Understanding written material is what reading is all about. And understanding depends on certain kinds of knowledge as well as certain thinking processes. Notably, understanding written language depends on understanding oral language. For students with severe hearing impairments, it may depend on understanding signing or lip-reading.

Picking up where we left off in the previous unit, let’s start with a review of the three most important cognitive processes for reading:

  • Vocabulary: In order to understand a word in print, readers first need to understand the thing or concept to which the word refers.
  • Inference: Written language requires readers to fill in missing information based on information that is provided. The word for this logical process is “inference.” Good readers make good inferences. They fill in missing information accurately.
  • Recognition of textual features: Readers use a text more efficiently and understand it more fully when they are aware of clues provided by the presentation and formatting of the text.

Instruction helps students improve reading comprehension by supporting them as they learn new vocabulary, improve their ability to make accurate inferences, and learn to recognize textual clues.

Many activities to teach reading focus on these three building blocks. The next part of the discussion in this overview describes activities for strengthening vocabulary knowledge, inference skills, and awareness of textual features. The section after it describes two teaching strategies that help strengthen all three building blocks at the same time.

Strengthening Vocabulary Knowledge

To help students learn new vocabulary, teachers and paraprofessionals can encourage them to link new words to memorable experiences. For example, students are much more likely to learn words for unusual foods if they actually taste those foods rather than just hearing about them. Of course, not all vocabulary lessons can provide direct sensory experiences. But teachers and paraprofessionals can use objects, photographs, sound clips, skits, and other activities to help students learn new words. Trying to teach students the meaning of words by memorizing definitions is usually much more frustrating for everyone involved—the teacher or paraprofessional and, of course, the student.

Helping Students Draw Accurate Inferences

As mentioned in the previous unit, an inference is an educated guess about something that is unknown. It is an “educated” guess because the reader making an inference uses what he or she already knows in order to improve the accuracy of the guess.

All readers make inferences about what they are reading because the text cannot explain everything in detail. In addition, fictional writing actually encourages readers to make inferences as a way to draw them into the story, poem, or play.

In the illustration below, you can see inferences of increasing complexity.



What the Inference Concerns


The meaning of a word A student might figure out the meaning of an unknown word from clues in the sentence. In the following sentence, what does the word “equestrian” mean? “The equestrian put away the saddle, and then he led his favorite horse to its stall.”
The personality of a character A student might determine if a character is supposed to be humorous or serious based on descriptions provided by the author. Based on the following sentence, do you think Lena is fun-loving and rowdy or quiet and serious: “As was usual for Lena, she was calling out loudly to her friends while running up and down the street with her hair flying behind her in the wind.”
The mood of a story A student might figure out how the author of a story wants to make the reader feel by focusing on descriptive details. What mood do the following details evoke: “an old house filled with cobwebs,” “unfamiliar noises,” “an overhead light that burns out the moment it is turned on,” “a locked door with a faint light coming out from underneath it”?
The relationship between events or concepts A student might be able to distinguish a cause from an effect by paying attention to how an author talks about a series of events. In the following example, was Susan’s grumpiness the primary cause of her mother’s anger or the effect of her anger? “Susan was having a bad day. When she got home from school, she was grumpy and barely said hello to her mother. Worse still, her mother was also grumpy, complaining about the never-ending rain and yelling at Susan for her grades and the clutter in her room. Susan wished she could go outside to escape, but walking through the cold rain would have made her feel even worse.”

To help students learn to make accurate inferences, teachers and paraprofessionals might ask them to point out the parts of a story or non-fiction passage that convey important information. Or they might encourage students to make predictions about what might happen next in a story, whether a character will turn out to be helpful or mischievous, or what lesson a fable is trying to teach.

Awareness of Textual Features

To help students learn about textual features, the adults providing instruction might design activities that ask the students to use those features. For example, they might ask students to compare the usefulness of the table of contents and the index for finding specific information in a textbook.

Some children might need guidance in figuring out how to hold a book or how to scroll down a computer screen. Activities that help students learn how to use a glossary or a dictionary might also be useful. When students begin to use textbooks in subjects such as science and social studies, they might benefit from activities that help them figure out how to interpret subheadings, textboxes, charts, tables, and other more complicated textual features.

Two Wide-ranging Strategies

Close reading. With this approach, teachers and paraprofessionals help students learn how to analyze written material through intensive work with a short text such as an essay, short-short story, or poem. Instruction focuses on the ways that the text conveys meaning. It helps students think about writing techniques that convey certain meanings or evoke certain feelings. These techniques result in what some call “figurative language.”

With close reading, the teacher or paraprofessional might at first assign questions to help students become engaged with the text, but over time the goal is to help students learn how to pose analytic questions independently. Close reading activities require students to read the same text several times in order to look for different clues about the author’s intent, writing techniques, or perspective on a topic.

Guided silent reading. Most adult reading is silent reading. Teaching students to read silently with good comprehension and fluency is a major goal of language arts instruction in the grades beyond Kindergarten and first grade. For struggling readers, guidance in connecting relevant background experience and knowledge about how to read for certain purposes, such as studying for a test, as well as what to look for as they read continues to be important. Scaffolding activities at the pre-reading, during-reading, and post-reading phases of a reading lesson prepare students for reading particular texts. These activities coach students in the use of effective reading processes that fit in with their own purposes in reading something as well as with the nature of the text. Guidance before, during, and after silent reading helps students develop skills that enable them to read at more and more advanced levels. The list below presents some pre-reading activities, during-reading activities, and post-reading activities.

Pre-reading Activities

  • Motivating students by making connections between their experiences and the events in a story or ideas in a nonfiction passage.
  • Establishing a common background for students by having them “map” a concept or categorize ideas relating to that concept.
  • Giving students a “heads up” about difficult vocabulary words.
  • Sharing relevant background information by discussing the time period and setting of a story.
  • Working with students to develop a story map incorporating elements common to fiction, such as character, problem, events, plot, and problem resolution.
  • Discussing poetic techniques to look for, such as vivid imagery, rhyme and rhythm patterns, and repeated phrases or types of phrases.

During-reading Activities

  • Starting a concept map, story map, or chart with students at the beginning of the reading session and then completing the map or chart during the course of the reading session.
  • Suggesting that students skim a passage before reading it in depth, writing down unfamiliar words and looking up their definitions.
  • Asking students to use a template for recording observations or making predictions about a story while they are reading it.
  • Asking students to write journal entries to record their thoughts about a story or non-fiction text.
  • Discussing the reading passage with students one-on-one or in a group.
  • Asking students to answer questions during their reading, perhaps through the use of a study guide.

Post-reading Activities

  • Assigning a project related to the reading material.
  • Asking students to answer questions about the reading selection.
  • Organizing book clubs or book circles that enable students to discuss a story or book with their classmates.
  • Asking students to write a book review or make a poster characterizing the book.