Teaching Students to Read: Set a Focus

Over the years, I’ve experimented with different ways to engage students in reading and writing activities, but in past years I would have labeled myself as a writing teacher more than as a reading teacher. Sure, I assigned different texts, and we discussed as a class and engaged in activities. The reality is, though, that teaching students is much more complex and challenging than this. Not every student reads.  Not every student reads at grade level.  I felt frustration that the actual remediation and teaching of reading skills fell to the wayside at the high school level due to time, due to diverse and numerous clients, and due to lack of specific training. To remedy this, I started reading a lot about the teaching of reading. I asked questions:  What habits can we help students to develop as readers and how can we best do this?  How can we get students to engage with an assigned or canonical text and overcome their innate tendency to disengage just because it’s “for school” or they’ve heard it’s “hard”?

Teaching Students to Engage: Set a Clear Focus for Reading
Teaching Students to Read Complex Texts

First, set a clear purpose for reading.  Students find meaning in the text when they’re clear about why they’re reading (other than because it’s assigned work for a class).  In addition to setting a clear purpose, allow students to choose their purpose from a set of options that you provide.I know that I’ve been guilty of just handing out a reading schedule and not purposefully framing student reading experience and focus with specific guiding statements, questions, or response focus points. For example, I could just tell students to read the opening of Fahrenheit 451, come back with annotations and be ready to discuss tomorrow.  Or…I could provide students with the following three reading focus options:

  1. Describe the world in which Montag lives. How is he similar to or different than society?
  2. Why do you think the author created Clarisse’s character?
  3. What repeated colors and images do you notice in the opening pages of the novel? Why do you think the author wrote this way?

You see, now, instead of reading just to read, students have a specific focus for their reading to bring back to class the next day.Another way to provide more specific focus is by assigning an ongoing focus which will tie-in to an assessment.  For example, students could keep track of meaningful literary devices, interesting syntax choices, and symbolic quotes throughout the novel because they will have to create a Podcast discussion of the author’s style. This gets tedious, though, and setting a pre-focus for a reading assessment seems to be a common suggestion for engaging readers.  Some of my colleagues will create “news bulletins” or brief screencasts to give students a preview of the text.  The idea is to give students just enough information to pique their interest, enough details to create reference points while reading, and enough intrigue to make them want to find out how it ends.So, to sum up today’s post, take a few extra minutes to think about how you can set a purpose for student reading by providing a focused way for them to dig into the text. This can apply to any text, not just the whole class novel, and is an effective anticipation strategy for student readers, especially those who may struggle to find their own focus and momentum while reading a complex text.

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