5 Steps to Improve Your High Schooler’s Reading Comprehension

Strong reading comprehension is one of the most valuable skills a student can learn.

This holds true in basic high school coursework, and on standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT. Beyond the tests, though, the ability to comprehend what you read is an essential tool for any career. Competency in reading comprehension is not an inherent trait, however. Students must actively work at improving their reading skills, a task that can be difficult in a world that offers so many distractions.

Throughout the years, I’ve spoken to countless parents who are looking to help their children improve their reading comprehension skills. I’ve found that the following strategies not only aid students in the process, but also provide parents with insight into how they can facilitate their children’s development.

1. Remember the importance of location, location, location.

When I ask struggling students where they read, they are often confused. Why does that matter? After answering the question, though, they start to realize the importance of location.

Reading for school should be completed at a desk in a room that doesn’t have a TV or computer. Phones and other devices should be elsewhere. Reading comprehension, especially for texts that are more challenging or perhaps less interesting (this can sometimes be the case when reading for school), requires careful attention and structure. Leaving Twitter open will distract, and lying down in bed will slowly lull a struggling student to sleep.

2. Reading comprehension is not the same as memorization.

This statement may sound like a contradiction. A large part of reading comprehension, after all, is the ability to recall plot events from a story or specific details from an article. To assume that memorization is synonymous with comprehension, however, is a mistake.

Memorization is a one-way street, but comprehension also includes a mental dialogue between reader and text. In school, teachers often ask students to reflect on a given book, story, or passage as they read it, and to compare it with their own experiences, knowledge, and philosophies. Rote memorization may allow a student to parrot back some details from a passage, but it will not allow for long-term growth or comprehension.

Some of the suggestions that follow will discuss how to break away from simple memorization and kickstart meaningful comprehension.

3. Encourage your child to become an active reader.

Reading should be done with one hand on the book and the other holding a pen. Students should note details about characters, whether it’s in the book itself or in a separate notebook. (While there are a number of note-taking apps and tools available for computers and smartphones, these can be an invitation to distraction for high schoolers.)

All of my students are required to compile details from every novel they read on a grid that features four columns: page number, quotation, importance/analysis, and questions. As my students read, they're asked to pull quotations that they see as significant to the plot or to a character's development.

The process of annotating a text in this way both requires and enhances close reading skills, which can often fall by the wayside when students are acting as passive readers. I recognize, too, that sometimes students are confused by things they come across in a text — that is why there is a fourth column for questions. This encourages the back-and-forth I mentioned above, and takes students beyond simple absorption and memorization and into engagement. Interrogating the text in this way can be just as important as offering an analysis, and the practice certainly helps students develop deep comprehension.

Some colleagues of mine prefer different organizational methods (like the rigidly structured Cornell Notes or more basic lists of a work's major plot points). Regardless of the approach, students should be sure to use a consistent method. Noting her thoughts on a text not only maintains a reader’s engagement, but also builds a helpful study guide for a midterm exam or paper. As a graduate student myself, I find my reading notes invaluable when it comes time to write an essay at the end of a semester.

4. Teach your child to love reading.

Some students and parents are looking for a quick fix to improve reading comprehension, but the truth is that a solution is not that simple. Reading comprehension is a gradual process, and those students who develop the best skills tend to be those who love reading.

While many younger children simply assume that they're not “natural readers,” my time in the classroom has taught me that often those students who think of themselves this way simply have not yet found a book that has spoken to them.

Luckily, a wide range of literature outside of the western literary canon is easier than ever for students to explore. Some kids who typically struggle with texts in school often find that they enjoy young adult novels that deal with relevant teen issues like bullying, social pressures, and first love.

Others — often more visual learners — prefer graphic novels. While some may dismiss this genre as being juvenile or childish, they could not be more wrong. Many graphic novels — or even nonfiction graphic works — tell complex stories through excellent writing with the addition of stunning complementary illustrations. A good source for discovering popular or new titles in these (and other genres) is Goodreads, a social media site that allows users to track their own reading, write reviews, and receive suggestions based on their preferences.

5. Read along with your child and discuss the book.

As I mentioned above, reading comprehension is not mere memorization — it’s one of the most important skills a student can develop in the literature classroom (or in any other classroom, for that matter). You can assist in your child’s critical-thinking development by keeping up with her reading and discussing books with her.

A popular (and relatively easy) way to initiate a conversation like this is by reading a book and then viewing its film adaptation. Asking about the differences between a film a book, as well as decisions about visual style and casting choices, allows young readers to consider their own opinions and voice them. On a more practical level, it also asks them to recall specifics from the text.

Regardless of which book or story you decide to read with your high schooler, be sure to ask open-ended questions that extend far beyond plot summary or minor details. Open conversations like this with questions like, "Is this book still relevant in today’s world?" or, "Can you relate to any of the characters?" In this conversation, you may be able to share some historical context about a given work with your kids — and hear their perspectives on what they’re reading.

Last year I challenged the parents of my AP students to read our first novel of the year, Aldous Huxley's “Brave New World,” along with their kids. Months later at parent–teacher conferences, several of them told me that the shared experience of reading the novel opened up conversations about technology, social media, government surveillance, and the role of the individual in society.

I was thrilled, but not surprised. Younger readers yearn for opportunities to better understand as well as challenge the world around them — as a parent, you should work to facilitate that process.

Noodle can help you and your child cultivate a love of reading. Check out some of our other resources, or get more advice from Kevin Kearney.

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