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Meaningful Connections Increases Reading Comprehension

By: Tracy Ostwald-Kowald
Connecting the Dots Improves Reading Comprehension

I was reading a book about a family who had a large yellow parrot that could mimic any sound or voice. This made me recall my job during college. I was working in a resort-area gift shop that had a parrot near my checkout counter. Reading this book and the tales of how the bird picked up the family voices reminded me of how, when a customer walked through the door and the chimes jingled, the parrot would sing out, "Hello, how are you?"—in my voice. This was a powerful text-to-self connection; I had the prior knowledge to identify with the family and the ups and downs of having a talented mimic nearby!

Facts in isolation make very little sense. Random concepts with no rhyme or reason rarely stick in a student's mind. But when young people read books that connect to personal experiences, other books they've read, or something going on in the world, the material in those books makes more sense. Comprehension, that valuable "I get it!" understanding, reaches a higher level when there's a connection or a link.

These links come in three types: text to self, text to text, and text to world. To form a text-to-self connection, readers notice that a book or other text reminds them of something from their own lives. A strong personal connection increases comprehension by strengthening the pathways in the brain to help remember reading material.

Text-to-text connections, sometimes referred to as book-to-book, occur when something in the text reminds ...

Help Your Kids Learn to Self-Check Reading Comprehension

By: Tracy Ostwald-Kowald
Helping Students Monitor Their Reading Comprehension

Socrates is quoted as saying, "True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing." One of my college friends had a poster on her wall that read, "Part of being smart is knowing what you're dumb at." Socrates was, not surprisingly, the more articulate of the two. However, my friend had the right idea. She knew that to learn, she needed to recognize what she didn't know. She had to monitor her thoughts while she read to confirm that she understood the material—and to realize when she wasn't "getting" it.

That awareness, the recognition that comprehension isn't happening, is a critical step in the reading process. When a student is reading along smoothly, visualizing the actions and concepts in her head, and suddenly the movie in her mind goes blank, it's time to stop and regroup. At that point, she can decide what will help her get that movie going again. Rereading, maybe, or refreshing her mind by activating prior knowledge can clarify the meaning so she can read on.

Too many students find themselves reading words—lots of words—and not truly understanding their meaning. These students can read entire sections of a textbook or novel and have no idea what they've just read. To successfully comprehend their reading, students need to actively monitor whether or not they're getting it as they read—and when they're not getting it, they should stop and evaluate what's wrong.

As Learning Coach, you can teach your students how to self-monitor while reading. One way to ...

Helping Kids Synthesize Information for Reading Comprehension

By: Tracy Ostwald Kowald
Synthesizing Strategies for Reading Comprehension

Imagine a high school senior busily putting the final touches on an English project—creating liner notes to a sound track CD for Shakespeare's Hamlet. Students use what they know about the play to find music that would fit with the plot, and then they explain their choices. Parents sometimes question the value of projects like this, but their teacher knows that for creating this masterpiece, students would need to find themes, understand characters, and apply their own background knowledge. In teaching, we call this synthesis.

Synthesis is a process involving other strategies. It's a high- level thinking skill—almost at the top of Bloom's Taxonomy. In the example above, my daughter was the high school senior reading Hamlet, pulling out the most important ideas, linking those ideas to her own background knowledge, and generating questions to ask her mother (me, the music teacher in the family). She drew from her own repertoire of Disney hits. "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" from The Lion King was an appropriate choice of a play in which the prince is looking forward to taking the throne. She also included a song she'd learned while playing in the pit orchestra in the high school production of Aida. Each and every piece of her project involved a thoughtful analysis of both Hamlet and the piece of music she'd chosen.

Learning Coaches can encourage younger students to synthesize, too. Begin by asking for a summary. What happened in the story/chapter? Can you identify ...

Helping Students Find the Most Important Information in a Text

By: Tracy Ostwald Kowald
Determine Important Points When Reading Content

Every January my alma mater, a small liberal arts college, holds the Great Midwest Trivia Contest—a contest for answering questions that are extremely trivial, or unimportant. If it’s common knowledge, it’s not trivial. If the answer is important in any way, it’s not trivial. The Trivia Masters who run the contest take pride in selecting questions that are so unimportant that no one can answer them—so trivial that, in truth, no one really cares about the answer.

When reading for information, however, students must learn to use an approach that’s the opposite of the Trivia Masters’ method! Instead of seeking the trivial or insignificant details, they need to read with the intention of finding facts that are relevant to a specific topic.

I used this approach last summer, when I took a graduate class on ancient Rome. Every time I picked up my textbook, I set a purpose for reading by asking myself, What is the topic of this chapter? What do I need to know in order to understand it? I wasn’t seeking trivial details; I was seeking important information, information that was key to unlocking the meaning of the material I was reading.

Structure and organization of texts help readers understand what’s most important by grouping related information together. Headings, subheadings, chapter titles, highlighted vocabulary—all of these features guide readers to find and remember the most important information. For example, I read a chapter titled “Roads.” Paging through the chapter, I saw a map, a subheading called ...

4 Steps to Forming Effective Study Skills in High School

By: Beth Werrell

As online high school students gain more independence, they also gain more responsibility with their own studies. With standardized tests, as well as ACT®, SAT®, and AP® tests approaching, this is the time to develop good study habits.

For quick bullet points and takeaways on study techniques, click the link below to view and download our guide containing study tips for stressed high schoolers. Print this out and keep it in a folder, or pin it to your desk, as a constant reminder while you study.

For a more comprehensive guide to developing effective independent study habits, see our tips below.

  1. Before you study, schedule your time.
  2. Plan to study for about two hours each dedicated study night, five nights per week. It helps to schedule your time by writing down all the study goals you have at the beginning of the week and then estimating how much time each task will take. You should also assess the urgency of each task, as more urgent tasks should be scheduled for the beginning of the week.

  1. Learn the tricks for efficient note-taking.
  2. The more comprehensive, legible, and organized your notes are, the easier it will be for you to study them. Notes can increase your recall of important information and can be used to call out important topics or ideas that you need to revisit.

    • Create your own bullet system, using different numbers or symbols for different things. ...

Coaching Children to Use Inferences and Draw Conclusions While Reading

By: Tracy Ostwald Kowald
Use Inferences to Aid Reading Comprehension

Recently during a test, a puzzled student carried his test booklet over to where his teacher sat, pointed to a word he didn't know, and asked her, "Inference—what does that mean?" Unable to assist because it was a state exam, the teacher suggested that he make an educated guess. Later, we teachers chuckled together, saying that this particular teacher's advice was that the boy infer the meaning of the word inference. We also made a mental note to strengthen our teaching of inferences.

What Are Inferences in Reading?

Making inferences is like drawing conclusions: discovering information in the text, adding it to our own knowledge, and forming an educated guess based on the combined evidence. Reading between the lines, filling in the blanks, and enhancing the meaning of the words—all of these skills are part of one overarching strategy: inferring, or making an inference while reading.

Examples of Making Inferences to Aid Reading Comprehension

Comics and cartoons are ideal tools for students to use when practicing how to make inferences. One of my favorites pictures a snowman under a starry night sky surrounded by rabbits. The snowman is looking worried and thinking, “Uh-oh.” I ask my students to look over the cartoon and then infer what might be bothering the snowman. A conversation might sound like this:

Student: "He's melting."
Teacher: "Does he look hot?"
"No. Not really."
"What else do you see?"
"Rabbits."
"You're right. I see a lot of rabbits surrounding the snowman. I wonder why?"
"Rabbits ...

Using Reading Comprehension Questions to Read Between the Lines

By: Tracy Ostwald-Kowald
Ask Questions to Boost Reading Comprehension

Absorbing and interacting with reading material often brings questions—and questioning is a skill that comes naturally to most children. While some questions can be challenging to answer, it's important to encourage your child to continue this practice, because thoughtful and insightful questions help readers understand and draw them more deeply into whatever they're reading.

The 5 W's (and How) of Reading Comprehension

To get started and help your student learn to summarize a passage, think of the basic W's of reading comprehension: what, when, where, who, and why—and the one stray H, how. If the readers can answer all of these questions about a selection, they understand. They comprehend. They "get it."

Asking the five W questions (and one H) is just the beginning, however. In 7 Keys to Comprehension, one of my favorite sources for reading strategies, the authors suggest generating questions while reading. The most valuable questions, the authors suggest, are often the self-questions, the questions that arise in readers' minds while they're reading.

Poems are great for this approach because they pack a lot of thought into a few lines and often generate self-questions. Let's try Jack Prelutsky's "Louder Than a Clap of Thunder."* After each stanza (like a paragraph), stop, think, and question. I've included in italics a few samples generated by my own students.

Louder than a clap of thunder,
louder than an eagle screams,
louder than a dragon blunders,
or a dozen football teams.

How loud does an ...

How Prior Knowledge Helps Kids Understand What They Read

By: Tracy Ostwald Kowald
Activating Background Knowledge for Better Comprehension

In my sixth grade class, we were reading a scene from a novel in which the character was waiting impatiently for her sister. Immediately one of my students waved her hand energetically to get my attention. "I can identify with that," she announced. "I'm supposed to walk home with Elizabeth after school, and I'm always waiting while she talks and talks and talks."

The girl in my class knew exactly what it felt like to be the character in the novel we were reading. She had experience that helped her understand what she'd just read; background knowledge contributed to her comprehension.

Background knowledge enlivens reading material. Knowing something about a topic gives readers a point of contact, a connection to the material or the story. Without the understanding that prior knowledge brings, reading material can be more difficult to comprehend. Activating and connecting background knowledge is one of seven key strategies to reading comprehension, which are valuable principles for teachers and parents or Learning Coaches.

Consider Bruce Lansky's poem "The Virus Cure." *

Your laptop has a virus?
Don't tuck it into bed.
Don't give it tea, no matter what
the family doctor said.
Don't take it to the school nurse.
Don't rest it for a week.
The only way to cure it is to
show it to a geek.

Today's students are likely to know what a laptop is. Sadly, they probably also know what a computer virus is and does. As they read how the humorous ...

Picture This: How Visualizing Stories Supports Reading Comprehension

By: Tracy Ostwald-Kowald
Visualization Supports Reading Comprehension

"The fog comes in on little cat feet." Carl Sandburg wrote this vivid image more than a century ago. Every time I see fog, I picture the fog to be like an old and wise feline softly padding along its way and then sitting silently, as cats do, to watch people go about their day, the sounds muffled somewhat because the fog blankets the world.

Why authors use sensory imagery

When the weather is foggy, it brings up a sensory image—for example, a mental picture inspired by the words of a brilliant poet. Creating sensory images is one key to reading comprehension: a strategy that helps readers better understand reading material. Readers who lack reading comprehension, i.e., people who do not visualize the scenes depicted on the pages they read, rarely enjoy reading. To them, books are just words, dry words without meaning or pleasure. But fortunately, imagining sensory details is a skill that parents can help their children develop! Laura Ingalls Wilder was a talented artist who worked with words and inspired my imagination. When I was a young person reading her books, I'd take breaks, closing my eyes to envision the scenes that were without modern distractions. In Little House in the Big Woods, Laura sees a town for the first time: the town of Pepin, Wisconsin. Before this point, she had never seen two houses together, so the sight of a town with buildings from one end of the horizon to the other leaves her speechless. ...

5 Study Tips to Making Tough Subjects Easier to Learn

By: Beth Werrell
How to Make Tough Subjects Easier to Learn

When faced with studying a difficult topic, do you procrastinate, freeze, or dive in with a kind of brute-force, problem-solving approach that yields more frustration than understanding? Well, thanks to neuroscience, we now understand more about why that happens.

As Barbara Oakley, PhD, explains in "A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra)," our first impulse is usually to focus as hard as we can on the details of a difficult subject—like the narrow beam of a flashlight on a dark path. But without first shining a broad light ahead, we fail to see the big picture concepts—all those connecting paths that make mastering a subject possible.

Neuroscientists call these narrow-beam, broad-beam approaches focused and diffused modes of thinking. And it turns out that the ability to switch between these modes at the right time is key to learning complex or difficult subjects.

Five Practical Neuroscience-Based Learning Tips

In her book, Oakley draws from her own early struggles with math and science as well as the latest findings in neuroscience to show students how to make those well-timed switches.

Here are five of Oakley’s study tips we think you’ll want to give a try. Though focused on studying a chapter of text, they readily apply to any assignment—from solving math problems to writing a research paper.

  1. Scan the headings, subheadings, and illustrations of the chapter first. Now take a moment to visualize the chapter and reflect on the broad ...

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