What is Reading to Learn: Strategies for Grades 4-8

It is during this period of our educational life that students are now expected to use reading as a tool for learning rather than spending most of their energy on mastering the skills of how to read. If students have been prepared well in the primary grades and have mastered their basic phonics skills they will not need to spend as much cognitive energy on decoding. the two greatest needs of students in grades 4-8 are building fluency skills, continuing to develop and build vocabulary and enhancing comprehension.

Reading is a participation sport. Just like a golfer has to practice hitting the golf ball on the golf course or the tennis player has to practice playing against a worthy opponent to improve their skills, students need to practice their reading to become more fluent and powerful readers. Practices like “Drop Everything and Read” time or DEAR or other sustained independent reading times are helpful to get children reading more. Students need to actively READ – not talk about it or do worksheets about reading – but actually practice their reading skills on authentic text in which they are interested and motivated to read. The more time children spend reading, the better readers they become.

Another good way to build student’s fluency skills is by re-reading a specific text to practice and refine it. Many of us figured this out as children in teacher’s classrooms where “round-robin” reading was commonly used. To avoid embarrassment, most competent readers counted ahead to see which passage they would be reading in front of their peers. They then practiced these passages several times to ensure that when they were called upon, they could be smooth and competent readers. While round-robin reading caused both competent and struggling readers emotional stress and we know today that it is an ineffective way to encourage good reading habits, the concept of re-reading and practicing a passage was the right way to improve reading. A great way to encourage children to practice re-reading and building fluent reading is by using fun techniques like plays and Reader’s Theater in the classroom. Children also can create podcasts of the material and actually put them on the internet for others to enjoy. Kids love it and fluency soars!

Once children can read with good phrasing, expression and intonation, the next step is helping children increase their reading speed. Research tells us that slow readers often lose interest in reading because it is a laborious task while readers who can read at a rapid pace, enjoy their reading and have more cognitive energy to devote to making meaning out of the words they are reading. Timed reading passages where children practice fluency can be good for increasing reading speed as can just simply increasing practice with material at an independent reading level. Practice with appropriate material also increases reading speed as children become more comfortable and well practiced readers. Again, as fluency increases and effort decreases, comprehension also increases and the brain has time to process the meaning of the text being read.

When reading is effortless and enjoyable, children can truly lose themselves in the plight of the characters or in learning about content in which they have an intense interest. Good readers often report “getting lost” in an engrossing novel or while reading about topics in which they have a deep interest. This is when reading takes on a special significance for our students. They are now reading to learn rather than learning to read.