The push due to the Common Core Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects is to bring more challenging disciplinary texts to our students at all grade levels. Often these complex texts contain vocabulary and background knowledge that very few students bring to the table. Similarly, the sentence structure and writing style of the various disciplines is challenging even for adults. What free reading strategies can teachers use to make reading comprehension more manageable to our students in the texts of each discipline?
Free reading comprehension activities
The best news for educators is that many of the activities that you can use to aid in student comprehension of challenging texts are free. Your best resource is actually going to be your students; the more diverse their backgrounds, including special needs students, the more diverse will be the background knowledge they bring to the table. As teachers we know we often chatter amongst ourselves at faculty meetings because we know that our colleagues may have a firmer grasp of certain subjects. For example, questions regarding RtI are often directed my way due to my experiences on the district committee and my contributions to the district’s RtI handbook. We learn from each other in much the same way as our students do.
Having students talk about what they have read with a peer can draw out some of the nuances in the text that some students caught where others did not. Often we find a student who may not have huge breadth of knowledge has depth of knowledge in a few key areas. Often one of the only ways to keep this variety of student engaged and a contributing member of the class is to utilize their specialized knowledge to afford other students a greater understanding of textual information. This is especially true in my history courses, where there tend to be a couple students in each course that are typically disinterested in school but devour information on one topic, i.e. World War II. Encouraging these students to share their background knowledge is a free reading activity that rewards all stakeholders in the classroom.
Reading with a purpose adds layers of understanding
Asking students to pick up a book and read without any context yields very little understanding and comprehension. Often history students complain that they have to read a chapter several times before they have any idea what it is about. Giving students a task before they begin reading works wonders with their ability to focus on the meaning of a challenging text. I often ask my students to look for something specific in the reading, which places the text into our context and prepares them for a future assignment. I might ask them to identify positives and negatives, rank events that are described in order of importance, or look for an author’s perspective or bias in a complex text.
I came across a new idea this summer while on Pinterest, which I pinned to my Teacher Ideas board. I intend to ask my students to use texting marks on a passage to indicate their perspectives. For example, they might mark segments as omg, lol, or with an exclamation point/question mark, or even an emoticon. I believe this will increase their engagement with the text, indicate to me what they do not understand, and provide them with their purpose to make the text more manageable.
More to come
As the Common Core is fleshed out and school districts and states begin hammering out what their curriculum will look like in the coming years, students will need to make great gains in reading complex texts. Our role as educators in all text-rich disciplines will grow and our repertoire of strategies will need to change in response to our students’ needs. Educators must work together to share successes and prepare our students for college and career. It will be a tremendous amount of work, but will be some of the most worthwhile and rewarding work of our careers.
What is your district or state doing to implement the Common Core? What do you do to help your students navigate complex textual material? Share these things with me on Facebook, Twitter, or in the comments section below.
You might also find these links to other reading comprehension strategies useful: