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October 1, 2005
Vol. 63
No. 2

Strategies for Teen Readers

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In Billy Collins's poem "First Reader," the speaker reminisces about Dick and Jane, the cultural icons that so many of us associate with our first reading experiences. The former U.S. poet laureate writes,It was always Saturday and he and she were always pointing at something and shouting "Look!" pointing at the dog, the bicycle, or at their father as he pushed a hand mower over the lawn, waving at aproned Mother framed in the kitchen doorway, pointing toward the sky, pointing at each other.
But this "looking" soon evades the burgeoning readers:and now it was time to discover the infinite, clicking permutations of the alphabet's small and capital letters. Alphabetical ourselves in the rows of classroom desks, we were forgetting how to look, learning how to read. (2001)
These lines, which point out the disparity between "looking" and understanding on one hand and reading on the other, call into question a widespread myth among educators and students alike: that being able to decode—having the ability to decipher those "clicking permutations" of the alphabet—equals reading comprehension.
Definitions of what constitutes reading comprehension vary among teachers and researchers. According to a position statement of the National Council of Teachers of English Commission on Reading,Reading is defined as a complex, purposeful, social, and cognitive process in which readers simultaneously use their knowledge of spoken and written language, their knowledge of the topic of the text, and their knowledge of their culture to construct meaning. Reading is not a technical skill acquired once and for all in the primary grades, but rather a developmental process. A reader's competence continues to grow through engagement with various types of texts and wide reading for various purposes over a lifetime. (2004)
The perception that reading is an isolated skill learned in elementary school is prevalent in many middle and high schools. Teachers in these upper grades erroneously assume that students will comprehend text because they understand the printed words. In its report, Reading Next, the Alliance for Excellent Education explains some of the difficulties that middle and secondary school students experience:Some young people still have difficulty simply reading words accurately, but these students make up the minority of older struggling readers. Most older struggling readers can read words accurately, but they do not comprehend what they read, for a variety of reasons. For some, the problem is that they do not yet read words with enough fluency to facilitate comprehension. Others can read accurately and quickly enough for comprehension to take place, but they lack the strategies to help them comprehend what they read. (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004, p. 16)
Teaching students to approach a text in a thoughtful and deliberate manner even before they've started reading helps them build the patience and stamina required to truly understand the content. Yet in this age of 42-minute periods and colossal reading curriculums, many teachers frequently forgo the preparation stage. For example, a 9th grade English teacher may assign her class to read Lord of the Flies, providing specific dates by which students must complete certain chapters and answer accompanying questions. Each day, the class has a discussion during which students recite their answers to the previous night's homework questions. When the students finish reading the novel, the teacher assigns an essay on a specific theme or character in the book.
In this simplistic scenario of rote, required reading, the teacher has told her students what to do: "Read the book, answer the questions, write the paper." Instead, teachers need to show their students how to push their involvement with texts from "an unconscious process" (Kutz & Roskelly, 1991) toward active engagement that yields authentic questions and meaningful connections.
The ways in which readers approach and interact with texts vary according to whether the text is expository or narrative. When students attempt to read expository and narrative texts in a similar manner, meaning can elude them. Genre-specific comprehension strategies can help adolescents become successful, confident readers who remember how to "look" as they learn how to read.

Working with Expository Text

When students enter middle and secondary school, their interaction with such expository materials as textbooks, essays, lab reports, and newspaper articles dramatically increases. Expository texts have a different structure from their narrative counterparts. According to Jim Burke (2000),A narrative text includes such elements as a theme, plot, conflict(s), resolution, characters, and a setting. Expository texts, on the other hand, explain something by definition, sequence, categorization, comparison, contrast, enumeration, process, problem-solution, description, or cause-effect. (p. 142)
For students to successfully comprehend the multitude of expository pieces they encounter, they must understand how to navigate these texts.

Getting Ready to Read

Before students set out to read their history textbook or a science article, they need time to prepare for the task. Teachers should begin by discussing the subject of the text with students. When readers have sufficient background knowledge about the subject matter, they are better able to maintain their focus and interest (Santa, Havens, & Maycumber, 1996).
Teachers also need to point out how a text is organized. For example, textbook chapters are usually divided into multiple sections with different subheadings. When students hone in on these divisions, they come to understand the topic's main ideas. An essay will have a different structure because it is generally organized around a thesis with supporting paragraphs. Students need to become familiar with transitional words and phrases—such as however, moreover, and therefore—to recognize how they affect meaning by signaling contrasts, additions, or conclusions.
Students should prepare their notes on an expository text before they even begin to read. These notes can take many forms, such as a standard outline or notes showing the main idea and supporting details. Unfortunately, many teachers give students summaries of the reading rather than show them how to synthesize meaning on their own. According to researchers Darwin and Fleischman (2005), this practice "may actually circumnavigate students' need to improve their literacy skills, thus avoiding the problem rather than addressing it" (p. 85). In preparing their own skeletal version of prereading notes, students are armed with a purpose when they begin to read: filling in the blanks.
Determining the structure of their notes helps engage students and improves both comprehension and retention. When tackling textbook material, students can copy the headings and subheadings from the book directly into their notebooks, leaving space to add relevant information. As they read, they fill in details under each heading, such as the people and places involved, dates, and definitions. When students read an article or primary source that does not include headings and subheadings, they can create skeleton notes using the familiar questions of who, when, where, why, what, and how.


Active reading requires readers to be present and attentive, which means doing more than just moving their eyes across words. Students should read with a pencil in hand. (Highlighters are too distracting and difficult to write with.) Most students don't know where to begin, however, and they end up underlining entire pages and paragraphs regardless of the importance of the passages. Here are some practices that can help students wield that pencil more effectively.
Coding. One of the most efficient ways to comprehend expository text is to mark it with codes. Coding is more than just underlining—students mark places they find confusing, surprising, or important. Designating passages with specific symbols—such as question marks, exclamation points, and asterisks—helps students quickly identify significant pieces of text. Students should also circle transitions and words that they don't understand.
Highlighting repeated words. Students should underline important words that appear repeatedly. For instance, in an article about the United States' trade embargo with Cuba, a student might underline such words and proper nouns as communism, Fidel Castro, embargo, trade, and economy. This practice provides students with a purpose, helps them zero in on details that add up to main ideas, improves their recollection of important facts, and helps them draw conclusions on the basis of textual evidence (Connecticut Teachers, 2004).
Summarizing. After reading a paragraph or section of text, students should stop and write in the margin a short summary of what they have read. If they have been coding text and underlining repeated words, this should be easy. The synopsis need only be a few words: Castro throws dissenters in jail; he takes all the money from tourism. This routine helps students solidify their understanding of the main ideas. Readers should also be on the lookout for a thesis and mark it accordingly. If the thesis is implied rather than explicitly stated, students can write their own thesis on the basis of the information provided to have "an idea against which you can test other ideas" (Penfield, 2005, p. 3). For example, if the article on Castro and Cuba does not contain an explicit thesis, readers might propose their own, such as "Until Castro's rule ends, Cubans will remain isolated from the rest of the world."


After reading, students should organize the pertinent facts and information from their reading in their predesigned outline. Because discussing ideas with other readers develops understanding, teachers should facilitate formal or informal discussions among students using questions that they have posed about the text.
For example, after reading an article about AIDS and its effects on an African village, student questions might include, "Who is helping to educate the villagers of Swaziland about the perils of AIDS?" or "Why can't the country afford more medicine and other aid for its people?" Students can debate whether or not the author's evidence sounds accurate, question the author's slant, or back up their opinions about what they've read with evidence from the text or other sources. Discussion helps students draw new conclusions about what they've read and reinforces the practice of using evidence to support opinions in writing.

Working with Narrative Text

Narrative texts are often lumped together as "fiction." Although the narrative form includes fiction, it also includes such varied genres as biographies, autobiographies, autobiographical fiction, personal essays, anecdotes, and jokes.
Narrative is not so much a genre as a method of organization. We conventionally think of narrative as a "story pyramid" in three main parts: exposition, action, and resolution. These puzzle pieces of the narrative are among what Cris Tovani (2000) calls "surface structures." They help students understand literal meanings. Unfortunately, many students believe that if they understand what happens in a story, their comprehension is in tiptop shape. Effective literacy instruction teaches students not only to engage with the surface structures of narrative—what happens in the story—but also to bring their comprehension full circle by persevering in uncovering what Tovani calls the narrative's "deep structures."
Tovani describes deep structures as semantic, schematic, and pragmatic cues. Semantic cues enable readers to make conceptual associations with word meanings in text, particularly in longer text. Schematic cues enable readers to associate what they read with prior knowledge and experience. Pragmatic cues enable readers to determine what is most important in the text and to create shared and increasingly abstract interpretations of those details. In contrast to surface structures, which have more to do with facilitating literal comprehension, these deep structures represent higher-order thinking, which is necessary for developing critical reading skills.

Getting Ready to Read

  1. What does an alchemist do?
  2. Does the word have anything to do with chemistry?
  3. If the word refers to a person, is the person the main character?
  1. The alchemist is probably a scientist. I think so because I know that the suffix -ist means it's the person's career.
  2. I think it has to do with chemistry because the word alchemist has "chem" in it.
  3. I am almost positive that it is the main character. Why else would the whole book be called The Alchemist?
The student used evidence about what he already knew to create meaningful inferences and to set a purpose for reading. Before he even began, this student had already uncovered some of the book's major themes and events.
In a full-length narrative, such as a novel or an autobiography, students should also note details from the book's summary, which usually appears either on the inside panel or on the back cover. Readers can get important information from the author's biography and from introductions, prologues, and epilogues as well. Readers will often establish much about a story this way—such as the plot, the setting, a character's motivation for solving a given problem or embarking on a given quest, and major themes.


All readers have a voice in their heads as they read. The voice either interacts with the text or distracts from it. Some readers simply recite the words in their heads—this is the recitation voice. Others are thinking about something else as they read—this is the distraction voice.
Neither of these voices promotes thinking. That's the job of the conversation voice. In this case, readers engage in conversation with the author and actively search for meaning (Tovani, 2000). Nowhere is this conversation voice more important than in narrative text, where the author's meaning is often concealed in the actions and words of his or her characters.
In Strategies That Work, Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis (2000) recommend a wide variety of strategies to stimulate thought as students read narrative text in the elementary grades, including inferring themes, questioning and correcting, connecting, and sensing.
Inferring themes. Compelling storytellers often seek to convey universal truths to their readers. Students should use the inferences that they made about a story's themes to search for those themes in the characters' actions and words. For example, the student who was preparing to read The Alchemist was able to infer from the back of the book and the introduction that the main character was searching for his destiny. As the student reads, he or she should mark every passage in the book that alludes in some way to a quest for the meaning of life.
A student might misinterpret a theme as he or she reads. For example, on discovering that alchemy is the art of changing base metals into gold, a student might infer that the protagonist's destiny is to find gold, when in reality, his destiny is deeper and more meaningful than acquiring material wealth. Students should pause after every chapter or section to reassess their inferences and determine whether new themes have surfaced, which they can then search for in subsequent parts of the text.
Questioning and correcting. Good readers become confused as they read just as poorer readers do, but good readers ask questions and seek answers to resolve their confusion. The Great Books Foundation (2003) offers guidelines to help students frame meaningful questions. Students should place a question mark by parts of the text in which any of the following things happens: The character does something that might have meaningful consequences; the character demonstrates quirks or oddities in dialogue, thought, or action; or the tone or mood suddenly changes.
Connecting. Struggling readers might have a good amount of relevant background knowledge, but they often move through a text without using this information to help make sense of a difficult passage or concept. We teach students to make three kinds of connections: personal, global, and literary (Keene & Zimmermann, 1997). Personal connections usually reflect a reader's own experiences or emotions. We ask the student, "What does this specific passage remind you of in your life?" Making personal connections can reveal how characters' lives are significantly similar to or different from the reader's life.
Readers who make global connections apply the knowledge that they have developed through observing world events to understanding larger concepts in a story. We ask students, "How does this specific passage reflect what is going on in the world?" A reader might use relevant history or science lessons, articles about current events, or news reports to make sense of some similar event in a story.
Literary connections demonstrate our understanding of how the concepts in a narrative relate to other literature. We ask the student, "What in this passage reminds you of other literature you've read?" The fact that multiple authors explore similar conflicts and themes shows that the world affects us in curiously similar ways. Literary connections help reveal the universal truths that storytellers try to convey.
For example, many of our students have related world events to the following passage in The Alchemist: "When you possess great treasures within you and try to tell others about them, seldom are you believed" (p. 134). Students point out individuals or minorities with unpopular but justified convictions who persistently struggle to make their plights known.
Sensing. Most educators refer to this strategy as visualizing because it involves creating a mental image of a narrative text. When readers can successfully see a plot unfolding before their eyes, they usually feel confident that they can understand what they are reading (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000). If they are unable to create these mental pictures, they know they need to repair their understanding. Older readers should be aware of a storyteller's ability to engage all the reader's senses and to put the reader inside the story by making the reader not only see what the characters are seeing, but also feel what they're feeling. We ask our students to indicate places in the text where the storyteller uses vivid imagery to appeal to the reader's senses of sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. This is also a powerful lesson in how the storyteller uses figurative language, tone, and mood to convey an important message.


Using these strategies, readers can make observations about the narrative, but they have yet to interpret and draw conclusions from what they've learned. Although writing analytical essays about literature is one way to interpret, it is not the only way, and it should never be the first thing readers do after reading a narrative. Readers need time to turn their observations into assertions and determine which of their assertions are supported by facts from the story. We help readers draw substantive conclusions by teaching them to annotate and discuss.
Rereading and annotating. As students read a narrative text, they should mark it. As with expository text, students can use an asterisk to signal themes or important messages and a question mark to indicate questions or confusion. In addition, they can use the letter X to indicate personal, global, or literary connections and can highlight sensory images by underlining those passages (Connecticut Teachers, 2004). When they have finished reading a chapter, a section, or the entire piece, students return to their marks, recall their thoughts, and write short notes about what they can infer. Rereading makes students reexamine passages that they believed were crucial to their understanding.
Discussing. Initial conversations about literature should focus on themes. There are no right or wrong interpretations, but we do ask students to "observe, prove, and conclude," a three-part approach to discussion adapted from the Junior Great Books program. A teacher or student might pose an interpretive question to the class or simply ask another student to share an observation. The person responding should share a provocative opinion, back the opinion up with facts from the text, and draw a conclusion about the author's message on the basis of the evidence. When we ask students to prove their assertions about literature, we hold them to a higher standard of thought and prepare them to write about what they've read.
Teaching our readers to be strategic and methodical in their approach to text avoids the common pitfall of simply placing text on the students' desks and telling them "to read." We need to show our students how to read. By sacrificing a little content for additional instruction, we can create a generation of readers who will be able to apply their critical thinking skills to any piece of text they encounter, who know how to "look" as they read.

Biancarosa, G., & Snow, C. E. (2004). Reading next: A vision for action and research in middle and high school literacy. A report to the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Burke, J. (2000). Reading reminders: Tools, tips, and techniques. Portsmouth, NH: Boyton/Cook.

Coelho, P. (1998). The alchemist. New York: HarperCollins.

Collins, B. (2001). "First Reader," from Sailing alone around the room. New York: Random House.

Connecticut Teachers. (2004). CAPT reading across the disciplines. Ridgefield, CT: Webster House.

Darwin, M., & Fleischman, S. (2005). Fostering adolescent literacy. Educational Leadership, 62(7), 85–87.

Great Books Foundation. (2003). The reader writes. Chicago: Author.

Harvey, S., & Goudvis, A. (2000). Strategies that work: Teaching comprehension to enhance understanding. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Keene, E. O., & Zimmermann, S. (1997). Mosaic of thought: Teaching comprehension in a reader's workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kutz, E., & Roskelly, H. (1991). An unquiet pedagogy: Transforming practice in the English classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

National Council of Teachers of English Commission on Reading. (2004). On reading, learning to read, and effective reading instruction [Online]. Available:

Penfield, E. (2005). Short takes: Model essays for composition (8th ed.). New York: Pearson Longman.

Santa, C., Havens, L., & Maycumber, E. (1996). Project CRISS: Creating independence through student-owned strategies (2nd ed.). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Tovani, C. (2000). I read it, but I don't get it: Comprehension strategies for adolescent readers. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

End Notes

1 Excerpt from "First Reader" from Questions and Angels, by Billy Collins, ©1991. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

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