Learning to Read to Learn

Three ways to enhance adolescent reading comprehension in a digital world

December 13, 2016
Learning to Read to Learn

By middle school, typical reading curriculums assume that students have the necessary literacy strategies to decode the writing in front of them. Lessons have shifted from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” with students using texts to make sense of unknown concepts.

But in a digital world, there are countless ways — books, newspapers, social media, blogs, online forums — to read information. This variety of sources can leave middle and high school students confused about which techniques to use to comprehend, analyze, and synthesize what’s in front of them, as well as which reading to use for higher learning.

Now, a study of three adolescent literacy projects reveals instructional approaches that can help teens develop the reading skills they need for consuming 21st-century texts.

The Research

“Middle and high school teachers could make their classroom activities more engaging by ensuring that students are focused on an organizing question or purpose for the activities. They could build time for peer-talk and purposeful classroom discussion more systematically into their lessons.”

The study, co-authored by language and literacy development expert Catherine Snow, looked at three multiyear adolescent literacy projects: Promoting Adolescents’ Comprehension of Text (PACT); Catalyzing Comprehension through Discussion and Debate (CCDD); and Reading, Evidence, and Argumentation in Disciplinary Instruction (READI). Each project focused on a different method of reading comprehension — for example, building vocabulary and knowledge central to a particular unit — and implemented a curriculum following that theory.

These three programs shared the understanding that adolescents face new challenges in reading, such as grasping unfamiliar content in complex language forms and integrating diverse forms of text. And while each project had its own model of building teenagers’ comprehension, all were successful in improving student outcomes.

Significantly, the researchers noticed three common practices in each of these projects. They found that building these practices in tandem into middle and high school reading lessons can help boost reading comprehension and build prepared, engaged learners.

Literacy projects are effective when:

  1. Students engage in active, purposeful, engaged reading.

All three programs emphasized the importance of students engaging with the text itself — rather than just learning the content, which they could have done through videos or lectures.

The projects also all included an explicit purpose for reading — answering essential questions or connecting content to students’ lives.

The projects all included non-textbook texts, such as short readings and background information, which helped keep students engaged.

  1. Reading involves various forms of social support.

Each program included group work, where students discuss, debated, and wrote together about the text. These projects also all used whole-class discussions to highlight ways of making meaning of a text. For instance, students could discuss the similarities and differences in their interpretations, or the teacher could model academic language and teach essential background information.

  1. Instruction leverages prior knowledge and introduces key concepts and vocabularies.

Just as younger students learn to read by connecting the words on the page to ideas they already understand, all of these programs introduced new content and vocabulary by connecting it with students’ prior knowledge. The projects then had students use that new knowledge in ways that activated higher thinking skills, such as making and justifying a decision or solving a problem.

Implications for Teachers

“Our findings suggest that the distinction between learning to read and reading to learn no longer serves teachers or their students,” write the authors. While middle and high school students may have mastered the basic tools of reading, they still need help “learning to read” the increasingly complex and diverse texts of the digital age.

But that continued instruction has to be done in creative ways, says Snow, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Whereas first-graders are happy to devote themselves to learning to read because they are motivated by the accomplishment itself, older students who need to acquire more sophisticated reading skills are less likely to acquire those skills if they are taught directly.” Adolescents learn how to figure out complex language forms or to question characters' perspectives “in the process of reading for authentic purposes,” she says.

To develop comprehension throughout middle and high school, then, reading and language arts teachers should give lessons a clear, useful, engaging purpose.

More specifically, suggests Snow, “Middle and high school teachers could make their classroom activities more engaging by ensuring that students are focused on an organizing question or purpose for the activities. They could build time for peer-talk and purposeful classroom discussion more systematically into their lessons. And they could teach vocabulary conceptually — focusing on the meanings of words related closely to their central curricular ideas, questions, and purposes, rather than teaching lists of words.”

Additional Resources

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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.