It’s no mystery. The more a reader knows about a topic, the better his or her comprehension and recall of a complex text will be.
You can teach your students to build their own prior knowledge of short texts by showing them how to preview. Start by thinking aloud. Read the title and ask: What do I know about this topic? If the answer is little to nothing, slow that reading down. Now read the first and last paragraph of informational text and only the first paragraph of a narrative. Model in a think-aloud how you have an in-the-head conversation about the details you recall. Write these details on the chalkboard and explain that writing is a topnotch way to assess recall and understanding.
Next, show students how to set a purpose before they read. Having a purpose provides students with a strong reason to read deeply and carefully, and a benefit is they’ll remember more details. Model two ways for students to set their own purpose for reading: (1) turn the title of the selection into a query or (2) reread the prior knowledge notes to develop a purpose for reading.
When turning the process over to students, use a gradual release model. Pair-up students and have them preview, discuss the preview, write prior knowledge notes in their notebooks, and set a reading purpose. Continue partner practice until students can work independently.
Armed with prior knowledge and a reading purpose, have students read for the gist, a main point, keeping their reading purpose in mind. Once groups have discussed the gist and their reading purposes, ask them to reread and move deeper into the content and themes. Here’s where you’re likely to meet resistance. It’s time to launch a discussion on why students watch movies and videos multiple times. “I see more. I hear talk I didn’t get the first time. I remember more.”
“Great reasons,” I tell students, “and all apply to rereading.” I like to have students return to a text several times after the second reading. Do this by offering authentic reasons for skimming and rereading sections such as: discussing text dependent questions; making logical inferences; explaining why a character or person changes; pinpointing the central idea(s); and understanding how text structure improved their comprehension.
Three is a magic number. These three strategies move beyond magic to research that clearly illustrates the power of prior knowledge, reading purposes, and rereading to improve students’ comprehension of complex texts.
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