As an academic success counselor, teachers will often approach me about particular students. Sighing heavily, a teacher laments that the student cannot read or the student does not read. Students who are not engaged or appear unable to meet the academic expectations of the course do discourage teachers who are experts in their subject areas and who are eager to share that expertise with their students. J. Guthrie (2001) observed that “student engagement affected teacher involvement as much as teacher involvement influenced student engagement” (Guthrie, 2001). If this is true, then we need to look closely at the inter-relatedness of teacher involvement and student engagement in order to reduce the frustrations of teachers and students related to reading. As a result of reading and researching, I am convinced that we cannot continue to assume that students know how to read by the time they reach our middle and high school classrooms if we desire their engagement and involvement in our classes (Alvermann, Phelps, and Ridgeway, 2007, p. 4). We must actively, explicitly teach our students pre-, during-, and post-reading strategies that will help them read to learn, to make connections, and to more deeply engage with us and our content.
April Nauman, Ph. D. (2007) observes that “high school students must read, comprehend, and remember information in a variety of high-level content area textbooks, which are packed with new concepts and vocabulary…these expectations occur at a time when students’ motivation to read tends to decline” (p. 31). As I have worked with students struggling to read sections in their history text, I have observed that teaching them to use specific strategies aids not only their comprehension, but also increases their motivation to read. The history text presents two columns of text, at least one chart, and an inset box per page. My students tend to gloss over the pages, skimming for what might be on the quiz that their teachers will inevitably give the day after the pages are to be read for homework. A difficulty that I face as a Learning Specialist is that I cannot choose the assignments and the means of assessments that my students encounter in their classes; I can, however, use those assessments as literacy teaching tools. For example, when a student points out difficulties he faced in responding to questions based on history text reading, I can use that experience to show the student how to actively read the text to learn. Vacca (2002) points out that “continued literacy development is of critical importance because it helps to shape the core strategies by which adolescents learn to negotiate meaning and think critically about the texts in their lives, whether in the context of school or the world outside of school” (p. 186). Students need to see this type of thinking modeled, as it is not an intuitive skill that they activate simply because the learning task demands it.
I have learned that this modeling and guided practice means that I am actively thinking out loud as I read with my students, and that I offer my students a variety of strategies. For example, I can show my students how to use strategies such as KWL charts or SQ3R to set a purpose for reading. I particularly like the SQ3R strategy for use with my students’ history textbook because the students learn to look over the chapter, change section headings into questions, and can at the same time, set up Cornell Notes (two-column notes) or a 5-W Chart (who, what, when, where, why) to use as they read to answer the questions. The most important step in this strategy for my students is the question phase because they tend to not even notice titles and subheadings. Yet, each title, when rephrased as a question, becomes the guide for determining the main ideas in that section of the reading. For some of my students, reading has always been a passive activity, either due to family background (lack of education, lack of involvement, lack of emphasis relative to other activities) or perhaps due to educational experiences (poor instruction, behavioral issues that masked reading difficulties left unaddressed, moving from one school to another preventing engagement promoting reading). For these students, learning how to take notes, summarize, and draw inferences are new skills requiring much guided practice which I can give them during our meetings.
Although, I realize my students may not see their history reading as fun, I have learned that “teachers can affect student motivation to read through explicit reading strategy and reading comprehension strategy instruction and practice” and do so when they “show how, practice, tell why, and tell when” (Mccrudden, Perkins & Putney, 2005). My students need to learn for instance, that “note taking is not simply a way to record facts; it also leads to deeper student engagement and reflection” (Fisher, Frey, & Williams, 2002, p. 72). Metacognition, or thinking about thinking, is the goal of during-reading strategies and therefore, teachers must make a conscious effort to “teach comprehension strategies that empower students to internalize the strategies and to develop a conceptual framework for understanding content area topics” (NASSP, 2008). With this goal in mind, and understanding the difficulties that my students have reading their history textbook, I use active reading strategies that guide their reading. For example, the RAP strategy teaches students to read one paragraph, ask what it says, and put it into their own words before reading the next paragraph. The emphasis in this approach is helping the student recognize that reading the history text book involves new skills which he is in the process of learning and that he actually understands more of the text than he believed he could. My students benefit from looking at the reading assignment in chunks, rather than pages, with each section read to answer a question seen as a chunk of text to be understood and summarized. The notes taken affirm to my students that they have understood what they read; so often they have lamented reading the “whole chapter” but not remembering or understanding anything they had read.
I integrate the use of the RAP strategy with another strategy, Questioning the Author, moving students beyond facts to thinking about why those facts are important. My students have written many reports during their years in school, all of which asked for facts. Now, in high school, it is not enough to know the facts and just the facts. Students have to analyze the facts, relate those facts to prior knowledge, consider how those facts might relate to the future, and develop an understanding of the significance of those facts to their own lives. According to its creators, “Questioning the Author begins by taking stock of what we want students to learn from a text and noticing what might interfere with that understanding,” then “prompts student response to text through such queries as, ‘What is the author trying to say?’, or ‘What did the author say to make you think that?'” (Beck, & McKeown, 2002). To implement these strategies together, as they seem a natural pairing, I first preview the text, noting sections that may pose interruptions in comprehension and preparing questions that will help students over the bumps. As we read the text together, I ask the students questions to engage them in interacting with the text and to monitor comprehension. I may begin with an active comprehension question such as ‘What would you like to know about this chapter’ after reading the title and the first paragraph; then after reading further, I may pose a questioning the author query such as ‘What distinction is the author making here’ at a point where the students may not infer what is needed for full comprehension. This active reading encourages students to “respond to queries by contributing ideas that other students and the teacher may build on, refine, or challenge” (Beck, & McKeown, 2002). In addition, students not only think about the text as I am asking questions such as ‘What do you think the author meant by saying that…,’ but they also observe when I choose to ask the question. I want my students to understand the text, but I also want to model how to think while reading. Ideally, students learn to ask questions themselves while reading. This approach leads my students to an understanding of how to apply the strategies on their own; “modeling, coaching, and fading” provides my at-risk readers “with the scaffolding necessary to incorporate the procedural and conditional knowledge they were learning into their own repertoire of reading strategies” (Dole, Brown, & Trathen, 1996, p. 73). Research emphasizes that the key to effectiveness is to model and guide students through the process; showing students just once and then expecting them to apply any strategy is idealistic, if not simply unfair. Fisher (2001) points to “significant improvement in student quiz scores after graphic organizers had been implemented with teacher guidance” (p. 116). This guidance is on-going and repeated; Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock (2001) caution, “simply directing students what to do, however, is not the same as showing them how to do it” (p. 32). Dole, Brown, and Trathen (1996) further remind us that “with its emphasis on making abstract cognitive thought processes explicit, strategy instruction can be difficult for students to understand, especially if the instruction is not sequenced clearly and systematically” (p. 67). This instruction, meaning modeling and thinking-aloud to show students the process is worth the effort and the time; “long-term instruction of sophisticated comprehension strategies clearly improves student understanding and memory of texts that are read” (Pressley, 2002, p. 291).
Finally, as students learn to preview the text, read for a purpose, asking questions as they read, they are moving toward deeper comprehension that will be demonstrated through the use of post-reading strategies. Our history teachers use an acronym “GRAPES” (geography, religion, achievements, politics, economy, and society) to indicate what students should know about each people-group studied, and this could easily be applied with the Compare and Contrast matrix. The basic idea is that “readers compare and contrast the target concepts listed across the top of the matrix according to attributes, properties, or characteristics listed along the left side” (Vacca, & Vacca, 2005, p. 402). By completing the chart, students focus on the items their teachers are highlighting, and in addition, they create for themselves a study guide for use when preparing for tests or essay assignments. Another post-reading skill that I want my students to develop is the ability to summarize notes and what was read. I, again, use a modeling approach with the whole class first, asking students to contribute sentences, as we summarize a text together. I take an active role and encourage active learning.
Galda and Liang (2003) note that “educators who want to capitalize on the potentially rich experience that seems to motivate students to read…need to carefully orchestrate the questions, tasks, and tests” (p. 270). I take an active role in “planning instruction; establishing the structure necessary for successful implementation; observing, assisting, and guiding students and groups as they work; and assessing and adjusting the process” (Ruddell, 2004, p. 107). As freshmen in high school, my students are no longer learning to read, but as noted earlier, reading to learn, “a matter of meaning-making, problem-solving, and understanding” (Jacobs, 2002, p. 59). Because I work with what content area teachers assign my students, I do not get to choose the students’ textbooks; my explicit teaching of reading strategies, showing and not telling, though, may help my students navigate texts with greater success and confidence.
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