Sunday, January 15, 2012

    Help Them Read, It's Easier than You Think

    Two Essential Prereading Skills:
    Prior Knowledge and Setting a Purpose

    It's no secret that many college students struggle with reading comprehension. We see evidence of their struggle in their inability to contribute to class discussions, their failure to pass a simple assessment, and even in their feedback: "I did the reading! I just don't remember any of it."

    Now, while it is not a professor's chief responsibility to help struggling students become better readers, she can slightly tweak her instruction to help support her students' reading comprehension by helping them use a couple key prereading skills. Here's how: 

    Help your students activate their
    Prior Knowledge
    Skilled readers automatically activate their prior knowledge before they read.

    A reader's prior knowledge consists of his knowledge, beliefs, and experiences that relate to the reading. Prior knowledge is a powerful tool for readers because it helps readers connect new information from the text to existing information, their prior knowledge. Of course, learning only happens when we connect new information to existing information, so a lack of PK will leave a reader floundering, and with no means of making any lasting connections from the reading.

    How do you help your students activate their prior knowledge before reading? I'm so glad you asked! This is the easy part: Activating prior knowledge is as simple as taking two to three minutes at the end of class to introduce your students to the text you have assigned for that night. Concrete examples:
    • Introduce the topic and ask your students to write down everything they associate with that topic. 
    • Give your students a short bit of background information about the author, or the topic, or a particular concept introduced in the text.
    • Before you assign the reading, ask your students one or two essential questions that relate to the text, and have them jot down their responses before they leave. 
    See how easy it is? While these actions are small, they are lasting. Once you plant that idea in their heads, it will grow. Like a fungus.

    Whatever you do, the key is to encourage your students to take a bit of time to set the mood for the upcoming reading. Just as we set the mood when we invite a date over for dinner, we have to set the mood before we read.

    Help your students  
    Set a Purpose for reading

    Skilled readers set a purpose for themselves before they read, and as they read they focus on achieving that purpose.

    A reader's purpose can be anything: to identify the main ideas of the reading, to evaluate the major claims in the text, to record three interesting responses to the reading, or even to ask questions about every major section of the reading.

    Whatever the purpose, this is powerful reading behavior because it helps readers focus on the text, self-evaluate their comprehension as they read, and identify key concepts in the reading.

    Professors can help their students set a purpose in a number of ways. The most obvious is to be very clear about how you plan to use the text in class.
    • Will students be expected to engage in a class discussion about the reading? If so, tell them this, and recommend that they take notes about their reactions while reading the text. 
    • Do you plan to assign a comparative essay about this and another piece? Tell them,  and give them the requirements for the assignment before they read.
    • Is this a major text that you plan to discuss for a number of class meetings? If this is the case, you can have some fun and give different groups of students different purposes for reading. One group can be in charge of identifying major claims, another can identify key concepts or terminology, another can ask discussion questions about the text, and another can make predictions about how the information in this text relates to other concepts they will learn in the course. 
      • You can vary the purposes to meet your needs, and when the class meets again, jigsaw the students into small groups so they have a representative from each purpose in each group. This approach works well with particularly challenging texts that students must understand to do well in the course. 
    For most skilled readers, these probably seem very elementary, and almost too easy to implement to actually be effective. And that's the good news: It really can be this easy. For many of our students, this small bit of guidance is all they need to help them get more out of their reading.

    Believe it or not, many of them go home and read the words you assign without actually paying attention to them. That's right, their eyes go over the words, they decode them, but they don't actually read. Sometimes, they believe that the behavior of going through the motions of reading the text is enough, and that it doesn't matter if they actually understand or recall any of it.

    Others have developed such strong compensatory skills over time that they've completely forgotten how to apply these simple reading skills, and so they never do.

    Whatever the reason, as professors we're in the unique position of gently guiding our students into effective reading behaviors. It doesn't take much class time, and you don't even have to tell them that you're helping them become better readers. In most cases, you can help them activate their prior knowledge or set a purpose in under two minutes.

    The investment is small, but it pays back in large dividends. Imagine a classroom full of students who are actively engaged in discussions about text. Imagine a stack of assessments filled with quality student responses that demonstrate true understanding and application of concepts learned from the reading. It's a wonderful feeling. I know, because it happens in my classroom all the time. And it can happen in your classroom, too.

    Of course, I'm not saying these two small reading skills are all our students need to become skilled readers, but in my opinion, they're two of the most important and effective skills. Add developing metacognition to the mix, and you have what I call The Holy Trinity of reading skills.

    I had the opportunity to do a quick demonstration of the importance of PK and Setting purpose at our last department meeting. We had a great discussion and my colleagues shared some wonderful ideas for helping students apply these skills to course readings. 
     If you're interested, I've included the materials I used:

    The PK passage is a fun way to show just how important a bit of prior knowledge really is:

    I hand out roles to individuals, and then read this passage to illustrate the importance of having a purpose for reading or listening:
    Setting Purpose Passage
    Setting Purpose Roles

    These are the PK and setting purpose pages from the 90-page course packet that I created for my college reading courses. They have a bit more background information about these two specific reading skills:
    Packet Excerpt: Pages on PK and SP

    So please, give them a try. I think you'll see how easy it is to support student success. And really, is there any other reason we're here?


    Melissa S. said...

    Great material Lori!!! May I use these for part of my new teacher training??

    Lori Oster said...

    Thank you, Melissa! Of course you may use them! Email me if you want the full updated packet, too.

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