Understanding Reading

by Karen Birt


“I read it, but I don’t remember any of it!” the student exclaimed. And I understood. Although I am an avid reader, how many times have I found my eyes skimming over the page while my mind is elsewhere? For pleasure reading, this may not matter, but in the educational setting, what a student reads needs to stay in his mind and be understood.

Educator Cris Tovani says that students need to know and understand why they are reading so that they can determine what is important, what they need to remember, and what strategies they should use to comprehend the content. Otherwise, they are just reading words and will think everything is important. In his book I Read It, But I Don’t Get It, Tovani gives the following “access tools” teachers can use to help students organize and synthesize their thoughts as they read.

The first tool is thinking aloud. Most teachers have learned to participate silently during student reading, even reacting to what the student may be reading aloud. The teacher can extend this mental thinking to verbal thinking, telling the students what is going on in the teacher’s mind to help the students learn how to comprehend text.

To do this, you as the teacher can choose a short piece of text: the first page of a story or a difficult section of a textbook. If possible, the text should be projected on a screen and each student receive a paper copy. Then you read the text out loud, stopping often to share your thoughts. Point to the words in the text that trigger your thinking. Don’t be afraid to do this without practicing—your hesitancy will mimic how your students feel. Choose what to model based on the content. For a mystery, you might infer what will happen next. For science or social studies, ask questions. Connect information from one concept to the next for math, and give background history for literature or history.

A second access tool is to mark the text. If the student is using a personal workbook, the marking can be done directly in the book; if the student is using a shared textbook, the marking can be done on sticky notes and placed in the text. You as the teacher can direct the student to mark the text with notes and highlighting. Not only does this process helps students pay attention and not daydream, it helps them remember what they read.

Depending on the age of the students, you can suggest different codes. A younger student might just write a one-word topic of a paragraph on a sticky note or even draw a picture of the topic and put it to the side of the page. An intermediate student might write a sentence telling the main idea of a section and put it at the top of the page. Older students can highlight important information and develop a code of symbols to insert, such as BK beside something that is background knowledge, ? beside text that they don’t understand, or MI beside a sentence that explains the main idea. Different colors of highlighters can also be used to code different categories of material. And again, you as the teacher may want to model this for the students first, ideally by projecting text and marking it on a whiteboard. Not only does this engage the student while reading, it also provides an easy way to review material for a test.

So the next time a student—or even you the teacher—says “I don’t remember what I read,” try one of these tools. You may be surprised at how engaged your students become with the reading, even the most reluctant of readers.

(Source: Tovani, Cris. (2000). I Read It, But I Don’t Get It. Stenhouse Publishers.)

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CONTRIBUTOR: Karen Birt

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