways. Whether your students are seven or seventeen years old, here are a handful of really great strategies to build those active reading skills:

1. Previewing Text and Vocabulary

Before reading, look at any titles, subheadings, charts, graphs, and captions. Talk out loud as a whole group, inviting students to make predictions about what they are going to read. Scan the text and ask students to point out words or phrases that are new to them, confusing or they wonder about at first glance. Look at the structure of the text: Is it funny, sad, realistic? How do we know? Is it fiction -- a poem, a story? How do we know? Is it non-fiction -- a letter to someone, a newspaper article? How do we know? Providing students with knowledge of the text structure and its features will help them with comprehension and to identify the author's goals or intent.

2. Reading with a Purpose

This strategy confronts the passive reading approach. Rather than tell students to "just read" (which results in low recall), we say, "Here's your mission as you read. Look for..." They can be reading closely in search of: humor, author's purpose, use of literary devices (such as foreshadowing, imagery), facts, confusion, and context clues for new words.

3. Marking Text

These steps for marking the text come from AVID: a) number paragraphs, b) circle words, phrases, names, dates that stand out, and c) underline author's claims and important information connected to those claims. The final step is to teach students how to write in the margins (asking questions, for example).

4. Making Connections

Teach students the text-to-self, text-to-text or text-to-world strategy talked about earlier. When you read as a whole group, model it often: This reminds me of (my birthday party, a poem we read, that snowstorm last year).

5. Summarizing

We often expect students to do this one without providing the necessary support or models. Think how hard summarizing is for even adults and then think about students who are still in the stage of decoding. Here are two strategies I have found effective with both children and adolescents: Magnet Summary and Sum it Up. Remember to model these summarizing tools in class, followed by guided practice before requiring them to summarize on their own.

One of the ultimate goals for all teachers (regardless of grade or content) is to prepare students to read deeply and critically on their own, just as adults do.

How are you equipping your students for this task? We'd love to hear from you! Please share in the comment section below.

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dena stanley's picture
dena stanley
Literacy Coach in a year-round elementary school

A couple of tweaks to Rebecca's strategies: 1. Most students cannot mark up the pages of their books, so use sticky notes, or bookmarks with writing space on them. 2. When reading aloud, stop once or twice during the book for students to make connections, but too much stopping and starting reduces the flow of the story. One task that today's students have is to build their stamina for listening and reading for longer periods of time without interruption.

2seetheglobe's picture

I teach a grade 4/5 class at an international school in West Africa where I have students from all over the world with varying levels of reading ability and motivation. It is crucial that I make reading an active, hands-on, engaging process so they are hooked from week 1.

One active approach I use is arts integration, in which kids construct/demonstrate their understanding through one of the arts. For example, students use the drama technique of tableau (a frozen pose) to demonstrate the meaning of a vocabulary word or the main emotion is a crucial scene from a story. Or they use story dramatization to reenact a scene from a novel we just read, supplementing the scene with additional dialogue and action that demonstrates what the author was saying "between the lines." Or they participate in a short improv piece where, on the spot, a group of them act out what might happen next in the story, or after the story ends.

When my students recently wrote about how drama helped them in reading, they made comments such as, "Story dramatization put me in the character's shoes so I understood him better," and "It made me think deeper about the story," and "It made the story come alive."

Since arts integration gives equal weight to both the academic subject and the arts area, my students are also able to learn theatre skills--using your theatre tools (voice, imagination, body), listening, concentrating, critically thinking, acting/reacting--which obviously benefit them in real life too.

I used these techniques in the U.S. when I could get away with it, but it became more and more difficult to do as teaching to a high-stakes test became more dominant (despite the fact that my students also had high scores on these tests). Now that I'm teaching abroad I am free to teach as creatively as I can, so I use arts integration daily. I blog about teaching (and living) in Mali at: if you want more details.

It doesn't take an extensive background in theatre to use these methods as there are plenty of resources available. One of the best I've discovered is "A Dramatic Approach to Reading Comprehension: Strategies and Activities for Classroom Teachers" by Lenore Kelner and Rosalind Flynn.

Debora Wondercheck's picture
Debora Wondercheck
Executive Director, Founder of Arts & Learning Conservatory

Active participation of students is really important in classroom , if students are not active then the whole teaching goes in waste ,but how to make them active and your blog is the answer truly we cannot decide how to engage students but if we follow the above it will be lot more easier thank you.

Laurie Rappeport's picture
Laurie Rappeport
Distance Learning teacher with JETS Israel

Asking students to use predictions as a way of engaging them in a lesson's subject matter is a strategy that will work well with any lesson, not only reading.

valencia's picture
seventh grade ELA teacher

I think that you offer some great strategies to use. We started a summer reading program at the middle school that I work in, which will extend reading practices for the students during the summer. The students will have to cmplete a poject pertaining to the book they are reading, and it will count as a grade when they return for the new school year. The book will also help them receive AR points.

Caroline's picture
elementary teacher

We cannot write in our texts, so I have students write down questions or words they are unfamiliar with while we read. We have the opportunity to go back and clarify for understanding before students reread the story. I front-load the vocabulary and allow students to "act out" the words for their classmates. I agree that too much stopping reduces the flow. They seem to enjoy the process more if I stop less.

Claudine's picture
4/5th grade inclusion teacher from South Florida

Students need to be explicitly taught the skills that they need to become proficient readers. For this reason, I love the Reading Workshop model by Lucy Caulkins. Each day, a new skill or a strategy is taught which builds off a previously taught skill or strategy. In this way, they are developing and strengthening their repertoire of skills and strategies to use during their reading time regardless of where they are reading. Before students are sent off to independently read, they've have watched me model the skill, actively practiced with a partner, and listened to responses from classmates who also have just practiced. It works because it's not a here is a strategy to use in your reading now go and read instead it gives the students a purpose for reading and sets them up for success. In reading with a purpose and thinking critically about the book, they put into practice the skills and strategies needed.

The proof that it is being done is the work that you see on their sticky notes or in journals. It is amazing to see the quality of responses they are making. Also, the sticky notes and journals are great tools for assessing the skills or strategy students are or are not using.

Koryne Warren's picture
Koryne Warren
Preschool teacher for Irvington Board of Education

Excellent strategies that were provided and I would love to implement some of them with my students.Since I love to read , I enjoy helping others learn how to read.

Joenelle Gordn's picture

Firstly, you have to activate prior knowledge to give the students an anchor a reference point whilst reading. I have proven while i was on a micro-teaching exercise that Many students do not check whether they understand fully what they are reading, many just want to get through the text.
Monitoring comprehension is essential to successful reading and students need to be taught how to do it and actively monitor so they can grasp the point at which they have stopped understanding.Monitoring comprehension helps motivate students to continue reading because it: 1. Verifies students predictions of what the text will be about from all the clues they gathered before starting reading, 2. Checks that the student is fixing 'mis-comprehensions' whilst reading. In addition, to motivate reading and improve comprehension, teachers and parents must request students to formulate their own reading comprehension questions. When they reach points they do not understand ask them to compose questions that other students can answer to help the reach understanding.
Students will always be more motivated and comprehend more if they have background knowledge in what they are reading are reading and they understand the purpose of the reading comprehension exercise.Think aloud is another good strategy to use when you want students to talk. The think-aloud strategy asks students to say out loud what they are thinking about when reading, solving math problems, or simply responding to questions posed by teachers or other students. This strategy makes an excellent addition to the learning methods taught in your curriculum. To encourage critical reading, teachers should ask students questions about the text before, during, and after they read. This method is useful for most subjects, from reading to social studies, and is an excellent way to structure literature homework as one of my lecturer states. Teachers can also setup a "reading workshop'. This strategy gives students the opportunity to choose the books they read and to discuss their reading individually and in small groups. Readers are leaders and teachers have to make it their utmost duty to get their students to read. The ability to identify the elements of a story (plot, characters, setting, and theme) aids in reading comprehension, leads to a deeper understanding and appreciation of stories, and helps students learn to write stories of their own. Teachers need to make their reading classes fun so students will enjoy reading because most students have it in their minds that reading is boring but most of the time it is the teacher who bore the students.There is so much a teacher can do in reading classes to draw students attention and let them feel a sense of belonging in the class. Last but definitely not the least, i have learnt that visualizing refers to our ability to create pictures in our heads based on text we read or words we hear. It is one of many skills that makes reading comprehension possible. This method is an ideal strategy to teach to young students who are having trouble reading. Educators always remember - teach rather than test comprehension.

Grenard Madrigal's picture
Grenard Madrigal
Web Developer for BirdBrain Science

All of these good, but most notably, #2's pretty awesome. Then, the #4 "text-to-self, text-to-text, or text-to-world" strategy is fantastic! Growing up in GATE classes, we had some really good teachers using all sorts of cool teaching methods, and this is something I had never come across.

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