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Saturday, April 3, 2010

The #1 Skill for Reading Comprehension

I'm often asked, "What do you feel is the most important reading comprehension skill?" If I'm asked this in a workshop, I typically direct the question back to my audience, and participants are eager to share their thoughts. Rarely, though, do I hear what I feel is my answer to that question. I'll get to it, I promise.

What I often hear is teachers talking about the importance of preteaching vocabulary. Their argument: if students don't understand terms specific to the historical fiction novel (or the fantasy novel, or the mystery, etc.) then they're apt to be distracted from the story's plot.

Other teachers recommend providing students with graphic organizers so that they can sort characters, plot events, and otherwise order important "literary stuff" as they read.

I have a problem with both of these strategies. They simply aren't strategies which "real readers" use. How many of us are pretaught vocabulary before we crack open a new novel? Think of the most recent New York Times bestseller you read. Did you use a graphic organizer to parse its elements as you read? I don't think so. Neither of those strategies is employed in authentic reading. Do those strategies ever have a place in literature study? Absolutely. But on my list, they won't even make the top ten. (Note to self: create a list).

So what's the one strategy I so highly recommend? The Read On strategy. It is both the simplest to understand and the most difficult to put into place, since it requires a high level of trust. A student must trust in his/her own abilities as a reader, and a student must trust the author's ability to pull the pieces of the story puzzle together.

In its absolute simplest form, the Read On strategy helps when a student encounters an author's use of appositives. An appositive is a noun, noun phrase, or series of nouns used to define or rename another noun, noun phrase, or pronoun.

For example, in Pegi Deitz Shea's picture book biography Patience Wright: America's First Sculptor and Revolutionary Spy, the author writes, "To create life-size figures, Patience used wire, string, papier mache, and wood to make the armature, or frame, for the trunk and limbs." The reader knows, after reading just two words more, the meaning of the word armature. Only a rare student would throw up her hands in frustration mid-sentence to declare they didn't know this word's meaning. And yet, we still need to teach this.

Typically, however, clarifying bits of information aren't so readily available. The reader may need to read on for paragraphs, pages, even chapters to find the missing pieces. In Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic, for example, my sixth graders read the following passage:
Gitl looked up and stared at Hannah. Putting her hands on her hips, barely covering the garish flowers on the red print dress, she smiled mockingly.
When I asked my student to define the word garish, they had many sugestions, but none that could be confirmed by the limited context clues of the passage. A student suggested the Read On strategy.

Sure enough, in the following chapter, we found this sentence:
Gitl was bending over one of the lowest shelves. Hannah recognized her by the awful print dress.
Instantly students were able to define the word, or at least the sense of the word. Trust in this strategy had let them do what "real readers" do when faced with a similar situation.

The Read On strategy applies to entire books, particularly those which create an entirely original world, a derivation of our own but differing in hundreds of minute ways. In the futuristic Fever Crumb, for example, our trust in the Read On strategy is tested by the title itself. What is a Fever Crumb?

Fever Crumb, it turns out, is an extraordinarily different girl, discovered as a tiny orphan and apprenticed into the male-only Order of Engineers. Her struggle to fit in is further complicated when she's chosen to assist an obscure archaeologist whose incredible discovery may be the key to uncovering Fever's true identity.

Author Philip Reeve (whom many know from Here Lies Arthur) writes with spectacular detail, clarity, and power. It is his very carefully crafted descriptions of a new London, centuries in the future, which allow us to inhabit it and live it and breathe it. Not since Hunger Games and, many years before, Harry Potter, have I been so totally immersed in a new world that does not ask disbelief to be suspended; it instead creates a new belief in an alternative reality. These books ask the reader to go along for the ride, with the many mysteries of characters, setting, and terminology revealed only over time. Those students who naturally know to read on can make the leap of faith; others must be taught the strategy directly. It's a simple thing to do.

After all, what good is a strategy if it can't be transferred to real-life reading?


Mister Lopez said...

A spot-on and clear strategy. I've used this personally for years but could never define it. Thank you! great site btw

Claude Forthomme said...

I've also used this strategy for years without ever knowing it had a name!Of course, I had no choice: coming from another language (French is my mother tongue), at first, when I started reading in English, I necessarily came across lots of words I didn't understand. So if I wanted to finish the book and know what the story was all about, I couldn't stop and consult a dictionary every two lines! I simply HAD to READ ON! If it works for a foreigner, it must work for a native!

Good post! I'm signing up as a follower

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