Tool for the Field: Helping a Student Build Understanding of a Text


This tool will give you practice supporting a student during a silent reading assignment. There are things to do with the student before, during, and after reading. The tool can be modified in many ways to meet the needs of different students.


  1. Find a student to work with who is in third through sixth grade. You can pick a child who is a family member or the child of a friend. Or, if you work in a school, you can ask a teacher to let you work with a student. You’ll need to meet with that student three times, for about a half hour each time.
  2. If you do not know the student well, ask the parent or teacher to provide you with a reading selection that would be a good fit for that student.


  1. Preparation:

Read the assigned selection before you meet with the student. Pick out ideas you think might be of interest to the student.

Make a list of new vocabulary words. Circle words that are likely to be new to the student. Sometimes, the reading selection will include a list of new vocabulary words. Or, you could ask the student’s teacher for a list of vocabulary words that are key for understanding the text.

Prepare to help with new vocabulary. Check that you understand the meanings of the words on the vocabulary list. Make sure you’re familiar with the way the words are used in the reading passage. Look up any words you’re not sure of. Plan how you’ll help the student figure out the meanings of the new vocabulary words.

  1. Before-Reading Activities:

Ask the student what he or she knows about the subject of the text passage. Ask the student to look at the title of the passage with you. Ask what the title suggests the reading will be about. Ask questions to see what the student’s experience with the subject has been. Talk about one or two of the ideas in the passage that might spark the student’s interest.

Do a text walk-through with the student. Look at some of the text features, such as headings, graphs, and photos, with the student. Talk about what these features say about the subject of the reading passage.

Ask the student about the vocabulary words on your list of new words. Talk with the student about what the new words mean. Encourage him or her to look at parts of the words for clues to their meaning. Help the student use a glossary in the textbook, or a dictionary, to find out how to say the words and what they mean. Use pictures, videos, or objects to show what the words mean. Try to help the student figure out the meaning, rather than just telling it to the student.

Set up a signal for the student to use when he or she wants to ask or tell you something. That way, other students in the room will not be distracted from their reading. Plan to give the student some space for doing silent reading. Do not hover over the student while he or she is reading silently.

  1. During-Reading Activities:

Be ready to respond when the student needs help or wants to share something. While it’s important not to hover, it’s also important to stay close enough to pay attention to what the student is doing. When the student signals, listen attentively to the student’s comments or questions. But make sure he or she spends most of the time on reading. If you have asked the student to answer questions or complete a graphic organizer, quietly check that he or she is on the right track. If needed, offer advice about where to look for answers. You could, for example, suggest that a student re-read a part of the text where the answer can be found.

  1. After-Reading Reflection and Review Activities:

Ask the student to reflect on the reading. Did the student have a set of questions to answer? If so, discuss his or her answers to these questions. Did he or she complete a graphic organizer? If so, review what the student wrote on the organizer to assist with his or her understanding of the passage?


This tool can be used with many students, especially those who already have some experience using silent reading as a way to access information. It also can be modified to include different activities for before, during, and after reading. The previous tables on activities for before, during, and after reading provide lots of activities to choose from.