I like to think of reading like a vacation. First, you plan ahead; where will you go? Which hotel will you choose? What’s important to do when you get there? And along the way, you will take lots of photographs. When you return home, you’ll likely reflect on your trip and flip through all pictures you took.
A good reader takes the same steps. She plans ahead by reading the synopsis and promotional reviews on the back of the book cover as well as the verbiage on the interior book jacket. She’ll take a look at the chapter titles to get a sense of what she’s about to read. In a textbook, she’ll read the heading for each section; look at the pictures and descriptions below them, and scan the questions at the back of the chapter The simple strategy of previewing has been shown to improve comprehension by as much as 66%.
Now comes the actual process of reading the text. In order to improve long-term memory, a good reader will jot down important notes to remember the critical points. That way, when she’s done, she can reflect back on the main points by reviewing the margin notes. These notes are similar to photographs. They provide a snapshot in time, which jogs memory.
Reading is Not a Spectator Sport
Here’s the thing: reading is an active process, not a spectator sport. It requires energy and most important of all, concentration. For many students, focus is not a problem when they are reading about subjects they enjoy. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. In the course of their studies, students have to plow through a good deal of material they find dense and boring. And this is when taking the time to jot down notes, similar to taking pictures, becomes so useful in enhancing learning.
Note-taking works on a number of levels. It heightens attention by forcing students to actively engage with the material they are reading. Just as importantly, it encourages students to put the material into their own words and into some meaningful order. This simple task improves comprehension because the student must summarize the information he’s just read. Reiterating and condensing text is one of the very best ways to understand and remember.
There are a number of methods for taking notes while reading. The most basic involves margin notes and “self-talk,” a technique in which the reader questions himself about what he’s reading. You can coach your child to use this strategy by saying, “After you read a page in your novel, (or a section in your textbook), ask yourself, “What did I just read?” or “What is the main idea here? His answers should be briefly recorded in the page margin. If writing in the textbook is not an option, your child can use Post-it notes.
The next step which is a little different is to write a two to three sentence summary after each subsection in the text book or each chapter in a novel. Why is this helpful? It forces the reader to take a lot of information and boil it down to the most important points. Furthermore, studies have shown that taking a few minutes to summarize the main points right after reading is one of the greatest predictors of retention.
Online vs. Print Reading
We know that comprehension is a skill that can absolutely be taught. Hundreds of research studies have shown that by helping students to preview material, take notes while reading, and summarize the key points they can dramatically improve their understanding and retention. My tutors and I have worked with many students to do just that, but in this day and age with most textbooks online, our job is much harder. That’s because reading from a novel from an e-reader, such as a Kindle, is a very different experience than paper copy reading.
A recent study gave 50 readers a 28-page short story to read. Half the group read it on a Kindle, and the other half read it in paperback form. The readers were tested on the impact of digitalization on the reading experience.
The study, presented in Italy at a conference last month and set to be published as a paper, gave 50 readers the same short story by Elizabeth George to read. Half read the 28-page story on a Kindle, and half in a paperback, with readers then tested on their understanding of the characters, setting, and events.
The readers in both groups performed similarly, but with a big exception in the area of plot development. Anne Mangen, the lead researcher stated, “The Kindle readers performed significantly worse on the plot reconstruction measure, i.e., when they were asked to place or sequence 14 events in the correct order.” The researchers suggest that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocketbook does.
When you read on paper, you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and a pile of pages shrinking on the right. You have the tactile sense of progress, in addition to the visual … [The differences for Kindle readers] which might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper, and this very gradual unfolding of paper as you progress through a story, is a kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you’re reading.”
Another paper also published by Anne Mangen and The University of Stavanger analyzed 72 Norwegian high school sophomores’ reading comprehension in print and on a PDF on a computer screen. Mangen and her team found that when these 10th graders were tested afterwards, the students who read from texts in print scored significantly better.
“I’m so distracted online!”
Although there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that comprehension is compromised when reading online, there are many things students can do to negate this effect. Some textbooks have note-taking tools that allow students to jot down quick summaries or highlight important information as they read.
It’s essential to get into the habit of using these features, but be sure to use highlighting sparingly. Taking notes is far superior. Too many students become “highlighter happy,” and use this technique as a comprehension strategy when in fact, there is no research that shows highlighting as you read boosts comprehension.
I’ve worked with many students who simply do not like digital text. They report that it’s hard for them to concentrate and that they easily drift off or are tempted by a far more interesting app or website while online. These are the students that benefit from ordering a used printed copy of the book, or, if that’s not an option, printing out the pages they need to read and annotating them the good old fashioned way.
Reading comprehension can be difficult for students of any age, whether they are in first grade or taking multiple AP classes in eleventh grade. Encourage your student to try these strategies. But if your student is still feeling stuck or overwhelmed by reading, the best thing you can do is get a professional in place to work with him to understand the content and improve comprehension.