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  Helping Students with Basic Skills








Helping Students Read

- by Tim Brown

A student stops you after class or drops by during your office hours.  They need extra help to succeed in your course.  You might not be able to offer them all the help they need.  The materials below offer suggestions for what you may be able to do or where you might refer them for help on your campus.

Understanding and Retention

Let's imagine that a student complains that the assigned text is too difficult. It can be helpful to determine whether the student has difficulty reading the words, or understanding the topics discussed. The ability to read involves much more than just reading the words. It includes comprehension. It may be that your student can read the words, can define the words, but cannot infer meaning from them. For example, a student may do very well in a class that requires reading about tangible objects, following instructions about their assembly, and then regurgitating back the "facts" in a test. But, the student may not be able to infer meaning ("read between the lines"). Some of the definitions on the following table may help to clarify and help you discover where a student is challenged. If you can identify the point of confusion, you may be able to help them develop a strategy for working through it. You may also discover that the student needs help you are not trained to give. In that case send them to a reading specialist.

It may be helpful to determine if the student has difficulting understanding or retaining information.

If the Difficulty is Retaining:
Comprehensive Involves Both
If the Difficulty is Understanding:

Everyone has two different memories:

  • short-term  
    (3-5 sec)
  • long-term (indefinitely, depending on how often it is referred to)

All information we receive at any given moment from all of our sensory receptors (site, hearing, taste, smell touch) goes into short-term memory automatically. In other words, we do not have to initiate any conscious thought process to make that occur. For information to move from short-term memory to long-term memory, we have to associate it with something that we already know (in other words, give it meaning).

Maintenance rehearsal keeps information in short-term memory by repeating it over and over again.

One can keep information in short-term memory longer than the standard three to five seconds by repeating it. You may have actually done this before when you were trying to remember a phone number long enough to dial the phone. This process is referred to as maintenance rehearsal. If you have ever studied using flash cards, you were utilizing this process.

There is some question, however, whether you have actually learned this new information or simply memorized it. Generally what happens when you stop the maintenance rehearsal (stop reviewing the flash cards), the information is quickly forgotten and never really gets to long-term memory.

Elaborate rehearsal allows information to move to long-term memory, and learning takes place.

New information will not move to long term memory without our giving it meaning. We do this by associating this new idea, whatever it is, to something that we already know that is similar or related in some way. This is a conscious thought process which must be initiated by the reader and it is called elaborate rehearsal. In order to accomplish this, the reader must know what he/she knows about the subject or the topic of the reading.

There are three different areas in long term memory.

  • Episodic: information is something we experienced directly.
  • Semantic: information is part of what we are reading.
  • Procedural: how to do something

"Comprehension" means both understanding as well as retaining what is read.

Three levels of comprehension:

  • literal
  • inferential
  • critical evaluative

You might want to ask yourself, "Is the information I am reading of any value if I am unable to remember it?" Or, "Am I likely to remember any information I do not understand when I read it?" These two question point out the importance of thinking of comprehension as both understanding and retaining.

In addition, there are three levels of reading comprehension:

  • At the literal level, the author formulates the idea for the reader and conveys it in his/her  words (reading the line).
  • At the inferential level, the author merely suggests the idea, and the reader must formulate the idea based on the suggestion the author provided, what is sometimes called reading "between the lines."
  • At the critical evaluative level, the author really does not play any role. Here the reader is "beyond the lines," making objective decisions concerning the value of what has been read.

The reading process consists of three steps:

  • pre-read
  • through-read
  • post-read

And, four mental processes occur during those three steps:

  • activate in the pre-read
  • associate in the through-read
  • assimilate in the post-read
  • accommodate in the post read.

It is during the pre-read that we activate our prior knowledge. Which strategy is used depends on the organization of the print.

  • In the preview, we must determine the topic (the person, place or thing that the reading is about). Before you can activate what you know, your prior knowledge, you must have a "trigger" of some kind. That trigger is the topic. You must know the topic of what you are going to read before you read if you expect to retain any of the information you are given beyond just a few seconds. There are a number of parts of the text that can be previewed in order to determine what the reading is about:
    • The title: The title is NOT necessarily the topic. The topic is the person, place or thing the reading is about. Although some titles include the topic, the reader should never assume that the title is the topic, because often, if taken literally, the title has nothing to with what the reading is about.
    • The authors: Some authors of fiction always write in the same genre. Authors of textbooks are sometimes highlighted at the beginning or end of the book and their disciplines are identified.
    • Headings: When beginning a textbook, review all of the headings and ask what do they have in common. Whatever that is will most likely be the topic. Also, in many books the reader will find an abstract (Introduction, Prelude, Prologue etc.). This will often lead the reader to some conclusion as to what the topic is.

Once the topic has been determined, now the reader can move forward with the first of what I call the 4 A's.  (Activate Associate, Assimilate, Accommodate), which occur during the three-step reading process. When the reader activates his/her prior knowledge during the pre-read, he/she is essentially discovering what they know about the topic so that they will be in a position to connect it or associate it to during the through-read (actual reading). You might encourage students to use one of two different strategies to activate prior knowledge. Which one they should use is dictated by the organization of the printed material.

  • K-W-L: Textbooks are highly organized and lend themselves to one particular strategy that we will call the K-W-L. The K-W-L is really nothing more that a chart used to organize the learning process and to facilitate elaborate rehearsal:
    • "K" = what you know about the topic. You simply fill this column with every thought that comes to mind when you think of the topic.
    • "W" = what you expect to learn. This column contains questions that are raised by each heading or subheading. The reader can turn the headings into questions by using words like who, what, when, where, why, how and which.
    • "L" = where the reader answers the questions that appear in the "W" column. To insure elaborate rehearsal, the reader would answer the questions after the entire chapter has been read and answer them in his/her own words rather than the author's. Click here for example.
  • Mapping: When reading material does not have headings, the K-W-L strategy will not work. In this case another strategy can be utilized called mapping. Mapping is really just a graphic organizer that represents what you know about a topic before you read and what you learned about the topic following the reading. The map is based on a prediction that is reasonable based on your prior knowledge. The map requires more than just the topic to activate prior knowledge. It also requires two or three additional trigger words. Those trigger words can usually be found in the title or abstract. When you complete the map, you have activated enough prior knowledge to make a logical prediction about what you think the author will say about the topic. Remember, during the through-read, you must connect new ideas with "old" ones. Click here for example.
  • The inductive outline is a strategy that can be employed during the through-read. The purpose of the strategy is to keep the reader focused on the general topic or the point the author is making. It is an inductive thought process used as the reader moves from one paragraph to the next. The unit of print must be divided into sections to make it more manageable. This is usually done for you in textbooks by the headings, but in other kinds of printed information there are few or no headings. In cases like these the reader should scan the reading selection looking for paragraphs which may begin with a transition. Transitions are signal words that tell the reader that the author is continuing a thought over a series of paragraphs or changing his/her thought in the next paragraph. Transitions signal contrast, thus indicating a change in the direction of the author's thought and a good place to mark an end to a section and a beginning of another.
    • As the reader recognizes the point the author made in a paragraph, he/she moves onto the next. When the reader reaches the mark or the end of the section, he/she should quickly ask him/herself what those ideas had in common and what they said collectively about the topic of the reading selection. As soon as those two questions are answered, a generalization has been made, and then the reader moves on to the next section.

Both of the pre-reading strategies have elements that are completed after you read in the post-read.

  • Assimilation: The information you retained from the reading was similar to some thing(s) that you already knew.
  • Accommodation: If you relied solely on information that you retained from the reading to answer the question, that thought process is referred to as accommodation. In other words, since you didn't already know it or something similar to it, you must make room for this information in your long-term memory, or what we  have been calling prior knowledge.

When the reader finishes the reading, there should be five to seven generalizations made and the reader should again ask what do they have in common and what they say collectively about the topic. This final generalization will produce the controlling idea or the point the author made about the topic in the entire reading selection. Click here for example.



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