Enhancing STEM Reading Comprehension

Nonfiction reading comprehension doesn’t come easily to many students. Here are a few tips for STEM teachers to help students get the most out of nonfiction literature.

Provide Context

Reading for fun is very different than reading for information. Before students begin to read nonfiction text, provide some context to engage their interest. What about this specific text is important for them to understand? Do they have any questions about the material or why it’s relevant? Ask them to note any particular themes they expect to encounter as they read. Define any new or troublesome words that students will encounter in the text. This will help them spend less time decoding difficult words and more time absorbing the meaning of the passage as a whole.

Teach Students How to Skim

Potential problems students face could include trouble “visualizing” the text in their minds. This may lead them to continuously read a passage without really understanding the content or making crucial connections about how it relates to the class. They might be sounding out every individual word, causing the process to seem much longer and more monotonous. The Scholastic reading comprehension guide suggests discussing how to skim text with students.

Skimming isn’t just the process of quickly glancing over a reading; it’s more systematic than that. It typically means looking for “signs” that designate key parts in the text, such as chapter headings. Reading the first sentence of every paragraph is often an efficient way to get a better idea of the big picture. Students can then go back for a more thorough reading to fill in knowledge gaps. Scanning is another reading comprehension technique that can help with large amounts of information. Scanning may be useful in previewing or reviewing text, and is usually meant to help students locate a specific passage or fact much more quickly. These techniques are particularly helpful with difficult or advanced concepts that may take several rereads to allow the information to sink in.

Explain How to Interpret and Integrate Visuals

While some research suggests that visuals help students with nonfiction reading comprehension, other studies indicate that decoding imagery can also confuse readers who have a tendency to see pictures as disruptive. Instead of taking the time to determine how an image connects to the text, they may just skip over it. One way to counter this is to spend a moment reviewing important images that coincide with the reading before beginning general class discussion. Ask about how each image (whether it’s a diagram, graph, photograph, or illustration) relates to main themes of the text and what the author intended the reader to learn from it.

Reading Comprehension

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Encourage Questioning

Encouraging students to ask questions during and after reading can help gauge their nonfiction reading comprehension. To facilitate discussion, divide students into groups where they can ask each other questions after they read. There are a number of ways to analyze a text: literal (explicit), inferential (implicit), critical, and visual. These can be broken down into questions like:
– What was the main idea of the text?
– What key themes did the author focus on?
– What were the main points each reader took away from the text?
– What information was conveyed by each visual and how does it relate to the text?
– What parts were confusing?
– What questions remain about the topic?

Reading is a fantastic way to engage many different types of learners. Find out more about how storytelling can help STEM reading comprehension.

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Leah Dearborn

Leah Dearborn is a freelance writer based in the Boston area. A graduate of the journalism program at University of Massachusetts–Amherst, she spends her time writing about science, history, and books.

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