Helping Teens Understand and Comprehend Academic Content…

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Much to my dismay, my son, Josh, once declared to me that he got through college without ever opening a book. He never opened a book, yet he graduated with honors. “How can that be?” you might ask. The answer is simple. He went to class and paid attention. Quite often, in our high school and college classrooms, there is a consensus among teachers and professors that students just don’t read. And in order to ensure that students learn what they are supposed to learn, teachers often find it necessary to teach what is in the text, rather than risk students’ missing key concepts.   We teach the text through lecture and presentation, and sometimes discussion, and then test on what we’ve talked about.

However, we do our kids a grave injustice when we approach our teaching in this way. This is because reading deeply and broadly is the single most important skill we can help our young people to develop, particularly when it comes to the complex and abstract topics they will encounter in high school and beyond.

But, wait, isn’t learning the same whether we learn it through lecture or reading?

 And, the answer is no, no, no. And, here’s why: The richness and complexity of words used in oral language pale in comparison to written texts. Researchers have found that the only type of oral language that comes close to the level of the written word beyond a preschool text is expert witness testimony. This is because when we read, we not only understand just the words that are in a text, but we also understand words that are not in the text.  That is, we make associations with other topics as we read, and we develop an understanding of concepts and the relationships between concepts beyond what is in the text. We develop a broader and richer vocabulary through reading in ways that oral language cannot touch.[1]

This makes sense if you consider that vocabulary is simply a label for a concept and that knowledge is represented by concepts. Every concept – simple or complex, concrete or abstract – is learned in terms of its similarities, differences, and relationships with other concepts with which we are familiar. The more concepts we learn, and the more subtopics we learn based on those concepts, the stronger our vocabulary becomes and the more knowledge we build. And, researchers know that the strength of a student’s vocabulary, or their knowledge in a particular domain is a strong predictor of students being able to handle more difficult, or “complex” texts and concepts.   (This is also the thrust of the Common Core Standards.) I would argue that the inability to read and understand difficult texts is the single most important dilemma our young people face. This is why it is vital for teachers to help students read challenging material in their high school and college classrooms, whether offline or online.

How do I get my students to read more in my subject/content area?

First, teachers might consider offering alternative text and genres to their students. Alternative texts and resources might include: song lyrics, magazine articles, short stories, photos, primary sources, letters, internet pieces, maps, almanacs, menus, charts and graphs, quotes, biographical information, picture books, short stories, art work, poetry. These resources help to build students’ background knowledge of the concepts within a topic, and, thus, helps to prepare them for more difficult reading.

Another strategy that comes to mind is a good old-fashioned KWL[2]. It’s simple but it works. Have students create three columns on a piece of paper or on the computer: what they know (K) about the topic, what they want to know about the topic, and what they learned (L) on a piece of paper. Ask students to write what they know about the topic before they read, and then ask for a few students to share and write on board. Then ask what they want to know and write these questions on board. Next, ask students to read a section (5-10 mins) on their own and see if their questions were answered. Share as a class. At the end of the activity, students can record what they learned. Here is a sample: 2nd blog – KWL

[1] Adams, M.J., (Winter 2010-2011). Advancing our students’ language and literacy – the challenge of complex texts. American Educator, pp. 3-12.

[2] Ogle, D.M. (1986, February). K-W-L: A teaching model that develops active reading in expository texts. The Reading Teacher 39(8), 564-570.

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