Reading a screencast, reading a lecture, reading a circuit board

Working on reading comprehension has taught me lots about how my students see text, or don’t see it.  It also taught me about how I see it.

I noticed that my students couldn’t use their textbook to help them solve problems.  I didn’t know how to teach them to do that, so I set out to find out.  I didn’t understand what my students didn’t know, so I asked them.  They couldn’t tell me, but their answers helped me ask different questions, which led me to other resources. I reviewed books, videos, blog posts, and research websites.  When I boiled down the results and applied them to my classroom, here’s what I got:

  • Choose a purpose
  • Find the confusion
  • Check for mental pictures/descriptions
  • Use structural clues
  • Make connections to what you already know
  • Ask questions/make inferences

Maybe you got the irony already, but it took me two months: after looking for the answers from my students, from blogs, videos, and etc, the list I distilled was a summary of the very process I had used to find the list.  You see, those things are what I was doing while reading, watching, listening.  It turns out that I do them when I’m having a face-to-face conversation, when I’m experimenting with new equipment, when I’m inspecting a solder joint, and when I’m troubleshooting a circuit.  In other words, I do the same things regardless of whether I’m reading, listening, watching, or inquiring.  Can I go so far as to say that, to me, even a lecture is an inquiry activity? These aren’t techniques for reading comprehension.  They’re techniques for comprehension.

While I was working away on this post, John Burk beat me to it, asking how we can teach students to learn from as many formats as possible.  I’m thinking, maybe these techniques can improve our ability to see what we’re looking at, hear what we’re listening to… regardless of the medium.

That got me thinking about how I learn new things when there’s no one around to teach me.  Let’s choose a suitably complex goal like, say, learning how to teach (I left a skilled trade to do this, so keep in mind that I don’t have a B.Ed. or any other formal teacher training).  I listen to lectures (videos and podcasts).  I read text (research papers, books, blogs).  Lots of text (more blogs).  I write.  I practise.  I experiment.  Sometimes I make things up that I don’t have words for.  Sometimes I learn a bunch of new words and try to apply them.

No teacher decides for me whether I should be introduced to a new idea via a screencast or an inquiry activity.  And all along the way, I evaluate.  Which media worked best for which goal?  How do I know?  What will I do next time I’m in that situation?   If I’m serious about helping my students become independent learners, I eventually have to stop doing this for them.

What’s my role as a teacher in all of this? So far, I’ve come up with these:

  1. Helping my students use the techniques above and adapt them to their own goals, with any media they have available.
  2. Removing roadblocks in their use of these techniques.
  3. Helping them evaluate their ability to apply these techniques to different media.
  4. Supporting them in creating the media they need.

I’ve got a few ideas about #1, #2, and #3.  But I think #4 might be the most important one.


For Using Comprehension Techniques

Jerrid Kruse contributes some great comprehension questions

The West Virginia Dept. of Ed.’s Keys to Comprehension

For Removing Roadblocks

Bret Victor’s suggestion for text that is less “information to be consumed,” more “environment to think in.”

When evaluating which medium to use for any given activity, try asking, how will this medium make it easier to use the techniques above?  How will this medium make it harder?

For Why This Matters

From the ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine, a 2011 review of research that asks, are we making our students Too Dumb for Complex Texts?

For Creating Our Own Media

Bret Victor promises, someday, to publish his JavaScript library so we can all create our own explorable explanations.

Until then, I’m thinking a lot about who gets to design media, and who merely fills them with content.  Stay tuned.


  1. Update: Push Pop Press, which includes infographic designer Bret Victor (of “Explorable Explanations,” above, just won the Apple Design Award for their ebook Our Choice. Someday I want to write an electronics textbook that looks like this.

    What does it mean that I’m teaching my students to read this kind of book, but my program provides no way for me to teach them to write this kind of book? As far as “21st-century skills” are concerned, we’re telling our students that they’re expected to read, but that they’re forbidden to write.

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