NOTE: This is taken from a newsletter that I write for teachers in my building. Seemed like something worth sharing with others because I think it pertains to the way we all have to approach planning reading comprehension lessons in the Common Core era.


I’ve read several articles about how we should teach math like we teach reading. But what about the other way around? What if you taught reading skills like you teach math?

Let me explain…

When you’re teaching a student how to add 28 and 35, you don’t just put it in front of them and say: “When we add two 2-digit numbers, we combine them to find the sum…now you tell me what’s 24 + 35???”

That would get you nowhere. You’d have skipped over all the steps…lining up the numbers, adding the ones, carrying the 1 (which is really a ten), and finally adding the tens. Math is a process and we teach it as one.

But can’t we think of reading comprehension as a process, too? There are certainly steps involved. Are we teaching those steps? That’s the critical question.

Take for example the skill of determining the theme of a story. As teachers, we do an awesome job of explaining to students what the definition of theme is. I bet nearly every kid in grades 2 and up can tell you that the theme is the lesson (or something equivalent to that). BUT, are we teaching them the steps you take to find the theme (or main idea, or character motivation, etc. etc.)?

Reading skills aren’t just a two step process…first you read, then you know the theme, for example. There are things to think about, questions to ask, dots to connect, conclusions to draw. There are STEPS. Teach the steps (and fill them out in a graphic organizer!), and you’ve taught the skill. In a way that they can transfer to any similar text.Need an example? Ok…in my mind the steps for finding the theme are as follows:

1. Identify the main character

2. Think about what happened to the main character in the story. Write down the big events from the story, beginning to end.

3. Ask yourself, “What did this character learn about life?” BOOM, that’s your theme.

So next time you’re planning a reading lesson, ask yourself, “Am I teaching the steps?” Decide how to give students structures that will allow them to master the skills more effectively. I think we’ll like what happens when we teach reading a little bit more like we teach math.

photo credit: jessicakelly via photopin cc

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    It’s a nice concept, but tough to put into play because reading material is so much more nuanced than combining numbers. For example, the steps you give above work great for a story in which the main character’s growth is the anchor for the theme–but what about the many stories in which the main character doesn’t learn anything, or draws the wrong conclusion, and it is our own observations or those of other characters that point to the key messaging of the story? A teacher developing such steps would have to be very, very careful to ensure that either the steps applied in every context or that there were clearly guidelines for knowing which set of steps to apply–otherwise, a student religiously following the steps could easily do everything right and come up with the wrong answer.

    • Ben Curran

      So true! And thank you for the comment. The example provided is certainly a generalized one. But I still think the premise is sound when planning lessons. The teaching has to be well executed, of course, no matter the subject. Students could also follow a set of steps and still get a math problem wrong, too.