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Sound Learning

Literacy and Sound Learning Strategies for Thoughtful Reading

By Doug Buehl

Using Reading/Learning Strategies | Using KWL-Plus | Sample KWL Grid

"I read it but I didn't understand it."

"I didn't know what to look for."

"This assignment was too hard to read."

Student frustrations with classroom materials are familiar to teachers. Instead of thoughtful reading, students may read merely to get done. Or, they may read for facts but miss main ideas of a passage, quickly skim for answers, or give up and fail to complete the reading.

The strategies that come naturally to proficient readers—like most educators—are not necessarily natural to our students. Therefore, instructional activities that assist students with their comprehension are a critical component of classroom learning. Effective comprehension strategies are especially important for reading electronic texts.

How can teachers prompt thoughtful reading from their students? Instructional activities that include the following seven comprehension strategies will help students successfully read and learn while using Minnesota Public Radio's Web sites.

Researchers argue that prior knowledge—what a person already knows—may be the most important variable for understanding during a new learning experience.

Strategy 1: Make Connections.
Proficient readers actively make connections between what they already know and new material. Instructional activities should prompt students to reflect upon existing knowledge about a topic before they start to read:

Instructional activities should prompt students to reflect upon existing knowledge about a topic before they start to read:

  • Share relevant personal experiences that connect to the topic.
  • Consider materials they have previously read, either in school or out of school, that relate to the topic.
  • Brainstorm what they currently think they know or understand about the topic.

Information Overload
Self-questioning, of course, is very different from answering someone else's questions. Struggling readers in particular often feel deluged by new information, and they may attempt to merely skim for answers to assigned questions.
Strategy 2: Self-Question.
Proficient readers pose questions to themselves as they read. When readers wonder about something-wonder why, wonder if, wonder where, wonder whether, wonder what, wonder how-they are raising questions that new learning can possibly address. Rather than leaning back to receive information, learners who raise their own questions are personally interacting with new ideas and using questions to try to make sense of what they are encountering.

Prompt students to ask the following:

  • Did this make sense?
  • Should I double-check information to insure that I did not mis-read it?
  • Did I figure out any unfamiliar terms?
  • Do I need to clarify anything in this passage?
  • What am I wondering about as I read?

Strategy 3: Creating Mental Images.
Strategy 3: Create Mental Images. Help students visualize while they read, using their imagination to picture in their minds what an author represents in prose. Students who become bogged down in the words on the page may forget to visualize, and as a result have trouble relating to what the author portrays. Instructional activities that stimulate student imaginations and remind readers to "see" as well as "read" words have a significant impact on understanding:

  • Ask students to link clues from an author's language with personal experiences. Proficient readers infer what an author is seeing and generate their own versions of scenes and events.
  • Ask students to share what they "see" from their reading. Visualizing is idiosyncratic-no two individuals bring exactly the same set of experiences to draw on when creating mental images from suggested language.
  • Ask students to identify parts of the article that create strong visual pictures.

Clues to Comprehension
Proficient readers realize they need to use clues to construct a more complete understanding of a text. Struggling readers often become frustrated with moving beyond a literal accounting of a text and they miss important layers of meaning.
Strategy 4: Make Inferences.
Proficient readers make inferences, which enables them to discern implicit meanings as well as explicitly stated messages. Instructional activities which assist students in identifying and analyzing implied meaning in a text deepen understanding:

Instructional activities which assist students in identifying and analyzing implied meanings in a text deepen understanding:

  • Ask students to make predictions about what the author may say next.
  • Ask students to identify clues that suggest something not directly stated.
  • Ask students to speculate about an author's beliefs, attitudes, and perspectives based on hints present in a passage.

Strategy 5: Determine Importance.
Strategy 5: Determine Importance. Proficient readers are able to determine what is most important in a text. They differentiate key ideas and information from details, so that they are not overwhelmed by a mass of facts. Instead, they target main themes and salient details. Most students benefit from instructional activities that help them decide what is most worthy of attention and what is background information:

  • Instruct students to ask "what is the point of this?" rather than merely identify information.
  • As students read, ask them to consider: "Why is the author telling me this?"

Synthesizing Strategies
Meaning synthesis is the culmination of the other five essential comprehension strategies: making connections, raising questions, visualizing, making inferences, and determining importance.
Strategy 6: Synthesize Meaning.
Proficient readers are adept at summarizing the essence of what they read into a personal meaning. As a result, they can make evaluations, construct generalizations, and draw conclusions from a text. Synthesis is the realization that "Aha! I get it!" which allows readers to establish their take on what the text means to them. Most students find summarizing to be a difficult process, and instructional activities which guide students in extracting core concepts and information will improve their ability to pare a text down to a meaningful essence.

  • Ask students to list what is most important from an article and then reduce the list to a few key items as a prelude for writing a succinct summary.
  • Ask students to consider "What conclusions can we draw from this article?"

Strategy 7: Monitor Comprehension.
Proficient readers make extensive use of fix-up strategies as they read. If they encounter breakdowns in their comprehension-difficult vocabulary perhaps, or references to unfamiliar information-they pause to determine how to make sense of the unclear passage. Proficient readers to not proclaim: "I read it, but I didn't understand it." They know that reading means you understand it.

In addition to using the six comprehension strategies outlined above, ask students to decide when to try one of the following fix-up strategies when their comprehension falters:

  • Adjust reading rate.
  • Re-read a key section.
  • Look for context clues or consult reference sources for unfamiliar vocabulary.
  • Use a study strategy, such as underlining, marking, sticky-notes, or note taking.
  • Clarify understandings with other students, or an expert like the teacher.

Using Reading/Learning Strategies With Sound Learning
Instructional activities can prompt students to engage in the kinds of thinking outlined above. Integrating these effective reading and learning strategies with the material available on Minnesota Public Radio's Web sites involves devising lessons that encompass three phases: pre-reading, during reading, and after reading.

Pre-reading prepares students for learning by activating their prior knowledge about the topic featured in an article. Pre-reading activities may also need to expand student knowledge about a topic, because some readers will bring insufficient background knowledge and or will be unfamiliar with key concepts and vocabulary. Pre-reading activities help students with focusing their attention on what is most important in a text during reading. Pre-reading activities are essential for establishing purposes for Internet searches, so that students are clear what information they need to locate, and how to evaluate prospective articles they have identified.

During-reading activities continue to emphasize the proficient reader traits of making connections, generating questions, and determining importance. During reading activities also prompt students to visualize, to make inferences, and to monitor their comprehension. In particular, during reading activities need to help students with selecting what is most important from a text, and with organizing the new information that they are encountering. During reading activities should help students prioritize what is most essential and to connect this information in some sort of meaningful and organized way.

After-reading activities should deepen understanding, and in addition to the proficient reader traits accentuated in the pre- and during reading phases, should help student summarize and synthesize what they read into a coherent personal understanding. Hence, after reading activities go beyond merely identifying what was read and instead help students with integrating their new learning with their previous knowledge and with applying the new knowledge in some way to their lives.

Activities should acknowledge that students may forget much of what they read unless they process their learning at a deeper level. This learning takes place as students discuss new material, hear a story about it, hear the new information repeated over time, say it in their own words, do something active with it, take notes on it or any number of other activities.

In particular, students need to be able to verbalize their new understandings and apply the implications of what they have learned to a variety of situations. Tests and quizzes can help determine what they have retained, but are only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to aiding students' retention and assessment.

Using "KWL-Plus" With Sound Learning
KWL Plus is a classroom activity that can be used in lessons involving MPR content. Teachers of social studies, literature, science, math, and all other subject areas will find such activities to be especially effective for training students to be successful independent readers of electronic texts, as well as other classroom materials. The KWL-Plus procedure (Ogle, 1986; Carr and Ogle, 1987) works especially well with providing a structure for thinking while reading and learning. KWL is an acronym for Know, Want to Know, and Learned. This activity parallels the proficient reading strategies outlined above, and thus conditions students to engage in these thinking behaviors when they independently access electronic texts. The KWL-Plus activity includes pre-reading, during reading, and after reading phases for student learning.

For example, students studying viruses in a science class might be reading the Minnesota Public Radio story "West Nile Virus Reaches Minnesota." How could the KWL-Plus activity be used to create a successful lesson to support student learning from this informative article?

The KWL-Plus activity is centered around a three column graphic organizer designed to guide student thinking as they read. The graphic organizer could be created as an individual student worksheet or the entire class can participate as the teacher outlines the grid on the chalkboard or overhead transparency.

Follow the steps below and refer to the Sample KWL Grid.

Students record these items in the K column, as the teacher models with the entire class. For example: It is carried by mosquitoes; People can die from this disease; Birds can be infected by the virus. Step 1: Identify What You Know or Think You Know—The K
Students contribute what they know, or think they know, about this topic. One technique is to ask each student to take a couple of minutes and, independently, make a list. Ask students what they currently know about the subject, what they have heard or read. Student contributions are recorded in the first column (K-What We Know).

• How would a person know if they had it?
• How deadly is this virus to people?
• What areas of the world have the most cases?
• Is there an effective treatment or medicine if you get it?
Step 2: Identify What We Want to Learn—The W
Sharing information is likely to bring out questions that students have about the topic. Some questions might be about the accuracy of the information recorded in the "Know" column. Other questions may be things students are wondering about. Record these questions in the middle column (W-What We Want to Learn).

Step 3: Categorize the K and W
Guide the students with determining meaningful categories for the items in the K and W columns. Under "Categories of Information We Expect to Use" students might decide upon the following categories: location, causes, effects, prevention.

Organizing information is the first step toward being able to effectively summarize it. This step is especially important to help students see that their lists do not merely contain isolated snippets of information, and it helps them sort information as they read.

Step 4: Read the Article
While they read and listen to the story, students lookout for information that answers their questions or expands their understanding of the topic. When they encounter specific answers to questions and new information, they use the third column (L-What We Have Learned) to record their notes.

Step 5: Identify New Information
After reading, students identify new information discovered from their reading, which is also included in the third column. New information is integrated into the previously identified categories and additional categories may need to be added.

Step 6: Create a Concept Map
After completing the KWL grid, students work individually or in groups to create a concept map which connects all the information under each category into a visual display.

The concept map allows students to see the big picture from the article, and helps them summarize and synthesize what they learned from reading this material. Information is organized for student writing assignments, test preparation, or other projects.

See sample concept map. (PDF)

Step 7: Identify Further Investigation
After completing the concept map, students clarify what they know and make decisions as to how to obtain additional information. Questions from the middle column (Want to Know) that are not answered by the reading provide impetus for further investigation.

Sample Lesson
Students studying viruses in a science class might be reading the Minnesota Public Radio story "West Nile Virus Reaches Minnesota." How could the KWL-Plus activity be used to create a successful lesson to support student learning from this informative article?

Topic: West Nile Virus
"West Nile Virus Reaches Minnesota"

K (Know) W (Want to Know) L (Learned)
• Is carried by mosquitoes

• Is a disease that can kill people

• Crows can be infected

• Carried to US from Africa

• Has appeared in the Midwestern US

• You should use lots of mosquito spray

• You can get a high fever

• You get sick like you have the flu

• They have it in Minnesota now
• Is there an effective treatment or medicine?

• How can you tell which mosquitoes have it?

• If you get it once, can you get it again?

• Can you get it from a diseased bird?

• How deadly is this virus to humans?

• Does the virus affect animals other than birds?

• What part of the US or world has the most cases?
• P-long-sleeved clothes, insect repellant, avoid outdoors dawn & dusk

• E-100 types of birds have it; poultry have natural antibodies

• P-horses should have vaccination

• E-1/3 unvaccinated horses die from it

• L-1st found in New York in 1999

• L-found in 32 states

• C-only spread by mosquitoes that feed on infected birds

• E-infects birds, horses, people

• C-can't get it from infected animals

• E-1% of people get encephalitis, swelling of brain, can die

• P-no treatment

• E-hits elderly & weak immune systems

• E-usually like flu: headache, high fever, convulsions

• E-low risk to people

Categories of Information We Expect to Use:
1. Where is it located (L-Location)
2. What causes it (C-Causes)
3. What impact it has (E-Effects)
4. What can be done about it (P-Prevention)

Doug Buehl is a reading specialist at Madison (Wisconsin) Metropolitan School District and a teacher at Madison East High School. He is the author of Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning (2001) and co-author of Reading and the High School Student (2003).

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