The Micro-Rules of Reading: Supporting Students’ Reading in Every Subject

At Durrington we are aware that different subjects work with texts that require very specific reading skills. The texts that students encounter in PE will be very different to those that they encounter in Geography, for example. With this disciplinary awareness in mind, we are currently thinking about how to support students and teachers with the subject-specific reading that occurs day-to-day in classrooms across the curriculum.

A seminal text that is guiding our discussions, and shapes this blog post, is Reading Reconsidered by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway. This book is a treasure trove of practical explanation, advice and ideas for how to increase the effectiveness of reading instruction in schools so that students are aptly prepared for the demands (and pleasures)of reading in later life.

Sometimes, there can be a propensity to think of reading instruction in schools (especially secondary schools) as firmly rooted in the English classroom alone. Coupled with this, it can be difficult for other subject teachers to find guidance on how to successfully develop the specific reading skills required for their subject. Lemov et al’s book explores how to support students with reading non-fiction texts, a genre category that is fundamental to every discipline, and therefore pertinent to every teacher irrespective of their specialism.

According to Lemov et al, one of the main challenges teachers encounter when asking students to engage with non-fiction texts are the ‘micro rules’. These micro-rules are obvious to experienced non-fiction readers but can be very confusing to novices. Additionally, the micro-rules appear to be more or less significant in different subjects, and so correlate to our understanding that reading is most effectively taught through a disciplinary approach. The micro-rules that Lemov et al identify are:

  1. The universal article: When the refers to an entire species instead of one example. This is commonly found in non-fiction science texts, for example the polar bear has thick, white fur for insulation and camouflage refers to all polar bears, not just one animal.
  2. Synonyms: Non-fiction texts often use synonyms because they are written for publication and so require creative flair. For example, Americans are often referred to as ‘our cousins across the pond’ in UK publications.
  3. Optional parenthetical: Consider the sentence ‘Trout, any of several prized game and food fishes of the family Salmonidae (order Salmoniformes) are usually restricted to freshwater’. Non-fiction texts are aimed at different levels of reader. This means that non-fiction writers often include information in brackets that is an optional extra – some readers will read this and some will ignore entirely or come back to it later. A good example is the use of Latin names when writing about species, as exemplified in the sentence above.
  4. Throwaway references: In non-fiction texts for newspapers, magazines or journals every quote has to be referenced for legal reasons. Readers, therefore, have to know when the reference is integral to comprehension of the text and when the reference can be ignored.
  5. Generic numbers: Writers of non-fiction will often use generic numbers to create an impression. Often, the specific number does not require the cognitive effort of being considered in detail as the reader just needs to recall the general point. For example, a current GCSE Geography exam paper uses the sentence ‘Study Figure 2, a map showing how global surface temperatures might change by 2070’. Here, the reader does not need to specifically know or think about the year 2070 but instead needs the awareness that this sentence requires consideration about a time in the not-too-distant future.

Many non-fiction texts also use a non-linear layout that includes sidebars, captions and subheadings etc. These formats can create confusion about what is important to read, and in what order the information should be read.

Ideas for Non-Fiction Reading Practice in the Classroom

  1. Firstly, make sure that you introduce lots of non-fiction texts. Do this by reading deeply about a single subject across different types of text, i.e. read several texts about the same topic in batches or themes rather than texts about multiple topics in isolation. Alternatively, have a primary text in place and then incorporate lots of secondary non-fiction texts to read around the primary text.
  2. Read aloud non-fiction texts – reading aloud is not just for primary school. Reading non-fiction texts aloud is a great opportunity to for students to access texts that are above their reading age but contain information that they need to know. Reading aloud also models the difference in prosody between a fiction and non-fiction text.
  3. Identify the micro rules that are common in your subject area. Draw attention to these micro rules and explicitly teach students how to navigate and use them for reading in your subject area.
  4. Use real-life non-fiction texts rather than ones that have been adapted for school use. Similarly, avoid simplifying texts that have non-linear formats. Instead, model how to read these texts: students will encounter authentic texts more and more in secondary school and so early introduction is best.
  5. Proficient readers of non-fiction texts have often developed their own rules for reading, but these only come with experience. To support non-experienced readers, it can be beneficial to provide some basic rules to begin. For example, with non-linear texts the reader should never stop mid-sentence and only jump to a sidebar at the end of a paragraph.

Fran Haynes

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