Have you ever started to read, flipped page after page, tracked each word, maybe even spoken the words out loud, only to realize at the end of a passage or chapter you have no idea what you just read? If the answer is yes, you’re not alone.
When my children were little and we were reading bedtime stories, I’d sometimes find myself in a complete sleep-deprived daze. The words were coming out of my mouth but I was lost in other thoughts. It can happen to any of us, regardless of how well we read. Maybe we’re distracted, the story or concepts are boring, or maybe we need more information for the text to make sense.
Children and teens can experience this disconnect between the act of reading and comprehension. Unfortunately, as children age, their reading compression becomes problematic and affects all areas of their learning. The older a child gets, the more they are expected to read. If it’s hard, the less they may want to.
As parents and teachers, we need to make sure all students practice active reading. This practice helps readers pay attention to what they are reading and if they lose their understanding, know what they can do to find it again. A good reader engages with the text. Reading strategies help children who struggle to understand what they are reading, engage.
I experience a disconnect between the words on the page and my comprehension when I try to quickly read through medical or tax documents. It also happens when a distracting thought takes my attention away. Because I am not paying attention, I continue to flip the pages. I look like I’m reading. Eventually, I realize what has happened and because I am an experienced reader I know if I want to understand what I was trying to read I have to re-focus, go back and re-read. I may need to look up words or information or look for context clues to help me understand a word’s meaning. If I don’t re-engage with the text, I know I will not understand what I’ve read.
Struggling readers often experience a similar disconnect. They are looking at the words, flipping pages, maybe even reading the words out loud. They look like they are reading, but they don’t understand part or all of what is being said.
The problem is readers who struggle don’t know what to do (or that there are things to do) in order to access the information they’re trying to understand. The not knowing turns into frustration, and many may begin to loathe reading and try to avoid it.
When I taught middle and high school English, I came across a lot of students who had technically been reading for a while but didn’t understand a good amount of what they read. At the start of the year, if I asked how many students read a chapter in their textbook or novel and realized after they’d finished reading and they needed to answer questions that they had no idea what they just read. The room always filled with raised hands.
If I asked the same kids if while they were reading, they could see a movie playing behind their eyelids, very few hands would go up. Many of my students didn’t visualize while they were reading. They didn’t know how to pay attention to the important inner dialogue readers use to check their comprehension. And they’d never found themselves in the reading zone- the place people who love to read get lost whenever they find a good book. My students also didn’t know there were ways to help them become stronger readers. By the time they got to middle or high school, many felt like they would always struggle.
The key to helping readers find success is encouraging reading, but many also need good reading strategies so they understand what they are reading. Good reading strategies are practiced while the reader is reading a book they enjoy. The strategies engage the reader and help them pause just long enough to check their comprehension without stifling the story.
The first thing we need to do is let students know that readers who understand what they are reading do a few important things (whether they realize they do them or not).
Readers Who Understand What They Are Reading-
Good reading strategies create an internal dialogue in a reader’s head and allow students to assess information so that when a word, sentence, or chunk of text doesn’t make sense (when they feel lost) they know what to do.
To help a reader use these strategies independently, begin by letting the reader choose a book they want to read. When practicing with a group/class of students, choose a high-interest novel or piece of text that engages the students. Read the book to the students or take turns reading out loud and practice the strategies as you read. The strategies can be used and practiced in any order, but they are all necessary.
When practicing- read a little, pause, use a good reading strategy. Repeat.
Use the questions below or come up with your own to guide readers through each reading strategy.
Does the character remind you of someone? Do you have similar interests to anyone in the story? Is the setting familiar? Does the plot remind you of another story?
Describe what has happened so far. Describe the setting, character, conflict.
Encourage the reader to tap into their curiosity while they are reading and listen for the internal voice that says, Wait, what just happened?
Questioning can also look like, Why did the character do that? What is going to happen to the character? Why did the character have to die?
What do you think is going to happen next?
Read between the lines. Why do you think the character said or did what they did? What clues are there to prove what we know or believe?
What do you like, dislike, think about a character, conflict, description, or something that has happened in the book?
What words, facts, options seem especially important? What do we need to remember or pay attention to?
Choose a passage with a lot of description. Have the reader close their eyes and picture everything in the text. Talk about the images, draw the images, invite readers to create a movie in their mind.
Struggling readers need to know there are concrete ways to help them understand what they are reading. Reading strategies offer readers, no matter what text they are trying to access, opportunities to pause and engage in the reading.
Help struggling readers to gently use these strategies often and in short amounts of time. Once the strategies become familiar, they will use them, like proficient readers do, without even thinking about them.
If your child is struggling with reading comprehension, I offer online reading classes through Outschool. Geared and differentiated for all types of learners, we read, discuss, write, and process together using high-interest young adult literature. For more information, head here.