Monday, 5 October 2015

Reading Strategies That Work for Secondary Students

This past weekend I had the pleasure of presenting a session at our local Beginning Teachers Conference.  I love this conference because the delegates are so eager and hungry for support.  I also got to meet a lot of new teachers at our English Language Arts Council booth.

My session focused on reading strategies that can be used to support secondary students.  In my classroom, I would notice time and time again that students required support in order to hove complete comprehension of any complex text that we read in class.  I remember one time in particular.  I was talking about bird imagery in To Kill a Mockingbird and one student called out in class, "but how do you know that?" - they had no idea how we could both read a text and they could completely miss something that was so obvious to me.  The answer to that student's question is that I am a good reader.  So how can I help that student to be a good reader as well?

The answer is that we still need to teach students how to read, even if they are teenagers.  I found a great quote that says, in primary grades students learn to read and in secondary grades students read to learn.  This was a huge a-ha moment for me, and really required me to rethink how I teach.  I have always been a good reader, so it is hard to put myself in the shoes of a struggling reader.  So what are the strategies that I use to help me to understand texts?  I needed to really deconstruct my own reading process, name the strategies that good readers use, and think about how to show students how to practice these strategies.

In my session, I walk teachers through three strategies - a pre-reading strategy, a during reading strategy, and a post-reading strategy - that they can apply to any text that they might be teaching.  I choose a non-fiction piece for all of us to work through together.  The pre-reading strategy that I shared came from one of my favourite literacy resources for older students. When Kids Can't Read by Kylene Beers is one of my top picks as it has tons of sample strategies that have been proven to support struggling readers in the secondary grades.  The strategy that I shared with these new teachers is called "Possible Sentences".

In this strategy, I previewed the text that we will be reading.  I choose a variety of words and phrases from these four categories: people, places, problems, and solutions.  All of these words and phrases must already be familiar to students.  In addition, they must have meaning on their own.  For example, I wouldn't include "Susan" as a person because the students don't know anything about Susan.  I would, however, include "a student" as a person.

Once I have a collection of words and phrases, I project these on the board for students to see.  I ask them to work on their own or with a partner to create five sentences.  They must use up all of the words and phrases on the board, and they may add as many words as they need to those words and phrases.

There are many ways to adapt this activity.  I may use more or less words depending on my students.  I may have them write more or less sentences.  I might have them share their sentences, or I might not.  I might ask students to self-check their sentences for accuracy as they read the text, or I might leave the activity as it is.  The simple act of writing these "possible sentences" has activated several reading strategies used by good readers:

  • Good readers make predictions.  This activity teaches students to make predictions if they don't automatically do so on their own.
  • Good readers make connections to prior knowledge.  This activity teachers students to consider their prior knowledge as they rearrange the given words and phrases into sentences that make sense.
  • Good readers read with purpose.  Struggling readers tend to open a book and look at the words without focus (have you ever read a sentence over and over and realized that you have no idea what you just read?  Imagine the frustration that you would feel if this was the norm.).  This activity gives students a focus because they are now keeping an eye out for the words and phrases that they have previewed.
  • This activity is also a good vocabulary builder as it exposes students to vocabulary and requires them to consider words that would best connect the ideas that they have been given.
Food for Thought... What are your favourite pre-reading strategies to support struggling readers?

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