Raise your hand if you’ve ever read something and then thought, “What on earth did I just read?” Okay, I won’t hold you to the hand-raising bit. But do take a moment to be honest with yourself.
In our defense, many of us are busy adults, juggling personal and professional lives. It’s no wonder our memories seem a little, well, sketchy. And sometimes what we’ve read just really hasn’t captured our interest. Now think about the children and teens in our lives. What happens when they ask that question?
The scary truth is, many children and teens who think, “What on earth did I just read?” are at risk of giving up on reading. The great irony is, they are less inclined to do something that will help them become stronger readers: read.
In my March 2016 post, “Vocabulary and Broccoli,” I discussed the important role vocabulary plays in choosing appropriate books for children and teens. This is part of the battle—but not all of it. Sometimes we are guilty of thinking and teaching kids to think that reading is a passive activity. But is it really?
What all happens when we read? Well, those of us who have become fluent readers make automatic associations between letters and sounds, decode combinations of words, and decipher the syntax of sentences. If all goes well, we make sense of the organization of a particular text, such as the narrative structure of a story or the formal structure of an argument, with its opening, claims, support, and conclusion. If any of these pieces break down, the reader is likely to struggle comprehending one or more parts of a text.
When we thinking of reading in light of all that our brains are doing, it seems anything but passive. So how can we encourage young people to be active readers—and perhaps model active reading ourselves?
One great way to encourage active reading is to have children engage with the text by keeping a reading journal. For very young readers, this might include entries with pictures and words, or very simple sentences. As students get older, they can track the who, what, when, where, how, and why of a text. They can make personal connections, starting with “This reminds me of…” Another great exercise is to make predictions, which pushes students to think about what they know from the story, as well as what they know from their own lives and prior learning, and make an inference. And what’s to stop older readers from including artwork as well? They could certainly continue to track new or difficult vocabulary. Older readers may also be able to infer a theme, or moral of the story as they get into the thick of a fiction text.
Reading journals can also serve as a great springboard for thoughtful conversation surrounding that nonfiction text or story. Perhaps the most rewarding feature is the sense of accomplishment. What could be a better antidote for the discouraged reader?