Developing Reading Comprehension
Reading is a foundational skill of great importance that has tremendous impact on student learning and makes insightful analysis possible. For example, it gives one the jewels—the ideas—needed to construct an excellent essay. Students working on the analytical essay writing process understand that excellent essays are based upon insightful reading, and without it, you have nothing with which to build your essay.
My program dedicates significant time to developing close reading skills. While in the elementary grades it is appropriate to focus on reading fluency and reading for pleasure, I believe strongly that in middle and high school educators must prioritize the skill of close reading and work to advance reading comprehension.
Challenging Reading and High Standards for Reading
I give students challenging readings with significant depth to advance their reading skills. We work on rigorous undertakings that are designed to increase their abilities to find all keys ideas, interpret meanings, follow the logic of arguments, and pick up the subtleties in the text. I set a high bar for reading comprehension that cannot be met immediately and will require sustained effort and continual practice over the course of the year to achieve. I rigorously critique their work and provide detailed feedback on how skillfully they have read. In short, my program sets the goal of squeezing as much meaning out of the text as possible, a metaphor we use frequently in class to help students apprehend the objective of close reading.
Reading in Class, Study Questions, Analytical Essay Writing Process
One of the most simple and effective ways to develop reading comprehension is to read together in class frequently. Students will read literary or historical texts first for homework, and then we will reread key passages in class, work to refine our comprehension, and use Socratic questioning and discussion to dig deeper into its meanings.
Another way I cultivate reading comprehension in the first part of the year is to create detailed questions that students answer in writing as they work their way through a reading. I ask a wide range of questions focused on the specific sub-skills of close reading and on gaining a thorough understanding of the text. After completing the reading and focused questions for homework, we will read together in class, review student answers, and give each other feedback on our reading comprehension. This is a key way in which I introduce the goals of close reading, provide direct instruction, and give guidance on their comprehension.
Later in the year we shift to working on the analytical essay writing process that I will discuss later. This process challenges students to analyze a particular topic, often in a novel, and find as many ideas as possible that are supported by evidence in the text. These projects are less structured than study question assignments, challenging students to be more independent and self-directed in developing their reading comprehension. We talk about this phase of the analytical process as being like a treasure hunt, where close reading is your main tool for discovering the jewels of key ideas in the reading. I challenge students to find as many key ideas on their topic of investigation as possible and meet with them one on one to review their list of major ideas. Frequently, I suggest passages for students to reread to see if they can find more of the subtleties buried there. Many students enjoy the quest and come back often to test their new reading and new ideas with me.
I vividly recall a time when students were analyzing Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird over the course of a week of in-class work periods, and I kept telling them daily that everyone had missed an elusive idea in the last chapter. One of those seventh graders, who I’ll call Brandy, came back to see if she had found the idea around six or more times a day, for at least three or four days in a row. Each time she told me her new idea she had dug a bit deeper, made more connections, and focused more precisely on the meaning of each one of Harper Lee’s carefully selected words. But I held my ground and kept sending her back to continue her struggle with the author. After much effort, she finally unearthed the jewel, and when she fully explained her idea and was certain she had it, she jumped for joy, quite literally and for an extended period of time. Brandy noted the beauty of what Harper Lee had buried there and how much more she now understood Scout and the entire book. To test her certainty, I asked her, “Am I making this junk up or is that idea really there? Did Harper Lee really put that jewel in the final chapter or are we seeing something that is not there?” She confidently said, yes, the author put it there; she could see it now clearly.
That is a question I periodically ask my class; “Am I making this up or did the author intend that meaning?” Something significant occurs when students say that they can see it now, that the author artfully wove that idea in on purpose. They understand better the game great writers play. Harper Lee left it half hidden, so gave Brandy and all her readers who were alive and alert and thinking would wonder, and persist, and finally claw out the jewel, and grasp its meaning in their hands. She gave the readers the gift of discovery through their own determined self-effort, because she knows great power and satisfaction is conferred by letting readers flex their own intellectual muscles and seize the meaning themselves.
Harper Lee and I share the great joy of watching young readers extend their ability to figure things out. I develop the invaluable tool of close reading by sending the students out on a quest of self-discovery and playing the strange hermit out of whom they can try to squeeze some direction now and then. I set the challenge before them and ask them to figure it out themselves; I let them labor and work their reading and thinking muscles. The struggle develops their eyes to see, to make what was once hidden suddenly come into focus in the text.
Crucially, there is an ingredient essential to my method that I think is little appreciated by educators and curriculum designers today that sets my classroom apart from many. My program of study gives students the luxury of time. I give them the time to reread and ponder and think it through again; I give them the opportunity to spread out, take their time, and go deep. We are not always racing forward to plow through more. I understand the value of studying a topic deeply and the opportunity it gives to young learners to grow. This is an indispensable component of the game we play to develop the art of close reading and advance students’ learning skills.