Monday, February 8, 2010

Teaching Teenagers to Read

Yeah, yeah. I know you know how to read, but I'm not talking about the "Hooked on Phonics worked for me" kind of reading, I mean understanding what you read so that you don't have the "In one eye out the other" experience.

If you have ever spent an hour reading a novel only to realize that you don't remember anything that you just read, follow these helpful (though potentially boring) steps to better reading comprehension.

  1. Sit at a table with good light. Do not read in bed, the floor, a big comfy chair, bathtub; you will probably fall asleep.
  2. Read in a quiet environment. Turn off the music, tv, cell phone, and computer. Your brain can focus on 4-7 things at once, and reading takes up most of those. When you read, you need to focus your eyes on the words, decode the words, think of the meaning of the words you are reading right now, connect them with what you have already read, and (if you have brain power left over) predict what will come next. There is no room in your brain to also listen to music or listen for text messages.
  3. Put the book flat on the table. When you hold a book in your hands, it does not stay perfectly still. Often, the book moves slightly with respect to your eyes, and your eyes lose their place. That is why you sometimes read the same line twice, or you skip a line. This will make you confused, force you to find your place again, and get back in your rhythm, all of which ruins your reading comprehension.
  4. Use a ruler. To help keep your eyes on track even more, hold a ruler above the line you are reading. It prevent your eyes from straying as well as keeping your book flat. You should put the ruler above the line you are reading instead of below since it will push you down the page, preventing you from lagging behind. Besides, your peripheral vision is much better than you know, and your eyes are actually getting a preview of some of the important words coming up; you don't want to cover those words with the ruler.
  5. Take notes. Writing down notes boosts your retention because you have to read the words, think about what was most important, find a way to write that quickly, write it, and read the words you just wrote. Your brain has just interacted with the material five times instead of just once. If you own the book, write a few words summarizing the important events in the margins. If it is not your book, write a line of notes for every half a page.
  6. Read fast. Have you ever noticed that you can see a billboard out of the corner of your eye for a split second and know what it says? Your brain is so used to reading that it can soak up words a lot faster that you realize; that is why speed reading works. When you read slowly, your mind tends to drift, you have to hold information in your short-term memory longer, and you risk subvocalization (moving your lips when you read or sounding the words out in your head). Let yourself read faster than you think you can, and you will be surprised at how much you remember.
When I would share these insights with my students, they'd always complain. They said that it is so boring, that it is uncomfortable, and that it takes too long to write notes. My reply? Then don't read. If you are not going to retain what you just read, then you might as well keep the book closed and go have fun. Instead of spending an hour reading without remembering anything, spend an hour an a half reading and taking notes correctly with great comprehension. Then you can be done with your work and really enjoy your music, tv, computer, etc.

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