Learn techniques to improve comprehension of reading material

In the sixth grade social studies classrooms at Mexico Middle School, the textbook has been the same for several years. The approach to student comprehension of the material, however, has undergone a significant change.
"In our department, Darren Pappas and I have adopted teaching methods, partially based on the research of noted reading specialist Sharon Faber, which help break down the textbook material for the students," Sarah Gleeson, teacher, said. "There is a huge push to make sure students make connections when they read. The more connections a person can make, the better that person will understand the material. The students identify with the historical material, by connecting what they read to their own lives, to the world, or to other material."
The sixth grade social studies content material covers ancient civilizations. Currently the students are studying ancient Egypt. While the students will still do project-based learning, right now the focus in on reading comprehension.
"Many of the students can zip through the reading assignment, but if they have no connection to the material, they have more trouble comprehending," Gleeson said. "We are using strategies to improve reading in the context areas, where the level of the material is sometimes higher than the reading level of the students."
Four of the techniques used by the teachers are sorting, using anticipation guides, word walls and book walks. When the students begin a new course of study, the teachers guide them through the textbook chapters.
"We look through the entire chapter first, reading the objectives of what the authors expect the students to learn, looking at the questions at the end of the chapter, reading every headline and subhead, looking at the new vocabulary words and their definitions, and exploring every chart and timeline," Gleeson said. "This book walk helps the students develop a connection to the material before we even start our study."
The students use anticipation guides to organize what they already know about the material, or what they think they know. Gleeson said the students use their textbooks approximately three days during the week, and work on the comprehension skills and use outside sources the other days.
In the classrooms, the students are building word walls, which are words they will encounter over the course of the year. This organizing strategy allows the students to see the words every day, instead of just learning the vocabulary for the unit and then moving on to the next chapter. Students also work hands-on with word sorting activities which help them match the new vocabulary words with definitions. "I want the students to be able to define the words in their own words, not necessarily by what the book says," Gleeson said.
Another sorting activity which helps student comprehension is that of letting them selfguide through the material by answering questions such as what information was highly useful, what information was already known and what they learned. "As the students read and take notes, they increase their comprehension, of course," Gleeson said.
"This organizational strategy forces students to slow down and pace themselves."
These teaching strategies support the Middle School's emphasis on improving reading skills.
"As students enter the secondary level, they are expected to learn by reading, although not all students have mastered the skills," Deb Hill Haag, principal, said. "The good news is that teachers such as Sarah Gleeson and Darren Pappas continue to help students become stronger readers in subject areas that have not always had a 'learning to read' focus."