Read Well to Write Well: Strategies for Reading Comprehension

For a man to write well, there are required three necessaries—to read the best authors, observe the best speakers, and much exercise of his own style…It is fit for the beginner and learner to study others and the best. For the mind and memory are more sharply exercised in comprehending another man’s things than our own.

~Ben Jonson

The English playwright and poet Ben Jonson knew what it takes to succeed in writing: read, observe, and exercise. In other words, it is important to observe the work of others and practice often. If you can understand what you read, then you will be able to:

  • Use the knowledge you have gained to support your own ideas
  • Apply the structure and style that others use to your own writing.

But understanding what you read, or reading comprehension, takes practice and intention. Before reading a text, it will help if you set a purpose. Take a look at the reading and ask yourself the following:

  • What is the topic of the text?
  • When was it written?
  • What issue(s) will be addressed?
  • What conclusion(s) might the author reach about the issue(s)?

Then, as you read the text, consider these questions:

  • What reasons does the author give for their statements or belief?
  • Is the author using facts or opinions?
  • Has the author used neutral or emotive words?
  • What seems to be the writer’s position?
  • What assumptions does the writer make?

Finally, when you have finished the reading, answer these questions:

  • What does the author leave out?
  • Whose perspectives, experiences, or attitudes are not considered?
  • Do you accept the arguments made by the author? Why or why not?

Setting a purpose will help you become a better reader, and being a better reader will improve your writing. By asking yourself the above questions, you improve your close reading skills. While speed is important when reading, comprehension is more essential to being a good reader. Strong reading comprehension requires close reading and a critical eye. Close-reading is a thoughtful, critical analysis of a text, which focuses on both structure and meaning to develop a deep, precise understanding.

To help you improve your engagement with a text, you might consider making a few notes as you read:

  • Notes to explain meaning
  • Synonyms for unfamiliar words
  • Challenges to opinions that are expressed
  • Examples to support points that are made
  • Connections of your own experiences or wider knowledge
  • Questions about the text

By enhancing your reading skills, you will also greatly improve your writing ability. So, if you aspire to be an excellent write, don’t forget to pick up a book!

Source: Pavich, Jill. Cambridge International AS Level: General Paper Coursebook

Home for the Summer–now what do you do?

The summer is quickly approaching. The break is certainly something to look forward to, but let’s be honest: the pandemic continues and we have already spent a lot of time at home over the last year. Though watching television and playing video games are fun, there are so many things students could and should be doing to get a little variety in their day and to stay healthy.

Of course, this English teacher’s first suggestion is for you to write. That writing does not need to be more essays, though. You could write about what’s going on during this pandemic. What’s going on in the world, in your country, in your city, in your social circle, in your family, and within yourself.

In a podcast last year, author George Saunders asks, “Are you keeping records of the emails and texts you’re getting? The thoughts you’re having? The way your hearts and minds are reacting to this strange new way of life?” Students could use their downtime to keep up with such things through writing.

Saunders says, “It’s all important. Fifty years from now, people the age you are now won’t believe this ever happened. Or will do the sort of eye roll we all do when someone tells us about something crazy that happened in 1960.”

Writing is also a way to make sense of things that are scary, sad, difficult, or boring. In that same podcast, the host Cheryl Strayed says, “Writing is the way I make sense of almost everything in my life.” Through keeping a journal or emailing a friend or family member, young people can both keep “records” and “make sense” of all that is going on and how they are feeling.

But students can also take this time to read. Read something fun. Read something easy. Read blogs, magazines, history books, science articles, anything! Ebooks, digital magazines, and audiobooks are available online. Many books can be found online through sites like Project Gutenberg. Read something your teacher isn’t “making” you read.

Watch documentaries about topics that interest you. Plant some seeds in a pot and leave that pot in a place where you’ll see it often so you can really watch the plants grow. Draw or paint. Have a video call with a friend or group of friends to play a game “together.” Use an online program or a YouTube channel to learn a language.

Exercise. You don’t have to be at a soccer field, gym, or track to exercise. Do some stretches in the morning when you wake up. Do exercises that don’t require a lot of space, like pushups, sit-ups, and jumping jacks. A simple online search will provide you with yoga and martial arts instructors who provide free video lessons.

And, don’t forget to breathe! It’s great to take 3-5 minutes to sit quietly, relax, and breathe. You can do this by sitting in a quiet place with your eyes closed, focusing on each breath you take–in and out. Or search for free guided relaxation videos online.

Whatever you do, though, try hard to get along with those you live with. It’s easy to get irritable and frustrated with people we are with for long periods of time. Try to find your own space, give others their space, respect each other’s needs, and help out wherever you can to create a peaceful living situation.

Preparing for the SAT English Sections: Part Two

As stated in “Preparing for and Understanding the SAT: Part One,” the SAT has both books-1841116_1920“English” and “Math.” Of the “English section, there are three parts: Reading; Writing and Language; and Essay. The essay is optional. We will address the other two sections here.

Reading Test

The Reading Test is made up of 52 questions with 65 minutes to complete it. It’s essential that students practice and prepare for the test. Students will also do better if familiar with the test format and directions. Reading the instructions and understanding them now will save valuable time during the SAT:



The Reading Test is made up of reading passages from different subject areas:

  • One passage on US & World Literature: selection of fiction
  • Two passages on History & Social Studies: selections from fields such as economics, sociology, and political science
  • Two passages on Science: deal with information, concepts, and experiments in the fields of Earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics

This helps keep the playing field level–some people are strong readers of science while others better comprehend fiction readings.

The Reading Test has two unique features to be aware of:

  • Paired passages: a pair of related passages that are on the same topic and interact with one another in some way. For example, the passages might represent two opposing viewpoints on a topic.
  • Informational graphics: Some passages include tables, graphs, or charts that correspond to the topic of the passage.

Before taking the Reading Test, keep some of these tips in mind:

  • Determine the main ideas of the passage (What’s the point?)
  • Understand the sequences of events
  • Comprehend the cause-effect relationships
  • Analyze the author’s or narrator’s voice and purpose
  • If you know you’ll have time, look at the questions first
  • Read it once; there is no need to re-read unless your answering a question about a specific quote
  • Make notes as you read – look at tone, bias, main idea, subjects, and language used

Then, when you read, consider following these four steps:

  1.    If you know you’ll have time, look at the questions first. The questions might mention key details (characters, events, etc.), so make note to look for those in the text when you read.
  2.    Read the passage once; get the tones and attitude of text; get the main idea of the text.
  3.    Make notes as you read.
  4.    Chances are you can re-read a paragraph, but don’t re-read the text.


Writing and Language Test

As stated before, it’s important to practice the test and to know the instructions before going into the test in order to save important and much-needed time:


The Writing and Language Test is made up of four passages. These include non-fiction, informative/explanatory, and argumentative texts. Next to the passages, there are questions. Each passage has 11 questions.

When looking at the passages, consider the following:

  • Macro Logic: How the sentences and paragraphs fit together.
  • Transitional Logic: How to connect different thoughts together.
  • Relevance: Determine whether a sentence fits in.
  • Author Intent: Understand the point of the author and writing techniques.
  • Formality and Tone

When working through this section, remember that everything not underlined is taken as fact; everything underlined is under question. Read through the passage quickly before looking at questions, and don’t worry about looking for errors. Next, read the questions, and look over surrounding sentences for context.

As you work through the parts under question, ask yourself the following:

    • Does this sentence contribute to the topic? Is it new information or is it simply rephrasing the same information? The SAT hates redundancy!
    • Is the style and tone consistent with the rest of the passage? Does the underlined portion fit the author’s voice?
    • Do the paragraphs transition well and are they consistent with the others?

When looking at parts under questions, there are some common mistakes that the SAT tests. Some of it seems too easy to be on such an important test, but it’s actually quite easy to overlook these common mistakes when not paying close attention. So, students should be on the look out for these:

  • Effect   vs affect
  • A lot   vs allot   vs a lot
  • into (movement)   vs in to (I came in to get a drink)
  • then (shift in time) vs   than (comparison)
  • assure (promise)  vs insure (protect risk)  vs ensure (to make certain)
  • less (can’t count)  vs fewer (can count)
  • between (two things, clearly separated)  vs among (several things, not clearly separated)
  • me (you are the object receiving the action–“Please contact me”) vs myself (reflexive pronoun—“I hit myself”)

In the past, students spent weeks studying “SAT words” with notecards. The new format of the SAT covers much more territory and is not as limited, saving students the dreadful memorization of definition after definition. However, knowing a few prefixes can help the student understand the words in the test by their context. Here are a few common ones to be familiar with:

omni – all – omnipotent, omnipresent, omnivore

inter – between – intercede, interfere, interject

intra – within – intrapersonal, intramural

mal – bad – maladjusted, malign

ben – good – benevolent, benefit

grat – pleasing – gratify, gratuity

sub – below – subzero, substitute, subordinate

re – again – realign, readjust

retro – back – retroact (act backward)

se – apart – secession (withdraw from assoc.), secret (kept apart/hidden), select (choose one, set apart)

dys – bad/abnormal – dystopia, dysfunction

sym – together – symbol (bring meanings together)

super – above – supersede (take the place of previous supervisor), superfluous (more than needed)

Of course, the most important thing to prepare is practice!

Preparing for the SAT English Sections: Part One

The SAT covers both “English” and “Math.” Of the “English” section, there are three parts: Reading; Writing and Language; and Essay. In this and the following post, we will primarily look at the Reading section and the Writing and Language section.

Though I help prepare students for the essay section, it is an optional section. Some students choose to complete the essay portion because they are confident they can do well; a high essay score could strengthen a college application. However, the main reason to take the essay portion is if the school applied for requires or recommends it.

Before looking at individual sections, let’s look at the test as a whole. The test covers skills most students have already learned in school: comma usage, subject-verb agreement, commonly confused words, pronouns, and so on. It is a good idea to review basic components of grammar to make sure they’re fresh.

Man, Men, Hand, Person, People, Male, Portrait, HumanAs for the questions, they all count the same number of points, whether they are difficult or easy. Also, the questions are not necessarily in order from easy to hard. Furthermore, there is no penalty for incorrect answers–so students should answer all of them. Leaving a question unanswered automatically forfeits points; it’s better to guess and have a chance at earning the points.

Regarding scores, the test is scored on a scale of 400-1600: 200-800 for Math; 200-800 for combined Reading and Writing/Language.

One useful tool for multiple choice is the process of elimination. First, the student should eliminate the distractors or obvious wrong ones. There are some answer choices that are just clearly wrong! Second, the student needs to eliminate the half-truths, the hyperboles, and incorrect assumptions. Just because it’s “kind of right” doesn’t mean it’s the best or correct answer. Finally, the student should determine which one is most accurate in answering the question.

A main component that slows students down is the actual reading of the passages that are questioned. It’s essential to make a conscious effort to read faster. The best way to do this is to practice. Taking practice tests allows the student to learn to read fast. It also gives the student a strong idea of what the time limit feels like; this will help with pacing.

Here are some other tips to help the student succeed:Book, Reading Book, Reading, Read, Information

  • Work to gain points in your strongest areas.
  • Don’t waste time on the toughest questions.
  • Make an intelligent guess on all questions to which you do not know the answer.
  • Careless errors can occur easily. Pay attention to detail.
  • Avoid “jumping” to conclusions. Pay attention to all parts of the questions.

In the next post, we look at how the sections are set up.

Teaching The Old Man and the Sea: Part One

Teaching a longer work of literature to teenagers comes with its challenges: avoiding spoilers, keeping students interested for weeks, and fearing that the students are running to the comfort of quick online summaries.Image result for the old man and the sea"

Experienced teachers and pedagogical experts have found ways around these issues, while other educators opt to stick with short stories and excerpts. One simple approach is to stick with shorter novels that are accessible yet packed with material for teaching. One novel I have had great success with is The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. From the accessibility of the text to the relatability of themes, I have used this novel with teenagers of different ages in various settings.


When picking up a hard copy of The Old Man and the Sea, I always find students to be surprised at how short it is. As a teacher, that’s a comforting reaction to see from reluctant novel-readers. The novel’s present time is only a few days and it takes place in Cuba and the sea nearby; but Santiago’s memories take the reader back to his childhood and young adulthood, to the coasts of Africa and Spain. It’s a vast setting full of ideas and themes as deep as the waters the great marlin swims in, yet the reader can access it in just a few readings.

The simplicity of vocabulary, sentence structure, and plot that Hemingway has become known for is a breath of fresh air for some students. Hemingway believed that “big emotions” do not need to come from big words. In The Old Man and the Sea, he holds to that simplicity. The simplicity also carries over to his short character list with main characters that are reduced to “the old man” and “the boy.”

Image result for the old man and the sea"Yet, the complexity of his ‘iceberg’ is apparent as the thoughts, dreams, and struggles of Santiago–”the old man”–fill the pages. Still further, the character list grows as Santiago speaks to and personifies those around him: the fish, birds, stars, and the sea. These become characters and take the reader deeper into a theme that explores the relationship between humans and nature.

Section-by-Section Approach Made Easy

The novel doesn’t have any chapters–its brevity doesn’t require them. But section breaks allow for daily readings, discussions, and writings that are more manageable for the young reader. The novel is easily broken up into about five sections. Paired with daily writings, it makes for a great Monday-Friday assignment.

A week spent reading the novel is a comfortable amount of days to spend, but the lesson could go further on both ends. Before starting the novel, the teacher or parent can take advantage of the 20th century Cuban setting to explore connected history, geography, weather, professions, and cultures. After reading the novel, the short plot and the intense climax will be fresh on the reader’s mind, and reflection writings, a detailed summary, and an essay can follow the reading.

In the next post, I look into the accessible and relatable themes and symbols of Hemingway’s classic novel: “Teaching The Old Man and the Sea: Part Two.”

Improve your English grammar by learning a foreign language

A couple of weeks ago, a high school History teacher told me, “I learned most of my
English grammar by studying Latin.” I can relate to and agree with this through my study of Spanish.latin

I started studying Spanish two decades ago. The first word I learned was from the mother of a friend from Mexico. She spoke no English. One afternoon I went to his house and he wasn’t home. His mother told me something in Spanish and it was clear from the look on my face that I had no idea what she had said. She then continued to repeat “Biblioteca, biblioteca” as she pointed up the hill toward the library. When I arrived at the library, I found my friend and I realized I had learned my first Spanish word.

From that day, I decided to make it a point to learn Spanish. I took Spanish through high school and college. I studied Spanish in Guatemala for three months, working one-on-one with a Guatemalan teacher, five days a week, eight hours a day.


After Guatemala, I volunteered at a maternity home where many of the clients were Spanish speakers. I tutored students in Spanish at a college. Over morning coffee, I spoke Spanish with a friend of Puerto Rican descent. Then, throughout my English graduate studies, I sat-in on as many Spanish college courses as I could.

I never planned to be a Spanish teacher or permanently live in a Spanish-speaking country. I wanted to learn a new language because I was aware of the well-known benefits of doing so: a greater ability to complete analytical tasks, an worldbooksresizeintroduction to a new culture, a competitive edge in the job market, and so on.

When I completed my MA in English, my family and I moved to Ecuador. There I took Spanish classes, but most of my time was dedicated to teaching English. As a new teacher in a classroom, I found that teaching the English language was not much different than learning the Spanish language. I discovered that all my years of studying Spanish helped me to better understand the English language.

Anne Merritt points out in “Why learn a foreign language? Benefits of bilingualism” that learning a foreign language draws our focus to the mechanics of language: grammar, conjugations, idioms, and sentence structure. Merritt says, “This makes you more aware of language, and the ways it can be structured and manipulated. These skills can make you a more effective communicator and a sharper editor and writer.”

If we want a better hold of English and we want to improve our reading and writing skills, we should remember the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”


An excellent source for literature

readingA website simply named “American Literature” has a lot to offer. The site consists of lists like “Short Stories for Middle Schoolers” and a page of “American Literature Classics Library.”

And the best part is the works are all there! Click on a work of fiction, and it’s there for your—or your child—to read. So, if you need help finding reading assignments for your child or you’re simply looking for something good to read, check out: