How to Improve Reading Comprehension? Team With a Theme

“We don’t read that much at school. Mostly we do our work,” observed Selena, a third grade multilingual learner (MLL). I knew the “work” she was referring to involved reading, but obviously she didn’t think it was real reading. I had asked about her reading experiences in school, and was dismayed to hear her frank answer. Still, I wasn’t surprised. I had seen a lot of students like Selena doing “work” in classrooms like this:

Example #1

The focus of the reading lesson in this second-grade classroom was sequencing, and from the teacher’s point of view it was a unifying theme. The two worksheets the students were completing, however, were about two very different topics—how to make an animal mask and how to make a compost pile. To top it off, the lesson began with the teacher reading aloud a story about how beavers make dams. All three reading selections involved sequencing, but on different subjects with completely different content vocabulary.

Example #2

The topic of the day’s reading lesson was fluency. In small groups, students were reading a readers’ theater script, a folk tale about Johnny Appleseed. Eventually, I realized the teacher had assigned a random page from the script for the students to read. When I pointed out to the teacher the students would better understand the excerpt if they had read the script from the beginning, she said there wasn’t time. “We’re just practicing fluency.”

Content-free reading instruction like this drove me crazy. It also confused me until I finally realized it was intended to be that way. In Example #1, the point wasn’t for students to learn about beavers; it was to learn sequencing. In Example #2, the point wasn’t to learn about Johnny Appleseed; it was to practice fluency. Reading the entire story was irrelevant. Selena was right. This was “work”—but it wasn’t really reading.

Too often, reading instruction as described in these examples focuses on skill building to the detriment of building knowledge about a topic. This makes it difficult for MLLs to master vocabulary and improve their reading comprehension. Thematic teaching allows students to concentrate on learning the concept without learning so much new vocabulary. Trying to do both makes learning—and learning to read—far more difficult than it needs to be for MLLs.

We teachers forget the end point of reading is to learn things. That should be the point of the reading students do in school too. An old saying tells us students learn to read in the early grades and then start reading to learn in third grade. I beg to differ; students can learn things at all ages. It’s just that the effects of content-free reading instruction become more obvious in third grade once students can decode words—but still have comprehension problems. Thematic instruction can help.

Thematic teaching should be easier to do with older students. At the very least, when students walk into a high school chemistry class, for example, they’re reasonably sure they’ll be reading about chemistry. That helps. Still, there’s room for improvement at the secondary level and in higher education, too. One of the most spot-on comments I ever received about this was from someone who was observing several different classes in the university intensive English program where I was teaching. After visiting my writing class, she asked why the different skill classes in our program weren’t thematically coordinated. She wondered why students were writing about one topic in writing class, reading about another topic in reading class, and giving presentations about yet another topic in speaking class. It seemed like her suggestion required too much cooperation and coordination to implement, and I didn’t have the administrative influence to make it happen, anyway. Knowing what I do now about the power of thematic instruction, however, I realize how insightful my visitor’s comment was. She was right.

I’m not suggesting teachers do themes as they’re often done with young children, where, for example, everything is related to butterflies during butterfly theme week, down to the craft activity and the snacks. That’s a bit forced. Still, lessons should be thematic enough so students realize they’re learning about something. Once, my assistant principal dropped by my middle school ESL class and casually asked the students, “What are you studying?” The students didn’t say “main idea” or “page 72.” Instead, they answered “immigration.” That’s a sure sign of thematic teaching. Ask your students the same question, and you’ll find out whether you’re teaching thematically too. Here are some examples of changes you can make now to improve your students’ reading comprehension through thematic teaching.

In the Classroom How to Make It Better
After reading an article on insects, students will answer comprehension questions. Have the students read another, related article on insects before answering questions. Students can compare and contrast the two articles.
You plan to read aloud a chapter book to your students—one chapter each day. Is the book related to a theme the students are studying in a content area? It should be.
Your students are writing about a family member. Have your students read a model story about a family member before starting to write.
Your students are reading a novel together as a class. Read another, related nonfiction selection. In fact, fiction/nonfiction pairings are good to use everywhere.
In science, students are studying about hurricanes. Do a picture book read-aloud to accompany the unit.
Your class is studying a particular genre, such as biographies. Assign several different biographies to compare and contrast.

How have you tied themes into your reading instruction? Please share in the comments, below.

About Barbara Gottschalk

Barbara Gottschalk
Barbara Gottschalk is a veteran educator. She has taught English language learners from first graders to graduate students in five states in three very different parts of the United States plus Japan. Gottschalk has written many successful grants and served as a grant reviewer for TESOL, the National Education Association, and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of English Language Acquisition. She is the author of "Get Money for Your Classroom: Easy Grant Writing Ideas That Work" and "Dispelling Misconceptions About English Language Learners: Research-Based Ways to Improve Instruction."
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