These exercises or strategies work well for all ages–5th grade through grad school.
1. Picture it
2. Tell it
3. Find the main idea
Picture it–It’s easier to remember pictures than words. Kids who are having trouble understanding or remembering what they read can improve fast if they practice “visualizing,” or seeing what’s on the page in their mind’s eye. Visualizing is a strategy most skillful readers use automatically. However, most students who don’t read well or don’t like to read have never developed the habit of visualizing or else haven’t consistently applied it to their reading. To start practicing, have kids read descriptions and then tell you in detail what they’ve read. The suggestion to “make it into a mental movie” helps focus on the task.
Novels lend themselves to visualizing more easily than textbooks, of course, but that doesn’t mean kids should give up on visualizing texts. Text passages can be turned into visual “collages,” with political and economic explanations, for instance, imagined pictorially. Science concepts are usually easier. For instance, cell division or the methylation cycle are naturals for mental pictures. You can round out the process by sketching what your student tells you. Finally, have the student take over the sketching step.
Tell it–Reading shouldn’t always be silent! Kids understand best when they summarize aloud. Just knowing they are responsible for telling you what they read a moment ago is a big motivator for a lot of kids. For the technique to work, they don’t have to get what they tell you in order, and they don’t even need to start out understanding it. They will get there if they keep reading and summarizing over a period of weeks, especially if you keep asking good questions and commenting on what they’re telling you.
When I work with middle and high school students, my goal is for them to be able to tell me 100% of what they’ve read in any given paragraph without looking back at the material. Most grownups would find this challenging, but almost all my teen students can eventually manage it using the techniques mentioned here, along with some well-aimed guidance.
I like to have the student locate a key word or phrase in that topic sentence, then read the rest of the paragraph to see if that guess what right and the paragraph is mostly about that one key word.
Here’s a formula for helping a student pull the main idea out of a paragraph when the answer isn’t in the topic sentence. Ask “what’s the paragraph about? What about that? And what about that?” The answer is the main idea. Here’s an example from a paragraph I use: Q. What’s it about? A. Insects Q. What about these insects? A. They’re not all harmful. Q. What about that? A. Some of them are helpful. Main idea: Some insects are helpful to humans.
For finding main idea in more advanced reading, the kind many kids find puzzling, ask them not just to find the key word in the topic sentence, but to tell how this topic sentence (and paragraph) is different from the ones that came before it. Asking “What’s new here?” can be the final piece in understanding the theme or main idea of a section.
Underline it–We are taught not to point at words as we read, and for good reason, but if you teach your students to point, they’ll thank you for it. I’m talking about pointing in a very particular way here, not just any old pointing. This technique is called the “long smooth underline,” or LSU and it’s a simple but powerful tool to help readers improve both their concentration and speed. Plus it helps overall thinking, at least in my observation.
How to do it: using your dominant hand, curl your fingers slightly, and holding the fingers together, use them to underline what you’re reading. Read at your normal speed, keep your fingers well below the line you’re reading, and move your hand from left to right. Your eyes will be pulled along automatically by the motion of your hand.
Practice with the LSU only 10 minutes at a time, twice a day, for a period of six weeks. After the first week or so, and when you understand what you’re reading, gradually start moving your hand slightly faster. You can use a timer to see how long it takes you to read one page. Keep your speed steady for a few days, then increase it slightly. Your comprehension will go down at first but should come back up in a day or two. If it doesn’t, slow down a little but not back to your starting speed and try again. Many people can double or triple their reading speed in a few weeks using this method.