Making Reading Meaningful
Updated: Jun 28, 2019
One of the best, and scariest, pieces of advice I received as a student teacher was to throw out my textbook. The textbook for the class I was teaching was confusing, boring, out-of-date, and full of vocabulary words and text and not enough diagrams that were simple and easy to understand. I fell in love with Earth Sciences because you can see it at work every day (and over millennia), and our textbook was confounding all of that. As I taught longer, I learned how to teach students to read textbooks in order to learn from them and how to make reading meaningful. As a Tinkergarten leader, yoga teacher, and toddler parent, I've had fun finding ways to make reading meaningful for younger kiddos too. Here are some of my favorite tips and activities for helping make story time and reading tasks impactful and fun.
Read the book in advance and read it together multiple times. Reading a book in advance helps you know if it is a book your audience may be interested in and helps you plan what to do with the book. Reading books multiple times gives readers a chance to focus on different aspects of the book. One time you may read the book and point to words, getting the rhythm of the story. During another read, you may look at pictures and think about how characters feel. The next time, you may think about what you'd do differently than the characters. With science texts, the first read might be used to gather questions (what words do I need to look up? What do I need to find a picture of?), the second read may be for comprehension, and the third may be to notice problems and plan solutions.
You don't have to read the whole thing. Gauge the attention of your audience. If attention wanders, try asking your kiddos to "read" the pictures on the next page. What story can they tell you based on the pictures? You can also summarize a few pages if needed OR ask them what they remember from the story, write a sticky note summary, put it in as a bookmark, and return to it another day. I know I have a new talker with a limited vocabulary, so her "summary" might be a list of character names. I would still write those down and read them back. For example, we recently read a book called The Royal Rabbits of London by Montefiore. HG knows the rabbits' names so her summary would be "Shylo, Horatio, rabbits, scary", my summary back would be, "Horatio sent Shylo to do a scary job, so Shylo rabbit is being brave! He's on an adventure!". In a science class, science texts are DENSE. I'd have my 9th graders tackle the abstract, introductions, and conclusions of scientific papers with ample time and assistance. We read looking for specific information to help us focus and sift through confusing details. Reading can be like solving a mystery when we think of it as finding clues to answer a question rather than understanding every word on a page.
We may listen with our ears, but we process with much more! Making sense of what we read requires more than listening. And, sitting still to listen is nearly impossible for most people. Sketching what is happening or taking notes can be helpful for older readers. I encouraged students to write a sticky note summary for every couple pages in their textbooks to refer to later. With HG, she builds with LEGOS or paints with water on cardboard while we read. Then, we talk about the pictures. Acting out stories with our bodies (YAY Story Time Yoga!!!), puppets, toys, rocks, literally anything you have on hand is shown to be an effective strategy for helping kiddos understand what they read, and it's plain old fun :). You can also take pictures or draw your own versions of the book characters, cut them out, add magnet tape pieces to the back, and play with them. You can hide a stash of these magnets behind you or tucked in to pages of the book and pull them out when you get to a character or item and ask your listeners what or who you've found (we did this at an art class recently at the VMFA). I also love drawing maps of what happened in stories, this is such a fun way to try to recall the settings, events, and sequence of a story. You can also draw emojis showing how a character felt in each place. In Tinkergarten, we'll often go on hunts for elements from a story - like golden flowers after reading How to Find Gold by Schwartz or imagining we're running through swishy grass after reading We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Rosen. (See the first set of pictures above to for some ways we've played with stories using peg people, a rain shaker and puppet, and a toilet paper doll for hair styling and the second set of pictrues to see some story time interaction!)
Model interest, wonder, confusion, problem-solving, and more. Readers do a lot of work while they read. They notice what words they understand and don't understand. They think about how characters feel. They paint images in their own heads of what is happening in the story. Doing "think-alouds" where we model practicing these skills to kiddos shows them how to do it on their own. In my science class, we read parts of When the Rivers Run Dry by Pearce. There is a section that talks about how officials often wait to long to release dams. I might wonder, "What does flooding look like if officials release a dam or if they wait for it to breach?", we might do a quick image search to see the results of flooding, students might then doodle these different flooding results on a sticky note and put it in the book for later. With picture books, we often look at how a character feels and act it out. We then think about what might make the character feel a different way. If I run across a word I don't know or that I think my listeners might not know, I'll pause and we talk about the word, it's context, and a definition.
Make it enjoyable and relevant. When reading is fun, or at least very interesting, and maybe a snippet challenging, it is easier to sustain. When readers are reading independently, if they do not understand 95% of the words without help, their reading will be so slowed down that their overall comprehension will suffer (learn more about this here). So, what if your kiddo picks a book he or she doesn't understand a lot of? Turn it into a book you read together OR read it in drafts - the first time, look up the words, the second time, read it for fun. What if you have a kiddo who doesn't say a lot of words so you don't know if they get what you're reading? Toddlers and babies benefit from hearing words and stories, even if they don't understand every word. At a young age, reading a story, but also pointing out faces and pictures, repeating rhymes, clapping syllables, working together to turn pages, etc is perfect! Have an older kiddo who has favorite topics? Read a group of books about the same topic and use this to launch or supplement some project play! Teaching older students? Go back to the dam scenario above. We might look at a map of dams in our state, find pictures of recent dam breaches, and make a mini river and dam to release in a paint tray.
Some resources on reading:
Repeated Interactive Read Alouds (and everything from Reading Rockets!)