The exercise of active reading

COMPREHENSION

The exercise of active reading

Learning to read involves much more than decoding words or recognising them automatically.

In addition to reading accurately, we need children to become fluent readers, where they can seamlessly glide through a piece of text. Fluent reading involves being accurate, pausing appropriately at punctuation, reading with expression and, most importantly, imbibing meaning from the text. While teachers in primary schools typically help children gain accuracy in reading and fluency with an emphasis on comprehension, it is often not explicitly taught or modelled to children. As a result, we have many children who are word-callers, who are able to decode the text to sound, but struggle to understand what they read in a deep or meaningful way.

Reading researchers have found that teaching children comprehension strategies can help them become active readers. At its core, reading involves extracting and constructing meaning from text. By modelling thinking strategies explicitly to children, we try to show them what exactly goes on inside our heads when we read. Essentially, reading is about having a conversation with the text. We want children to become readers who are able to have an internal dialogue with printed content. Teachers of all grades and subjects may provide time for students to share their thoughts and discuss their reactions to the content in the text.

‘Strategies that work’

In her book, Comprehension Connections, teacher and literacy specialist Tanny McGregor explains how teachers can make abstract reading strategies more concrete for children to grasp and understand. In order to demonstrate how readers have a conversation with the text, she shows them how she makes a “reading salad.” She places a bowl in front of the class and has cardboard cutouts of tomatoes and cucumbers.

The tomatoes represent ideas from the text, while the cucumbers stand for the reader’s thoughts. So, as she reads the text aloud, she places a tomato card for each idea she encounters in the text. But, as she reads, she also has thoughts related to the text. As she voices these thoughts aloud, she adds cucumbers to the bowl. “Real reading,” according to Tanny, is represented by the mix of tomatoes and cucumbers in the bowl. Children then see, quite literally, that active reading is as much about the reader’s thoughts as the words in the text.

Reading researchers Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis outline six strategies, that proficient readers use as they try to comprehend content, in their seminal book Strategies that Work. The first involves making connections. When we read, we make text-to-self connections linking the content with our personal experiences. As soon as we do this, the material in the text stops being inert and takes on a new meaning. We also make linkages between the text and the larger world. For example, if a student is reading about earthquakes, she may recall hearing about another earthquake in the news a few months ago. The third type of connection we forge is between texts, where we connect what we read to other material we have read earlier.

Many students are also under the notion that they have to answer questions only when teachers ask questions. As a result, many children don’t realise that in order to be an active reader, they too have to ask questions. In fact, proficient readers ask questions at all stages of the reading process. By just looking at the cover or the title of a story, a reader’s curiosity may be piqued and a barrage of questions may fill her mind. “What is this book about?”, “Will I be interested in it?”, “Does this remind me of the book I read last month?”

Good readers ask questions even before they read, and proceed to question the text as well as themselves, as they read. And, even after reading, a reader may have a number of questions that are still unanswered. The important message for teachers to convey is that asking questions is as important as, if not more,  answering them.
Another strategy deployed by active readers is visualisation.

As they meander through a vivid description, the sights, sounds and smells may come alive in the person’s mind. Some texts may be so evocative that the reader almost feels like she or he is transported to a particular time or place. Visualisation is useful for both fiction and non-fiction passages. Teachers can encourage students to create diagrammatic representations of a piece of text. A drawing can highlight comparisons while a timeline can help students view events across the passage of time.

Deductions

When we read text, we also distill information that is important while filtering out irrelevant detail. As readers mature, they acquire the art of figuring out what is essential to remember. When students peruse a section, they may be encouraged to figure out the main ideas being discussed and how they connect with one another. Making notes of significant points can help students when they have to study for tests. Instead of re-reading entire chapters, they can simply go through their notes, provided they were able to identify the key elements in the first place.

In addition to gleaning information directly from texts, we also make inferences as we read. Stephanie and Anne illustrate inferential thinking for students by asking them to identify the emotions on pictures of faces. Most people, including children, have no difficulty in this task. We then explain to students that we make inferences all the time, when we ‘read’ facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. Likewise, when we read text, we infer meaning that is not explicitly stated. Thus, if the text reads, “The man slammed the door,” we can possibly infer that he is angry.

Finally, the thinking strategy that ties everything together is synthesising. When readers synthesise, they are able to identify what is important and state it cogently and succinctly. The reader is able to articulate how the text shaped or altered her or his thinking. Synthesising, according to Stephanie and Anne, involves combining “new information with existing new knowledge to create an original idea, see a new perspective, or form a new line of thinking to achieve insight.” The purpose of reading is thus summed up eloquently by them.

(The author is director, PRAYATNA, Bengaluru)

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