Helping Students Understand What They Read

Many college students struggle with their reading assignments. As a teacher educator with expertise in reading development and disability, I find it useful to model effective reading strategies and provide immediate feedback on those strategies frequently used by students. One versatile method I use with undergraduates involves examination of what they underline (or highlight). Throughout the semester, I ask students to refer to their assigned readings and share with the class passages they underlined and reasons for their selection. In this way, the types of thinking that accompanies purposeful, active reading become more apparent.

Students underline passages in the reading for a variety of reasons. They may underline based on prior knowledge. In these cases, my feedback explicitly encourages them to make these connections and prompts them to draw upon what they know as they read in all their classes. Other times, students underline what they think is an important point. I see this as an opportunity to build content knowledge. My feedback often takes the form of questions and aims to help them examine concepts and relationships expressed in the text in greater depth or from a different perspective.

When students highlight too much
Sometimes students underline what they don’t understand. They might highlight secondary points or, more typically, they highlight too much, leaving few sentences untouched. On these occasions, I try to demonstrate how I approach the text. I think aloud as I read and make my thinking visible as I switch back and forth from actually reading phrases, sentences, and passages to interpretation. I make predictions and confirm or revise them as I read on. I paraphrase and evaluate my own ability to infer the author’s points. In this way, students observe a model of active meaning construction.

Through my demonstrations and feedback, students learn to become more purposeful and selective about what they underline. They become more aware of their level of understanding, knowing when to reread and seek clarification.

I use material from the text selectively but consistently, and the approaches I demonstrate evolve across the course. Passages selected for class examination relate to essential content. Thus, reading demonstrations and discussions are targeted and kept short, usually lasting less than 20 minutes. At the beginning of the semester, an examination of text underlines is used as a review; later it is a previewing strategy before a reading assignment is completed. After a few demonstrations, I ask students to work with a peer and compare passage underlines, noting what was of interest, of importance, or would benefit from clarification. The approach includes other reading comprehension strategies, such as self-questioning. Following instructor modeling, students write questions that they have about the text in the margins or on sticky notes. Through repeated practice, students become more independent and confident readers.

By semester’s end, there are fewer students who fail to bring the assigned reading material to class and even fewer with clean texts, free of markings and notes. Students quickly learn that assigned readings are an integral part of class and become more accountable for their own learning.

Dr. Lydia Conca is a professor at Saint Joseph College, CT.

Excerpted from Text Highlighting: Helping Students Understand What They Read, December 2008, The Teaching Professor.