Teaching Strategies & Tips

Best Ways to Improve Reading Retention Effectively

Reading to Learn

When my son started 3rd grade, his teacher said, “Up until now, you have been learning to read. Now you will be reading to learn.” Even though I had been a special education teacher for over 10 years at the time, that simple statement struck me. I had never thought about reading retention in that way. I was all about improving reading levels and reading comprehension with my students, but I hadn’t thought about reading in that context before.

It was one of my “connect the dots” moments. I call it that because I knew about the components of teaching reading: phonics, word recognition, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, but I had not connected those skills to the next level of reading:  to not just comprehend but to retain what was read. Now it was time to find ways to help my students to connect their own dots and help them improve their reading retention.

Farther back in the Wayback Machine

I had been a special education teacher for a few years when I moved and had to find a new position. My new job was teaching high school social studies classes to groups of cross-categorical special education students. (Cross Categorical means that all types of disabilities were present in one class—along with vastly different abilities.)

I literally walked into a class that only had workbooks that the students couldn’t write in because there was no way of knowing if there would be enough money to order more next year. The file cabinets were bare, and I had no money. The U.S. History book that I had to use was composed of short stories with comprehension questions at the end of each “chapter”—U.S. History in 40 chapters!

In an effort to provide more activities for the students using what I had, I had to develop many of the activities and strategies that I still use today. These activities provided needed repetition and extended the content to at least 3 days per chapter. Bonus! This is when I discovered for myself how reviewing the material over multiple days improved the students’ reading retention rates. Even though these strategies were used in a Special Education classroom, the use of these strategies could promote higher retention rates in all students, especially those who are struggling in General Education classes.

Here is a snapshot of the 3 days:

  1. Day 1: Review unknown vocabulary words. We used dictionaries or found the unknown words in the text before reading. Students wrote down the word, the definition of the sentence (to see the term used in context) where the word was used.
  2. Day 2: We read the text aloud—taking turns. In those days, I didn’t have the tools to evaluate reading levels and only took volunteers. I read too. After reading and discussing what we read, the students completed a worksheet independently that I had made in advance. My worksheet asked factual questions in the vein of Question-Answer Relationship (QAR) questions. My Right-There Questions were often word for word, and, most importantly, in correct chronological order. My idea was they would read through the selection on their own, answering questions as they worked through the text. An accommodation that some of my students needed was to identify and highlight keywords in the questions. Some students also needed to be taught that questions that begin with “when” require a date, and questions that begin with “where” require a place.
  3. Day 3: We reviewed the questions and answers as a class. The students were allowed to correct their answers. (Discussion and writing again.) Then they independently completed the comprehension questions at the end of the chapter.

I tell you this story because my attempt to keep my students busy actually provided practice of what I now know helps improve reading retention in all students—not only Special Education students: Readaloud, take notes as you go (worksheet), discussion, repeated exposure to the material, and pre-reading (the vocabulary activity.) I was ahead of the curve!! And, speaking of curves, I hadn’t even heard about “The Forgetting Curve” yet! The “Forgetting Curve” shows how much of what we learn is lost over time when we don’t make any effort to retain it. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/01/what-was-this-article-about-again/551603/

Back to the Future

Now I am a little more sophisticated in the materials and resources that I can provide my students, but the goal is the same: Improve reading retention rates. Over the years, I have tried many tips and strategies.

I am not one to try to reinvent the wheel, but I do like to adapt the materials that I use to get the desired outcomes. I decided to see how I could incorporate some of the reading retention strategies into what I am already doing.

Reading Logs/Graphic Organizers 

In my last Read Theory article on Reading Comprehension (https://readtheory.org/autism-and-reading-comprehension/), I talked about having students keep a log of their stories read in Read Theory as a way to ascertain and incorporate students’ interests into future assignments. This would provide reinforcement of what had been previously read and learned. I created a log that consists of the following: Passage Title, 2 sentences telling what the passage was about, F for Fiction or N for Nonfiction, and rate the story from 1-10. 

The nonfiction stories were used to fill out a reading comprehension graphic organizer 3-2-1 Chart. The 3-2-1 chart that I consisted of:  write 3 things you discovered, 2 interesting things, and 1 question you still have. The question can lead to more research, writing activities, powerpoints, etc.  

I already told you that I am not trying to reinvent the wheel. My 3-2-1 chart came from Teachers Pay Teachers https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Browse/Search:3-2-1%20chart. This is an excellent resource that you can join for free. There are resources for every grade and subject for free or low cost. 

Reading Logs 2.0. Going back to connecting the dots, I decided to see what else I could do to improve reading retention rates. After reflecting on the reading log, I decided to add an additional open-ended statement, “This reminds me of…” This would encourage the students to make a connection to what they have just read to something they KNOW. Making connections is essential to learning and retaining information, and I feel that I had overlooked that important strategy. Here is what my log looks like and a link to one you can use:
https://drive.google.com/file/d/1aTARJeDNsnzWfLl6vrSO93L7THXAYuiO/view?usp=sharing
A step further

Pair the students to share one story they read that day in a Think-Pair-Share Variation. Here is an explanation of how this works when students read the same materialhttp://www.adlit.org/strategies/23277/; my variation involves pairing the students to share the story they liked best with a classmate. 

The classmate should listen and ask one question about the story. Sharing what they read would give each student an opportunity to talk to someone about it. They could even read a selected paragraph to their partner. Now they would be reading aloud too!

A note about the Think-Pair-Share variation: For my special needs students, I would need to let them know BEFORE reading that they would be selecting a story to share with a random classmate. For the first few times, it would have to be modeled and closely monitored to make sure the students were achieving the objectives of the lesson. 

Students could be paired by similar reading levels, a student with a higher level with a lower level, or by random such as drawing numbers. I like to mix it up so they don’t get too comfortable with each other and keep their focus on what they should be doing! Also, we would be working both directly and indirectly on proper social skills: taking turns talking, respecting others’ opinions, etc. 

Independent vs Instructional Levels

Read Theory is a very useful tool in identifying the students’ reading levels. I not only use it for reading practice to improve comprehension skills; I also use the data to get a better idea of the student’s independent reading level and instructional level. An independent reading level is when a student can read entirely by themselves. An instructional level is just beyond that.

 Typically, I try to use materials at a student’s instructional level when working to improve reading comprehension skills, and I use materials at their independent level to supplement the curriculum when working on improving reading retention skills.

The grade and Lexile levels provided in Read Theory help to determine their levels. I look at their pretest scores, but honestly, I only use those as a baseline. Those scores are only as good as the effort (or lack of) on that given day. Their program averages and their quiz history really tell the story. It is all a matter of interpreting the data.

Determining reading levels with ReadTheory

Let’s look at one of my students; we’ll call her Sally. Sally is a student with Autistic Spectrum Disorder. She likes to do well, and she likes to rush to be finished. Yes, both at the same time.

On Sally’s Read Theory pretest, her average was Grade 1 and her Lexile Level was 130L. Knowing her, this struck me as lower than her demonstrated reading abilities that I had observed in other content areas. Hmm, suspect for sure. But now, after participating in the Read Theory program for a semester, her overall average is grade 3.02 and a Lexile level of 526L. That is more in keeping with her performance on other tasks.

Sally's Lexile Level Progression Chart. Quiz #22 caused Sally's Lexile Level to drop for the next assigned passage

Figure 1: Sally’s Lexile Level Progression Chart. Quiz #22 caused Sally’s Lexile Level to drop for the next assigned passage

Sally completed 42 quizzes and has passed 31 of them over the course of a semester. Using the Lexile Progression Level Chart, I can quickly see which quizzes proved to be the most difficult for her. Since her initial pretest score was actually lower than her reading level, she quickly progressed to 2nd and 3rd-grade reading level passages by the 3rd and 4th attempts. After that, she stayed in the range of 500L with 3 notable exceptions.

Using my cursor to hover over the graph, I identified the 3 quizzes in question and could easily look to see her scores on the quiz taken prior (See Figure 1. Quiz #22 is identified.)  to the lower Lexile level to see why she dropped in level and the types of questions she was consistently missing. I also use this data to write IEP objectives.
Based on what I found, Sally’s independent level of reading was consistently at the 3rd-grade level, and Lexile level of 520L. In Figure 2, Sally score 66% –70% is passing in ReadTheory. Previously she passed  Quiz#21 (408L) but failed Quiz #20 (600L) and #19 (740L). Sally did pass #18 with a high Lexile of 800L; that passage was about dogs, which Sally loves. This was a high-interest story for her and she probably spent more time reading it.

Sally scored below 70% in Quiz #22

Figure 2: Sally scored below 70% in Quiz #22

Read Theory and Lexiles

I use Read Theory Lexile data to find supplementary reading assignments for my students. For example, the website Smithsonian Tween Tribune (https://www.tweentribune.com/ ) provides online articles for all Lexile levels. You create a class, add students by Lexile score—obtained through the Read Theory pretest average or by the program average–and assign articles. There is a quiz following each article.

This resource could be used to incorporate current events and other timely topics into class discussions. I love that the articles are differentiated by Lexile rather than reading levels; it can be a blow to confidence and self-esteem when students see materials labeled by grade level.

Lexile.com also has great resources such as: find a bookhttps://hub.lexile.com/find-a-book/search, word listshttps://hub.lexile.com/wordlists, and grade level chartshttps://hub.lexile.com/lexile-grade-level-charts. These are useful for making reading lists, independent study word lists, or helping parents find suitable reading materials. As a high school special educator, I really appreciate the High-Low (HL) designation for books. HL books have content for older students but at a lower reading level. 

Here’s the thing on reading retention 

Basically, keep doing what you are already doing to improve reading comprehension. I think the key to reading retention is taking everything a step further and adding another layer. Here are some ideas:

  1. Take a spiral approach to teaching concepts. (https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED538282) Like a spiral staircase, a student of any ability level learns more each time the concept is encountered or reviewed. This article describes ways to incorporate these activities into a weekly routine https://www.edutopia.org/discussion/easy-warm-routine-set-tone-class:
    1. Warm-ups to start class with a quick review or a Question of the Day
    2. Exit Tickets to reinforce concepts
    3. Journal entries to answer specific, pointed questions
  2. Make Connections to previously taught concepts, current events, prior knowledge, etc. These all help build the scaffolding to hang the new material and a way to look at it again in a new light.

    An example in making connections would be when teaching US History, don’t forget to mention how the San Francisco 49ers are named after the miners in the California Gold Rush of 1849 in California or that the Charlotte Hornets got their name from the Revolutionary War when the British Commander Lord Cornwallis referred to the city as “a veritable nest of hornets.” This trivial information sparks interest in sports fans!

  1. Class discussion. Whole class. Think-Pair-Share in smaller groups. Remember to take advantage of teachable moments and “go with the flow” of the discussion.
    My class loves to get me “off-topic.” For example, in my Civics class, we were talking about Washington, DC, and as a side note, I pointed out that it is not in any state and that it is in a district. Everyone wanted to talk about DC and many of them had visited. As the discussion progressed, we started talking about the monuments and their history. The students were very interested but did not know much factual information. One thing leads to another and I ended up assigning one monument to each student to research, find images, create a powerpoint and present it to the class.
  1.   Teach concepts using a variety of modalities—reading, writing, listening, watching. https://www.how-to-study.com/teaching-tips/teaching-tip.asp?tid=13 An example of how I use different modalities is in a Unit on elements of fiction that features improving reading retention of the short story “A Tell-Tale Heart.

Back to the Future 2—A story about using different modalities and making connections to improve reading retention 

I currently teach in a high school in an alternative diploma track class for Special Needs students. In my freshmen English class, we do a unit on elements of fiction. 

Before we begin, we review vocabulary. To illustrate the elements, the Edgar Allan Poe short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart” is used. We listen to the story in class. Then we discuss it. The next day we fill out (write) a graphic organizer as a class putting all the elements of fiction in their correct place for a visual representation. We do a webquest to make a timeline of Poe’s life. (In doing the timeline we find that Poe died in Baltimore, Maryland. Baltimore named the football team the Ravens after Poe’s poem, “The Raven.”Someone always ASKS (I love this!) to hear the poem; I’m ready with the YouTube video of James Earl Jones reading “The Raven.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcqPQXqQXzI. 

Over the course of time, we revisit “The Tell-Tale Heart” by watching several different video versions of the story. My favorite is narrated by James Mason.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flKOtXC4oyM. Another version the students like is one by Annette Jung that reminds me of a Tim Burton moviehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDLLHTdVSgU. There are even more versions on YouTube! 

After watching the videos, we compare and contrast how the story was slightly different in each version. There are many other activities that students complete over the course of the unit. I share this story because I know that by doing all these things, at least one student retained what he had learned. A month later, he came to me and told me he had seen “that story we read in class” on an episode of “The Simpsons.” Hallelujah!  A connection! Of course, I had to find it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xvADdNkIhmI Thanks, YouTube! Now I use this clip every time I teach this unit to spiral back to the story as we work through the Unit! 

Reading to Learn 

Reading Retention is like taking reading comprehension to the gym. It’s great to remember what you read immediately after you’ve read it and answer a few comprehension questions. But to get true sustained learning, a person needs to put the work in at the gym to get lasting results. Do all the reading comprehension exercises, then add the extras that help students retain what they have learned or read: talk about it, write about it, make connections, and review it frequently.

Jana Hill, SPED English teacher (for ages 14-20)
Written by Jana Hill, SPED English teacher (for ages 14-20)

1 reply on “Best Ways to Improve Reading Retention Effectively”

Melanye Harden says:

Jana Hill, thanks for the well laid out article on reading retention. I thoroughly enjoyed your personal stories and experiences, they helped me to “connect the dots” in seeing how these strategies can improve reading retention for all students. The resources you offer are also appreciated!

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