Meaningful connections increase reading comprehension

A row of high school students reading and taking notes

I was reading a book about a family who had a large yellow parrot that could mimic any sound or voice. This made me recall my job during college. I was working in a resort-area gift shop that had a parrot near my checkout counter. Reading this book and the tales of how the bird picked up the family voices reminded me of how, when a customer walked through the door and the chimes jingled, the parrot would sing out, “Hello, how are you?”—in my voice. This was a powerful text-to-self connection; I had the prior knowledge to identify with the family and the ups and downs of having a talented mimic nearby!

Facts in isolation make very little sense. Random concepts with no rhyme or reason rarely stick in a student’s mind. But when young people read books that connect to personal experiences, other books they’ve read, or something going on in the world, the material in those books makes more sense. Reading comprehension, that valuable “I get it!” understanding, reaches a higher level when there’s a connection or a link.

Connecting the dots improves reading comprehensionThese links come in three types: text to self, text to text, and text to world. To form a text-to-self connection, readers notice that a book or other text reminds them of something from their own lives. A strong personal connection increases reading comprehension by strengthening the pathways in the brain to help remember the material.

Text-to-text connections, sometimes referred to as book-to-book, occur when something in the text reminds the reader of something else read previously. My intermediate-grade reading group had just read an article about carnivorous flowers, and a student interjected, “Fudge wouldn’t eat these!” Random? Not at all. In Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, the book we’d just finished, a main character (Fudge, age 2) had driven his mother to tears by eating flowers in the arrangement she’d prepared for a formal dinner party with important guests. This student made a text-to-text connection that activated her sense of humor as well.

Poems, with their short length and exquisite word choice, offer unique connections as well. A second grade teacher I knew had a little trouble convincing her students that the moon was not made of green cheese. Instead of pushing the science content to the point of frustration, she took another tack. She introduced the poem “The Moon Is the North Wind’s Cooky” by Vachel Lindsay. The patient teacher was able to guide her young readers through the metaphor in the poem, move them to the reality (the phases of the moon), and then remind them that the green cheese theory was also kind of fun but was just another metaphor.

The final and most advanced form of connection, text to world, requires a connection beyond the personal. Connecting the broader world with the material sends reading comprehension soaring and makes memory firmer. A high school student might realize that the composer she just learned about in music class reminds her of an artist she read about in art history, leading her to wonder how the two were related. This student might go on and consider what else was happening in the world at that time that led to changes and developments in the worlds of art and music.

Try using sentence starters like these to encourage a reader to think beyond the covers of the book or the screen of the e-reader:

  • What I just read reminds me of this thing that happened in history because …
  • What I just read reminds me of what’s going on in the world now because …
  • I can identify with that. I remember when …

When your young readers learn that reading doesn’t happen in isolation, they begin to do what all good readers do: make connections between the material and themselves, other texts, and even the world.

How have you modeled the strategy of forming connections? Are there other reading comprehension strategies that you’ve used? Share in the comments.


This article was originally published on the Connections Academy Blog, and was reposted here with permission. 


About the Author
Tracy Ostwald-Kowald

Tracy Ostwald-Kowald

Tracy Ostwald-Kowald graduated from Lawrence University, a small liberal arts school in Wisconsin, with a Bachelor of Music degree. She returned to school at University of Wisconsin – Green Bay to earn her elementary teaching license, followed by a Master of Education degree in curriculum and instruction from Lesley University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Tracy, better known as Mrs. O.K., enjoys bringing the arts into her teaching whenever possible. Due to a progressive hearing loss, she no longer teaches private music lessons or judges festivals but is excited to be part of Juilliard eLearning—a new online music course program powered by Connections Education. Teaching at a virtual school offers her the opportunity to continue applying her teaching skills and experience while channeling her own inner computer geek.