Bring Read-to-Learn Activities into Your Classroom

Shift your instruction from teacher-centered to student-centered, which requires learners to do the heavy lifting.

By Stef Durr

little boy reading

Much like you are reading this article to learn something new, a read-to-learn requires students to read information to gain knowledge, replacing the traditional lecture or note-taking session where the teacher is doing all of the work. Read-to-learns are usually short (a page or two), include basic comprehension questions, and provide enough information for kids to immediately apply their newly acquired knowledge. As learners begin to apply their knowledge, they should be able to reference their read-to-learn text to guide their practice.

This type of reading differs from a typical article that you may read with your class (like one about the addictiveness of Oreos) because the topic of a read- to-learn is something you’d normally require your students to take notes on. For example, you could use a read-to-learn type of text to explain the parts of a plot diagram, to define an author’s purpose and point of view, or to describe tone and mood.

Example of a Read-to-Learn

Here is an excerpt of a read-to-learn I used with sixth graders to define point of view. The text comes from For Dummies and provides basic information on point of view. There are questions embedded in the reading to build understanding through the text:

Literature provides a lens through which readers look at the world. Point of view is the way the author allows you to "see" and "hear" what's going on. Skillful authors can fix their readers' attention on exactly the detail, opinion, or emotion the author wants to emphasize by manipulating the point of view of the story. 

  1. How does the point of view influence the reader?

Point of view comes in three varieties, which the English scholars have handily numbered for your convenience:

  • First-person point of view is in use when a character narrates the story with I-me-my-mine in his or her speech. The advantage of this point of view is that you get to hear the thoughts of the narrator and see the world depicted in the story through his or her eyes. However, remember that no narrator, like no human being, has complete self-knowledge or, for that matter, complete knowledge of anything. Therefore, the reader's role is to go beyond what the narrator says.
  1. What is the benefit of first-person point of view?
  1. What words help the reader identify the first-person point of view?

What is the Purpose of a Read-to-Learn?

Although note-taking and teacher-led instruction may work at times, this type of activity has multiple benefits. First, it engages learners. Second, it doesn’t allow them to opt out or zone off like during traditional note-taking. Lastly, readers are required to do the heavy lifting. Not only do they have to read the text, but they have to make sense of it in order to be successful in their independent practice.

How and When Can I Use this Activity in My Classroom?

How can I use read-to-learn? Anytime you open PowerPoint to whip up a few slides with basic definitions or examples, consider creating a read-to-learn instead. Remember that a read to-learn engages its readers by posing comprehension questions that build on one another.

Prepare for the lesson beforehand by printing enough copies for each of your students and creating some concept-checking questions to gauge your class’s understanding of the material, post-read. Then, in class, give basic directions for how to complete the activity. It could look like this: “What is point of view, and how does it influence the reader? Instead of taking notes on the subject, I’d like you to read this text. It will help you answer both of these questions. You’ll have 10 minutes to read the text and answer the questions. This is independent work time. If you do not understand something, reread your text. All of the questions can be answered simply by citing the text.” As students begin, do your best to not check in with them verbally. Peek over their shoulders and check in with their answers, but avoid answering questions. Often students will hesitate to record their answer, hoping to check in with you first. Do not give them this option.

When can I use read-to-learn? The more often you use it, the more success you’ll find. Aim to use this type of reading two-three times per week. It might be a rocky transition at first, and middle schoolers in particular will be itching to ask you questions in order to confirm their ideas on the topic. However, implementing this type of instruction definitely creates the college-ready, independent readers we’re hoping to create.

Don’t limit this type of text to classwork; it can also be extremely effective as a homework assignment in a flipped classroom, but keep in mind that the kids who failed to read the night before will likely struggle on the independent practice the following day.

In addition to read-to-learns, what type of readings do you use in your classroom to require students to do the heavy lifting? We’d love to gather some ideas here, as teachers in every domain are now teachers of literacy as well!