Home » Poor History Grade? Consider a New Reading Approach

Poor History Grade? Consider a New Reading Approach

There are plenty of reasons kids might get poor grades in history classes in middle and high school. Some students are simply not interested in the subject and neglect to do the work.  Others lack the background knowledge needed to make sense of the new information they’re expected to learn.  For instance, it would be nearly impossible to understand an explanation of the economy if you didn’t know what an economy was.  So these problems could be summed up as lack of motivation and lack of information.  But there’s another group of students I’d like to talk about here, and I’ll let one person stand in for the lot.

Imagine Haley.  She’s hypothetical, but she’s like a lot of real kids I’ve known over the years.  Haley is conscientious and does all her reading assignments, though you’d never know it if you questioned her on what she remembers about them.  She’s getting a D in history, in contrast to the B she’s earning in AP literature.

Her parents would be surprised to discover that Haley’s poor grade in history is due to reading difficulties, and they might also be surprised to learn that tutoring, at least a type of tutoring focused on her history reading, could help her overcome those difficulties.

As things stand, Haley thinks she’s “just not good at history” without realizing that some fairly easy to learn reading and memory techniques could really help her turn things around.  Here’s the problem:  Remember I said she was getting a B in Lit?  She loves novels and reads everything as if it were a story, including her history text, which she promptly forgets.

She needs a whole new reading, notetaking and study method, which, as it happens, is something she could learn in a few weeks.  It’s not exactly that she needs a history reading technique, but she does need to learn how to read dense academic material.  

“Wait a minute, though,” you might be saying at this point, “Why did you choose history as your subject to gauge if a kid is having difficulty reading?  And how come the kid does all her work?  How realistic is that for a poor reader?”

I chose to use history as an example here because in my experience, that’s where reading comprehension problems in high school most commonly show up.  For some reason, science trails behind a bit in the reading challenge category, maybe because there are more class explanations of what’s in the text.  

And I picked a kid who did all her work because if I told you it was Tina, who never finished an assignment and incidentally didn’t understand what she was reading, obviously we wouldn’t know whether Tina had a reading problem or not.

So Haley, or maybe a high school student you know, is working hard in science but experiencing disappointing results.  She certainly isn’t a poor reader or she wouldn’t be doing well in her other classes.  It’s just that she hasn’t developed the analytical reading and study skills that she needs for her most difficult classes.  Those are also the skills she’ll need for the SAT.  

So Haley needs to learn to read dense academic material.  Most students do.  It doesn’t just come naturally, and often isn’t taught at school.  That doesn’t mean it can’t be taught and learned, however.  It can and should be.  You may have learned some version or bits yourself: SQ3R or Cornell notetaking.  It is anything that cuts the task of academic reading into manageable portions and insists that the learner be an active participant in the process.

I have my own method.  I won’t describe it in detail, but if you’re interested you can find it in my book, SMART! A Reading Tutor’s Guide, available through Amazon.  I will list some highlights here, though.  

  • Practice looking for the main idea of what you’re reading.  Avoid getting bogged down in the detail.  Decide on the length of practice passages to use, then stop and list aloud from memory the main ideas of everything you read in the passage.
  • Before you do this, you may need to practice reading passages and saying aloud everything you’ve read, details and all.
  • Practice predicting, summarizing, and explaining cause and effect as you read.  Do it aloud.  Be a noisy studier.
  • Don’t look at the book or copy when you take notes.  Instead, take notes from memory.  Read a paragraph, summarize aloud from memory, write this in your notes, check against the book.  This way you’ll understand the material before you write it down and you’re constantly testing yourself.

These are not easy habits to develop alone, but a supportive tutor can help a teen succeed at academic reading, and for many teens, turning around a poor history grade can be the beginning of a new pattern of academic and personal success.  

Sylvia Keepers
Sylvia Keepers has conducted a successful home tutoring service for more than 35 years. SMART! A Reading Tutor’s Guide grows out of her experience helping hundreds of students learn to read with skill and enthusiasm. After earning a degree in education in 1961 from the University of Denver, she began teaching in a small-town school district in Oklahoma. Although her students learned to read as well as the veteran teachers she worked with, she felt there was much more to understand about the complex … more »
Sylvia Keepers

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