Helping Students Learn How Good Readers Approach a Text

How can you tell when someone is a good reader? What do teachers look for when they are trying to understand how well someone reads? Asking students this question helps begin to unpack and demystify the reading process, say researchers from the Strategic Literacy Initiative (SLI) at WestEd, the federal regional educational laboratory in San Francisco.

Not everyone realizes how complex a task reading is, SLI director Cynthia Greenleaf asserts. Even master readers have grown so used to the processes they use with unfamiliar texts that they rarely notice what helps them through a successful reading. But once students have a clearer picture of both the demands of different texts and the strategies that good readers use, they can try out new approaches themselves, combining them flexibly to make better sense of what they read.

SLI researchers developed the following exercise as a way to get students to share and analyze their reading strategies. Start with moderately challenging texts, they suggest, and introduce more difficult texts as the group repeats the exercise on different days.

Analyzing the Reading Process

1. Before reading, ask students what good readers do when they read. (Other prompts: “How can you tell when someone is a good reader? What do you think teachers look for when they are trying to understand how well someone reads?”)

2. Record all answers for the group to see, under the title “Good Readers’ Strategies.” Whether the answers support your notion of reading or not, they will help construct a sense of what the students’ beliefs about reading are. Later conversations will revise and elaborate on this initial list.

3. Give out a piece of text to be read. Ask students to read as they normally would, noting that discussion will follow about how they read. While they read, also read the text yourself.

4. After they read, ask students to write brief answers to prompts such as: What did you notice? What was hard? What did you do to make sense of the text as you read? (Again, you should write your own answers.)

5. Ask students to share their answers, making sure to validate the many different kinds of thinking that led to the successful completion of the reading task. If necessary, get them started by sharing one or two of your own answers. Prompt students with questions such as: “Did anyone notice that they had to re-read any part?” or “Did anyone think of something else that they knew about that was kind of related?”

6. Record people’s observations for all to see, pointing out and labeling various comprehension strategies so the class may begin to build a common vocabulary about reading process.

7. As students share their strategies, revisit the items on the list they made at the start of the session. Based on this last reading experience, do they want to add or revise anything? For example, many initial lists include the comment, “Good readers read fast.” If students say that they had to slow down because the text was confusing, a revised list might read, “Good readers sometimes read fast, but they know to slow down when they need to.”

Some Ways Good Readers Solve Problems

Even students who do not see themselves as readers can begin to see that the comprehension challenges they face are common to all readers–and that they, too, read strategically. With your group, create a “problem solving” list of such challenges, with various strategies to get through them. For example, if a student has a problem with vocabulary, ask, “What kinds of things do people do when they come to new words?” Help generate a list of strategies for dealing with this problem, such as:

  • Read ahead.
  • Read the sentence before the word.
  • Substitute a word you know that sounds right and
  • makes sense.
  • Look for parts of the word (roots) that are used in other
  • words that you know.
  • Write the word down and go on.
  • Look it up or ask someone.

Other common problems include distractions that make it hard to focus one’s attention; disagreeing with the author; being nervous (about reading aloud or reading for a test); reading about something one doesn’t know much about, or not knowing or caring about the purpose of reading a text.

Some Strategies Good Readers Use

  • Good readers read fast, and change the speed of their reading depending on how difficult the text is.
  • Good readers re-read.
  • Good readers ask questions.
  • Good readers have a reason to read–they set a purpose.
  • Good readers think about what they know already that is related to what they are reading, using their background knowledge about the topic, genre, era, author, and so forth.
  • Good readers make personal connections, saying, “This reminds me of . . .”
  • Good readers visualize, trying to picture what the author is saying.

Edited somewhat for length, this material comes from the Strategic Literacy Initiative website , which also offers more help to content-area teachers concerned with improving students’ literacy skills. For information, visit or call   415-565-3026    415-565-3026 .