Becoming a Skilled Reader
You probably have some sense of whether or not by nature you are a good reader, and honestly, some people are naturally better readers than others, but the other truth is that reading is a skill, a skill that you can build by adopting some important behaviors. Therefore, whether you know you are a good reader, or even if you are sure that you are the worst reader in the world, there are behaviors that you can learn that will help you read better.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said “'Tis a good reader that makes a good book." In other words, the better you are at reading, the more you will enjoy books, stories, essays, poems, etc. And it logically follows that if you learn to read better, not only will you enjoy reading more, but the better you will do in school. That’s one of the goals here—to teach you how to be a better, happier readers and better, happier student. That is what I wish for all my students, and it is what I wish for you. Yet, on their way to becoming better, happier readers, my students often have three complaints:
“I read it; I just don’t remember it.”
“I read it but I don’t get it.”
“I just can’t concentrate; it’s boring.”
These are very real and frustrating concerns. To help overcome these barriers, you must learn an important skill—to engage with the text. The more engaged with the text you are, the less often you will encounter those three problems, but engaging with a text is not as easy as simply deciding to be more engaged. There are a number of behaviors to master. Some behaviors have to do with preparing for your reading journey; some have to do with understanding how to interact with different kinds of texts, and some have to do with specifically reading as a student. And, after you learn those skills, you will learn how the parts of texts work and how to manage those parts.
But, before we get into all that, let me address one idea that you need to accept.
Reading takes sustained, undistracted, intellectual and emotional activity.
I am not going to sugarcoat that for you. Like any truly rewarding activity, reading takes work. Embrace that work because whether you are playing a sport, performing a piece of music, playing a video game, or reading a story, you must be fully engaged to perform well. But, let’s face it, being a happy, undistracted engaged reader is not easy.
Three types of Readers:
To the happy and/or good reader: This class will still challenge you and improve your reading skill—making you an even happier and better reader.
To the competent, I’m-OK-with-it reader: This class just may improve your skills enough that you become a happy, good reader.
To the unhappy and/or struggling reader: First, I’m sorry that reading is hard for you or that it is not your favorite activity. And, I feel your pain. For me, the struggle was in math—and my dad was an engineer and math whiz who was a National Merit Scholar. Not only did I have to struggle in math, I had to live with someone who thought that I was just not trying. And, I have seen students like you struggle under similar conditions. My math struggles motivate me to help you with your reading. My experiences help me know that you can do this!
But, here is what else I know:
You may as well get over the fact that this is hard for you. Frankly, toughness in reading is far more important than toughness in sports or on the playground. But, some hard work now offers the promise of a better tomorrow. Some work now will make your reading and student lives much easier later—and forever.
Reading requires a set of skills that you can improve upon. With the right help, you can do this!
Success is all about the long term. Most adults read just fine—and you will, too. You just may have to work a bit harder and wait a bit longer to get there. Rather than giving up in frustration, why not dig in, be patient, and be tough?
What You Need to Do to Read Well
Preparing the Environment:
Turn off the music and the cell phone, and get yourself somewhere where there are not distractions. Some people may prefer to read in isolation, others a public place with some white noise, but do not be around friends or other people who you will want to engage with or who will want to engage with you. And put away those devices (and turn them off). Remember: sustained, undistracted, intellectual and emotional activity.
Preparing for the Reading Journey:
Perhaps the first step of engaging with the text is understanding what you're getting into. At any given moment, you might be reading a piece of fiction, nonfiction, drama, or poetry. Each will require a slightly different approach. So, whichever genre you are preparing to read, take some time to get ready for the journey. Also, take a look at the size and type of the quest that is before you and decide what skills to deploy along the way. In short, you need to decide exactly how it is you plan to engage with a particular piece of writing. You need a plan. So when you sit down to read, first, skim quickly through the work to see what level of commitment you have on your hands. Look at how many words are on a page, the size of the font, and how long the chapters are (if it’s a book). Try to prepare yourself emotionally for the project at hand.
And, if you do not love reading, get over being grumpy about it. As is true for anything in life, deciding to maintain a good attitude makes any activity more enjoyable. But, being good at an activity also makes it more enjoyable, so we will work on that. Be undistracted, focused, and prepared.
Understanding How Texts Work:
Part of preparing for your reading journey, and part of what makes good readers good, is understanding how texts work and what behaviors different text elements require of you. Really, that is the central focus of this class. I want to teach you about how all the parts of different types of texts work and how you should approach each part. Think about an athlete or a musician: They understand what a game or what a style of music is about; they know all the parts, and they know what skills are required to get each part to work. Reading is the same. We will spend much of this class learning the parts and the needed skills.
Reading as a Student
Reading for school is not the same as reading on your own. Truth be told, even I do not read as carefully when I am reading for myself, at least on the first read. This i dea is true in other situations. I take my casual Sunday afternoon workouts easier than the workouts I do if I am training for a triathlon or trying to lose those winter pounds. I take more time on my appearance when I am getting ready for work or a wedding than I do on a Saturday morning. Similarly, reading for school is simply not the same as casually reading on your own; it’s more like preparing for work or a wedding. So, adjust your behavior, which may mean taking the time to reread and to annotate.
Preparing a Text for Re-visitation—annotating or taking notes
Part of reading for school is managing the text. When we read—particularly books—there is a lot to keep track of, especially for students. I mean, you just know there is going to be a quiz or a test or a paper in your future. So, you need some sort of system for managing all that information, just like you need a system for managing all your contacts, apps, and songs. Annotating is the organizational system for reading. But, it’s tricky for three reasons.
Everyone has to develop his or her own system; there is no one way to annotate.
Annotating involves prediction, and many people are not good at prediction. It can be really hard to know what in a text to annotate and what to leave alone. You have to make educated guesses about just what you will need help remembering later—and, of course, what your pesky English teacher will want you to know.
Annotating takes time; it will slow your reading down.
There is no magic that can resolve those three issues. Use your knowledge of the class and the teacher to predict what information form a story you will need; maybe take a look at assignments and the calendar to make some predictions. Also, be willing to take the needed time, and always be refining your annotating system. I have some suggestions.
When you annotate, do not use highlighter; use pen. Highlighter may draw your attention to a passage later, but it will not offer you any real information about what is important. Here is how I annotate, and so this is what I recommend that you do. But, you need to develop your own system.
A Funny Observation.
Draw a rectangle around the name of each character when you first meet him or her.
Circle any vocabulary for which you do not know the definition. Then, either try to determine the definition from the context or look the word up and write a synonym nearby.
Mark all similes, metaphors, images, and symbols. Maybe a highlighter works OK here. Note what that technique adds to the story that would be lost if the technique were removed.
Underline and note all moments of conflict (internal and external).
Draw a line across the whole page (from side to side) at the beginnings and ends of flashbacks (and dreams)—and mark them. And mark what you think may be foreshadowing. Also, if there are any, mark parallel narratives and/or shifts in point of view.
When I finish a chapter (or a poem or a story), on the last page, I mark my personal reactions. For a newer reader, it might be something like, “The father is so mean to his son.” An experienced reader might note: “Great conflict between father and son—will either lead to a split or reconciliation. Will the son come of age?” “Will the dad change for the good of the son?”
Once you write your thoughts at the end of a chapter, go back to the first page of that chapter and list basic events, characters, and conflicts. Often, I will even name each chapter to remind me what happened.
Some students often find it helpful to take notes on bookmarks and place them throughout the book.
I have also seen some kids—and I must admit usually good students—use sticky, colored tabs to mark important places in the book so that they can open right up to them.
And some kids—often those who really need reading help—will decide to take notes in a journal.
My AP Literature students—my best readers—annotate far more often than my General English kids, who are great kids but who need to annotate much more than the AP kids. And, who annotates the most? I do—the one who needs it least. There is a lesson here, don’t you think? Annotate.
All difficult tasks require us to learn sophisticated behaviors, and this is very true of reading. Like I mentioned earlier, I have met with many a frustrated student (and parents) over the years, and these methods work every time.
Yeah, I know, rereading—especially for those for whom reading is not their favorite activity—is not a welcome idea. But, from my experience as a reader and as a teacher, rereading is the single best way to improve your reading and your scores on discussions, quizzes, tests, papers, and projects. Over the years, I have had more than one student (and more than a few parents) challenge the difficulty of my class, and I always come back to two questions: “When you were reading, when you got lost or stuck, did you go back and reread?” And: “Did you annotate or take notes?” The answer is almost always no, and I have never seen a situation where, once a student took the time to reread and annotate, that grades did not rise.
Rereading does not always mean rereading an entire text, although, that is a great idea. Rereading means that when you are feeling confused or unsure about what is happening in a text, that you stop reading, go back a line, a page, a chapter—and reread until you know what’s going on. Redirect yourself as you go along. I mean, if you take a trip to Florida and you make a wrong turn in Wyoming, it is better—is it not?—to turn around right away rather than later on when you end up in Maine? When you read, do not read to get done; read to understand—take your time, navigate carefully. Be willing to reread. And, to annotate.
To Wrap Up:
So, there are some environmental factors (quiet area, no phone), attitudes (concentrate, be tough), and skills (planning for the reading journey, annotating and rereading) that you can choose to use right now. These are decisions that you can make that will improve your reading.
If you will make those choices, this class will show you how to build all of the skills needed to become a better and happier reader—all the other skills on the two above lists. For the most part, building those skills will be about learning how the parts of texts work and what ready behaviors to apply and when.
An Additional Note:
My beliefs about reading align with Carol Dweck’s ideas about the growth mindset and Angela Lee Duckowrth’s thoughts about grit. Both ideas will help you become a better reader.
Dr. Dweck wrote a book called The Growth Mindset. The book explains how each of us is not stuck with our natural abilities or intelligence. It turns out that if we are willing to work on what we consider to be our weaknesses, we can drastically improve them. It will not help you to say, “Oh, I am just not good at reading.” But, it will help you to say, “I am not naturally a good reader, but I can drastically improve my reading with some hard work over time.”
Of course, the “hard work over time” part is the challenge. So this journey to self-improvement takes some patience and some toughness. But, through her research, Ms. Duckworth learned that the best students are often not the smartest students. The best students are often the ones who have “grit”—the ones who are tough and willing to work. Grit is something that you can develop.
I highly recommend that you read The Growth Mindset and that you watch Ms. Duckworth’s Ted Talk on grit.
You can nurture and develop a growth mindset. and you can nurture and develop grit. And those two ideas will take you far on your journey to becoming a happy reader, a happy student, and a happy person.
So, to that end, I have tried to give you everything you need but nothing you don’t. Let’s get busy.