A struggling teenage reader can flounder in high school with poor chances for good grades, high SAT scores and college acceptance. As the curriculum becomes more complex and teachers assign more reading outside of class, students who wrestle with comprehension become lost in an academic world that expects them to read skillfully and at grade level. Fortunately, with some work on skills and strategies, even juniors and seniors can improve their comprehension and discover scholastic success.
Richard Allington, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee, argues that readers improve when they read high volumes of accessible texts written at, or even a bit below, their reading level. If a text is accessible, the student will able to accurately decode 98 percent of the words. Most of the assigned reading in school will be at or above the frustration level for struggling readers causing them to miss too many words to build meaningful comprehension. By reading a high quantity of accessible texts, high school students can build the word recognition, fluency and background knowledge that are necessary for better comprehension.
At any grade level, students need reading role models -- teachers, parents and other competent readers -- to demonstrate what comprehension sounds like when a skillful reader thinks about a text. Meaningful comprehension demands more than recalling and retelling what the text says. Readers need to interpret the author’s language, make inferences from clues in the text and explain the relevance of the content. That type of thinking is unfamiliar territory to struggling readers. Hearing the way good readers think can facilitate better thinking when struggling readers go at a text on their own.
Cris Tovani, a Denver-based literacy consultant and high school English teacher, encourages students to write down what they are thinking as they read. Tovani uses this method, called annotation, to help students become aware of what she calls their inner thinking voice. Tovani says struggling readers often read with a reciting voice -- just reading the words without constructing meaning -- or they fake read, looking at the page while daydreaming or thinking distracting thoughts. Annotating the text by writing in the margins, on sticky notes or on separate paper keeps readers in touch with their thinking voice, makes the thinking more permanent and gives the teacher a means to assess her students' comprehension levels.
Struggling readers need strategies they can fall back on when they have trouble with a text. First, they need to monitor their comprehension and recognize when they are confused. Then, they need strategies to fix faulty comprehension. These include rereading portions of the text, using context clues to decode difficult words and trying to connect new or unfamiliar ideas to concepts they already know and understand. Long passages of complicated text can intimidate readers, unless they learn how to break passages into smaller chunks and skim and scan for important information. Readers also need to accumulate comprehension, adding new facts to information they have already learned in the reading to form an understanding of the entire passage.