Reading Comprehension Strategies for Non-readers

From my own experiences, what I’ve found most helpful with working with poor readers are the pre-reading strategies or preparatory work that we can do with students to really “hook” them into a piece of text.  I recently had the task of teaching a 6-7 grade class (of all non-readers and behavior problem students) about the 3 main types of volcanoes.  Rather than just get into the 2 paragraphs, I began with a website that showed them video clips and photos of different volcanoes erupting.  I know they didn’t have much background knowledge of volcanoes; I know they didn’t have good strategies for coming up with questions about a piece of reading, so I needed to give them visuals which would stimulate some ideas or connections for them.  They thought it was so cool—one student said, “you mean there’s different kinds of volcanoes?” and they were into it; they wanted to know the three types.  We read (the 1st grade level text) about the 3 main types and then looked at the pictures and video clips again to match the types with the real photos/videos.  I am certain they never would have even bothered to be interested without that “visual hook,” that thing that needed to be done to capture their interest and prepare them for the reading.  When I wanted to go back to review the three types of volcanoes the next day, I reminded them of the pictures and video clips that they saw to help them remember.

One thing I find difficult to teach to students who are poor readers is the meta-cognitive stuff about reading.  Some of them can hear themselves stumble when they read out loud when something doesn’t make sense, and they go back.  I think the RAP (read, ask what’s important, put it in your own words) strategy will work well for that too.  This strategy has helped me teach them the idea of paraphrasing—so if they can paraphrase what they read then I can be reasonably sure they are understanding and monitoring their understanding.

Questioning during reading is something I’ve become very practiced at.  My students have become very good at answering my “how” and “why” questions.  I want to show them how they can find the answers to the different kinds of questions.  Break questions down into “in the book” and “in my head” questions.  In my classroom we keep a list of questions everyone asks as we read.  For example, when we were reading The Iliad, some of the questions my students came up with were “Will Paris die?”; “Will Achilles die?”; “Who was good and who was bad?”; “Why was Paris called a coward?”; “who will win the war?”  Then I can work with them further on how to better discover the answers to the questions—will we find the answer in the book or will we have to think about it?  Then I can ask them, “will we need information from the story to think about it or can we answer it without the book?”  I want to be able to get them to a point where they can generate questions for each other without my prompting.  Learning to distinguish between kinds of questions will help them in their other subject areas too. Teaching them to think about reading isn’t just teaching them to think about reading—it’s teaching them to think about the world.  I always love when one or more of them say, “ok, so now Dawn is going to ask us how this character is like a real person and what advice would we give them if we met them blah blah blah,” and they do it with a bit of exasperation and sarcasm because I always ask it and they are so sick of hearing it, but they do it– and I’ve made them think about things in the world that are different from what they are used to.

One thing we are fortunate enough to be able to do in a small, alternative setting is to help generalize reading strategies through the other subject areas.  Students at ONTOP take different classes every day (like they would in a mainstream high school). But one of our goals is to focus on literacy—get them to read and think at higher levels than they do now so they won’t feel so intimidated in a high school class.  When teachers teach a reading strategy or a vocabulary strategy then the other teachers in the building will also model and use that strategy in their subject area.  There are only 6 teachers, so it’s easy to collaborate and we have support for each other—it makes it easy to give the students as much exposure to strategies as possible.  This is one of the main things that helps our students learn to read and comprehend more quickly.  We don’t need all those reading accommodations that the students needed in mainstream education because we use text that they can read and have the time to teach them strategies and expose them across subject areas—you just can’t get that kind of package deal in a mainstream high school classroom where the goal is to get through the curriculum rather than teach the student how to read.  Learning and practicing strategies for reading helps the students gain confidence and self-esteem which will make sitting in a mainstream high school class less intimidating.  A couple of years ago I had a student say to me, “you tricked me into liking reading.”  He became the first in his family to graduate from high school.

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