Many of us take for granted the fact that we can read and understand a newspaper article. Did you know that, according to a 2011 study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, 29% of adults in the United States don’t read well enough to understand a newspaper story written at an eighth grade level?
Not only is the lack of reading comprehension skills a problem for that segment of the population, but it’s also a societal issue with deeply felt and long-lasting consequences. How can citizens be informed voters if they can’t educate themselves on the issues? How can they improve themselves, their families, and their communities if they don’t know the opportunities available to them or the challenges they’ll have to face in the “real” world? How can they bridge racial and cultural differences if they don’t know how to relate to people outside of their immediate circles?
From my own experience working with students who struggle with reading comprehension, I’ve noticed that three major factors prevent students from understanding these newspaper articles: 1) the students’ limited vocabulary, 2) the students’ limited knowledge of the historical and current events that may be referenced in newspaper articles (especially op-eds), and 3) the students’ tendency to shut down when faced with varied sentence structure.
Recently, I’ve been introducing creative writing exercises into my reading skills class and think that some creative writing exercises can address these common issues. Here are three ways that creative writing can combat the three challenges I mentioned above:
1. Timed descriptive writing exercises can expand students’ vocabulary. Learning how to write descriptively is one of the first skills I teach my creative writing students. By giving students who struggle with reading comprehension a timed descriptive writing exercise, I can challenge them to continue brainstorming new ways to write about a subject. I assign a time period that makes them just slightly uncomfortable (about 10 minutes) and a subject – like a desk – that’s relatively boring. Using Google and websites like Thesaurus.com, the students can explore and discover new words and phrases to use once they’ve exhausted their own ability to write extensively about one specific subject.
2. Writing a character into an assigned setting can help students learn history lessons they didn’t learn in school. Many of my reading students have a limited knowledge of American and world history. Before we tackle a piece of writing that references a historical or cultural event, I will try to give them background information. For example, today I shared with my students an article about physicist Isaac Newton, who dabbled in alchemy, the process of trying to turn base metal into gold. We also explored the time period during which he lived. Asking your students to write a short story by placing a character into 17th century England, among the alchemists, can generate interest and curiosity. The background knowledge may also help them understand a more current piece of writing.
3. Asking the students to rewrite a boring paragraph can help them feel more comfortable with varied sentence structure. Most of us are familiar with the most common sentence structure: subject + verb + direct object. However, passages that consist only of sentences written according to that formula are excruciatingly boring. I can give my students the following sample paragraph:
I went to the store. I picked up some orange juice and tortilla chips. I waited in line for 10 minutes. I realized I forgot my wallet in my car. I left the store.
Boring, right? Invite the students not only to elaborate on some of the details but also to rewrite the sentences so that they don’t all begin with “I.” Allow them to impose their own creativity on this paragraph and then ask them to notice how each sentence is different. The more they feel comfortable writing varied sentence patterns, the more they will open themselves to reading varied writing styles.
Have you ever had trouble understanding a reading or even another subject? How did it make you feel and what steps did you take to help you move toward understanding?
(Photo by inju)