Reading Comprehension: What Works

Henri Martin's Girl Reading

As a tutor, I often get referrals for students whose greatest challenge on standardized tests is the Reading Comprehension section. As I see it, I get these referrals for three reasons: 1) I have a Masters in English; 2) I have a history of consistent success with this elusive area of student growth; and 3) most tutors shy away from Reading Comprehension because they see it as a dead end. It isn't. Not to me. To me the dead end is not Reading Comprehension, but rather the tricks and gimmicks that students and tutors often use for Reading Comprehension instead of what works.

Let me pause here to reiterate that tricks and gimmicks don't work. That's one reason there are so many of them. Talk to a few tutors and a few test prep organizations and very soon you possess a bewildering collection of conflicting strategies for how to go about the Reading Comprehension section. This outcome is especially frustrating because the next expert you speak to will add another one, and it won't match the ones before. Whom do you believe? Which one works? None of them does. I can make this bold claim because I repeatedly guide students to what does work, and it never involves tricks.

The only thing that works is going to sound slightly disturbing at first. It may even register as impossible when you initially hear it. The reason most tutors and test prep outfits let students down on Reading Comprehension is precisely because the thing that works is almost unacceptable to the ears, as if we prefer not to consider it. The news about reading seems to bother us as teachers, as parents, and generally as human beings too. I know, I know: I'm building a lot of suspense here, but in this case, knowing what I know and seeing what I've seen, I need to raise your curiosity sufficiently for you to accept what's coming....

Few students read well!!! I dare to suggest that most people don't read well, not just students, since students become those people, and their reading skills stay the same. I am not suggesting that people can't read, but rather the depth of their reading is seldom impressive, and often inadequate. There are many reasons for this state of affairs—for the unsettling trend toward poor reading skills in our schools and our culture—and since I consider it one of the pleasures of this blog to discuss such things when poignant, I will speculate about world reading for a bit. Then I'll talk student solutions.

World reading. What's going on? The Information Age. Insanely high volumes of content to wade through. Insufficient time. Glowing computer screens. Tablets. It's truly a wonder we absorb anything at all. We are reading in a hurry. Parsing. Hunting. Our intellectual situation repeatedly favors cursory comprehension over depth of understanding. It's perfectly logical. Why train your mind to focus deeply and reflect on the meaning of each sentence and paragraph when those things may turn out to be useless anyway, or less valuable than other material? At best, they are a means to an end. Our world is training our minds away from traditional, lasting comprehension.

What can we do about it? As far as scoring well on a standardized test, there's only one thing that works, and it isn't a gimmick. It can't be. A gimmick won't work because the mind is already trained away from what does. For a student to improve at Reading Comprehension, the student must learn how to read better! Not how to read the questions before the passage, or half the passage then half the questions, or the last paragraph first, or the first paragraph backwards, or any other senseless false strategy that acts like a band-aid, but fixes nothing. No, experience assures me that the true fix is true reading with true comprehension. Once you have that—and only when you have that—the test results change in your favor.

That said, I succeed where other tutors don't because I teach my students how to read better. Plain and simple. I meet them at their current level of comprehension and I guide them to raise it, using proven exercises that train the mind to absorb what it reads, an outcome that often advances rapidly for people in their prime student years. I probe the depth of each student's reading retention and actively direct the student to read more deeply, to ask more questions about the material, to get much clearer about how much sense the passage is making, and where it doesn't make sense yet. This method isn't rocket science; it's common sense, and that's precisely its charm. My students find out immediately that when they comprehend better, they master the questions that used to be difficult.

So what am I telling you in this blog entry? First, don't believe people who claim to have a special technique for Reading Comprehension. It's not about techniques, unless you mean true reading by that term, not another set of readerly acrobatics. Second, what I mean by true reading is highly possible with proper training from a good tutor, who coaches you to see your blind spots and turn them into understanding. I excel at that task. Third, the benefits are huge. They not only increase student scores on Reading Comprehension, but often across a whole test, because removing significant stress from one section indirectly improves them all. For me the final value is the best: teach students to read more deeply and to comprehend more fully and they soon treat life itself as treasured reading material.

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