Reading comprehension is hard. It requires a vast store of knowledge, skills specific to reading, and persistence when struggling. Cognitive research has established the critical practices to improve reading comprehension, yet two-thirds of all students still fail to understand what they read.

The reason is simple: the best practices are impossible to implement on paper.
 

Challenges to implementing best practices on paper

 

Accessing Background Knowledge

Content knowledge is the largest barrier to students’ understanding of what they read. Gaining access to contextual information is very hard to do when a student is reading on paper.

Content knowledge is the largest barrier to students’ understanding of what they read. Gaining access to contextual information is very hard to do when a student is reading on paper.

All writers make assumptions about what their readers know. The first line of the iconic poem “Casey at the Bat” reads, “The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day.” The poet is assuming that his readers are familiar with the game of baseball and that they can infer that “the Mudville nine” is a local town's baseball team.

Content knowledge is the foundation that enables us to make sense of what we read. A seminal study by Recht and Leslie (1988) has shown that content knowledge is a better predictor of a student’s understanding of a text than reading ability; students who are familiar with the relevant content of an article understand it better than do their peers who are presumed better readers.

With paper texts, filling gaps in content knowledge requires significant investigation and effort. The student must identify that a concept is unfamiliar and put down the book to look up the information in his or her notes, the internet, or another book. He or she will likely encounter quite a bit of irrelevant information before finding the appropriate content. At that point, the train of the original narrative is long lost.

Expecting students to repeat that process every time they encounter a new piece of knowledge is unrealistic. Students who lack content knowledge eventually become so confused that they miss the meaning of what they are reading altogether.

 

Self-Monitoring

On paper students can decode several pages of words without realizing they are not comprehending what they read.

On paper students can decode several pages of words without realizing they are not comprehending what they read.

Monitoring comprehension is a skill that is essential to reading fluency. Fluent readers assess their own understanding as they read by asking themselves questions. They make sure they are comprehending what they read, and resort to repair strategies (such as re-reading or looking up terms) when they notice they are off track. Struggling readers, on the other hand, often neglect to employ this strategy and may get to the end of the text before realizing that they have not understood what they’ve read.

The simple act of stopping the student to check in on what he or she has read can have a tremendous impact on comprehension, because it gives the student an opportunity to self-monitor and employ repair strategies if needed.

Unfortunately, students are alone as they read on paper. There is no one there by their side to stop them as they read and check in to see if they are comprehending the text. Even when the teacher provides questions for the student to answer, these questions are outside the text and do not serve the essential function of stopping the student to assess comprehension. The essential skill that distinguishes fluent readers from struggling readers is impossible to teach with paper texts.

 

Annotating

Annotations on paper are cumbersome for students to organize and for teachers to review. 

Annotations on paper are cumbersome for students to organize and for teachers to review. 

All teachers want students to think deeply as they read. Developing critical thinking skills requires that students ask questions as they read, summarize information, and make connections across different pieces of knowledge.

Encouraging the thought process that leads to deep reading, however, is almost impossible to demonstrate on paper. Teachers may ask students to read actively by writing comments in the margins of their text, but reviewing those notes and responding to them requires that the teacher collect the texts on the following day and review them individually. For novels and textbooks, this would mean that the teacher come home with dozens of books and look through countless (potentially illegible) notes in an effort to understand what the student is thinking as he or she reads.

More likely than not, the student is not accountable for the quality of his or her annotations and receives little guidance on how to think effectively as he or she reads. The student is not privy to the annotations of his or her teacher or classmates and thus does not even have a good model of what high-level thinking during the reading process looks like.  

 

Discussion

Paper divorces discussion, the most enjoyable aspect of reading for students, from the act of reading itself.

Paper divorces discussion, the most enjoyable aspect of reading for students, from the act of reading itself.

Collaboration is critical to students’ comprehension and enjoyment of reading. Our surveys of students consistently show that students find discussion to be the most enjoyable part of reading for class. This is their opportunity to make their classwork meaningful by expressing their point of view, asking questions, and finding out what their classmates are thinking.

Paper texts divorce discussion from the act of reading itself. Reading and discussion are necessarily separate because teachers cannot embed a conversation within the paper text. This means that students have to get through a text on their own before they can connect it to a meaningful conversation. It’s no wonder that so many students see reading assignments as chores that must be completed before a more dynamic conversation can take place.

Some students never get to take advantage of the benefits of class discussion because their voices are crowded out by their classmates or they are reluctant to participate. In a room full of students, participation is limited by time and the students’ confidence. It is a shame that some students who need more time to collect their thoughts do not get the opportunity to join the conversation.

 

Feedback

Timely feedback changes how students approach a text. When using paper, feedback takes longer and only assesses the end result of a student's thought process. 

Timely feedback changes how students approach a text. When using paper, feedback takes longer and only assesses the end result of a student's thought process. 

One of the biggest roadblocks that struggling students face when trying to improve their reading comprehension is an inability to get help and feedback while they read. Becoming a better reader is not only about increasing the quantity of reading time--it’s also about developing the practices that characterize deep reading. Students will not figure out on their own what they need to do to become better readers. They require help from a teacher.

But providing meaningful feedback requires that the teacher know what the student needs help with. When reading on paper, it’s difficult for teachers to get visibility into the student’s thought process and study habits as he or she reads. This makes student reading a black box: teachers are not aware of what students are doing as they read, and students cannot get help with their reading. Students who have trouble with reading comprehension begin to see reading as a fruitless endeavor because they are unsure what exactly the problem is or how to improve.

 

Differentiation

Differentiating requires knowing what the student is struggling with and providing targeted instruction. This is difficult to do in a classroom setting with paper texts.

Differentiating requires knowing what the student is struggling with and providing targeted instruction. This is difficult to do in a classroom setting with paper texts.

Not all students in a given class read at the same level or need help with the same things. Ideally, some students should be offered greater support as they read while others should be challenged to read without extra help. But differentiation is difficult to implement in a paper-based class. Not only does the teacher have little insight into what students need help with as they read, but he or she cannot differentiate instruction to provide one set of scaffolding for struggling readers and another set for more advanced students.

The result is that all students essentially read the same text for classroom reading. Some of those students will understand the material and come into class prepared for discussion, while others will come into class feeling confused and discouraged.

 

Accessibility

Changing the visual settings or hearing a page spoken aloud can significantly improve the ability of dyslexic readers to process text.

Changing the visual settings or hearing a page spoken aloud can significantly improve the ability of dyslexic readers to process text.

70-80% of struggling readers are likely to have some form of dyslexia. The students having the hardest time understanding their reading assignments may actually be unable to process the words on the page. The paper text is an inaccessible medium for dyslexic readers: there is no way to alter the spacing of the letters, the width of the margins, or other visual aspects of the page. These modifications have been shown to have a significant impact on reading fluency, meaning that adjusting the settings of a digital text could enable a struggling reader to process the words of their assignment. Unfortunately, these features are not available when working with paper.

The same holds true for other accessibility settings like text-to-speech, a translation tool right in the text, or a simple dictionary that allows students to look up words with the click of a button. The supports that make reading accessible for all students are unavailable on paper.


How we solve these challenges: a student letter

 

School is boring. I am sure that you are aware that we students feel this way. Most days we dread going, live for the weekends, and pray for snow in April. But, Mr. Grzeda’s class is not boring. Mr. G’s class is stimulating. His method of teaching (using Actively Learn and flipping the classroom) has enabled us to learn new material with passion and vigor.

Actively Learn is an open door into discussion, interaction, and debate. Every student is forced to interact because we do have to answer questions, but they are typed so we can do it while we discuss the material. Getting out-loud feedback from our peers changes and shapes our own opinions as we answer the questions. The ability to simultaneously discuss information brings the material to life before our eyes. We contribute and feed off of each other’s ideas, and suddenly, there is LIFE back into learning!

This is not just an option for the “AP” classes. Coming from the special education system myself, I know that my IEP peers would thrive with this program. Suddenly those of us with dyslexia and dysgraphia and ADD can feed off of information without our disabilities getting in the way. Actively Learn allows verbal, written, and visual learning to occur simultaneously. Doing a worksheet, turning it in, and then later getting feedback is deadening. The purpose of a worksheet in our minds is to get a grade. The teacher is looking for an answer, we mechanically write it down, and that is the end. For students, the technology is simple to learn. We are surrounded by the kind of technology that Actively Learn uses 24 hours a day.

As a student who struggles with dyslexia and ADHD, I cannot express enough how incredible this program has been for me. There is a way to learn at our fingertips that is invigorating, motivating, and exciting.

- Madeline McGlaughlin, 12th grader

 

Supporters of our approach to improve reading

Gates Foundation

Winner of Literacy Courseware Challenge

National Science Foundation

Grant for Personalized Reading Instruction


Ready to implement best practices?

 

We’ve designed Actively Learn to do what paper cannot. Learn more about how we improve the classroom reading experience in our overview videos, check out our free ecourse on Best Practices for  Improving Reading Comprehension, or create a free account to experience first-hand how we make reading meaningful.

 
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