Suggestions for Teaching Reading Keys

Copyright 2008 © Laraine Flemming.
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Chapter 1: Words and Meanings

  1. Although I'm not a firm believer in always following a book's exact sequence, I do think starting with vocabulary is the best way to open up a reading course. In addition to enlarging students' vocabulary—something they desperately need—I think vocabulary exercises, which are among the easier exercises to complete, give students confidence. Thus I would spend the first two classes working on the opening exercises that deal with word parts and context clues.
  2. If you use the Power Points on context clues, it's a judgment call as to whether or not you also go over the textbook discussion of them in class. I would, however, assign those pages as home work and then use the Reviewing the Key Points section of the chapter on page 33 for in class review of the material.
  3. At the end of every four weeks, I would give students some kind of vocabulary check on all of the words covered throughout the month. Because I was always pressed for time when teaching, I usually did this orally. I'd instruct students that on a specific day, I would be quizzing them in class on all the words covered up to that point. Everyone in class would be asked for at least two definitions but they wouldn't know in advance which words they would be asked to define. Each correct definition would be worth five points. The points could be added to their lowest grade come end of semester.
  4. I don't believe that you have to teach the entire chapter before moving on to Chapter 2. I never ever did that in all my years as an instructor. Instead, I would return to the chapter on a weekly basis to complete one or two exercises.
  5. Over the years, I have given out numerous questionnaires asking students about their study skills, and every time I do, I'm surprised at how few strategies students have at their disposal. Many think, for instance, that re-reading a passage is a sign of their incompetence when, in fact, good readers selectively re-read all the time. Re-reading isn't a mistake. It's the right way to deal with difficult passages. But students don't know this. Nor do they know many of the other ways experienced readers handle difficult or demanding texts. Thus, in the first days of class, I always combined vocabulary work with a quick mini-course in study skills. To that end, I would recommend using some of the study skills handouts on my web site, starting the first day of class. .

Chapter 2: Making Sentence Connections

  1. This is a chapter that works well when taught in bits. So I envisioned it and so I am told instructors use it. Teach pages 40-49 and 52-55 in class in order to (1) clarify for students the meanings of those key terms general and specific (2) familiarize students with the agreement and reversal sentence pattern and (3) start them thinking about the role of transitions. Teach the remaining sentence patterns: contrast, comparison, cause and effect etc., when you teach the chapter on patterns, Chapter 8.
  2. Before teaching the material on pages 40-49, I would take the time to go through the Power Point explanations of general and specific. Anyone who knows my books knows that I make a very big deal out of explaining the terms general and specific. Thus it will come as no surprise that I am suggesting you spend extra time on pages 40-49 even if it means that in total you spend three or four class periods on just these two terms and these nine pages. I think taking the time to focus on what it means to say a sentence is general or specific really pays off in the end and you will have to spend less time teaching what appear to be much more advanced skills.
  3. I would also have students do the two interactive practices available for Reading Keys on my web site: Practice 3 and Practice 5
  4. Another good exercise is available at the Reading for Reasults web page. I think the audience for Reading Keys can handle it.

Chapter 3: From Topics to Main Ideas

  1. I would start students doing homework from this chapter while they were still working on general and specific sentences in class. Ask them to copy and look over the explanations of both topic and main idea included on my web site under "Key Concepts."
  2. Then introduce the terms via the Power Point on Topic and Main Idea. When you do the Power Point discussion, encourage students to define these terms and offer examples in their own words, e.g. "Now tell me, in your own words, what's the difference between a paragraph's topic and its main idea?"
  3. The topic of a paragraph can often be expressed in various ways. For an example, take a look at the paragraph about Edison and the electric chair on page 87. The way I would teach this paragraph now, as opposed to ten years ago, is to say to students, "Look over the first three sentences. Tell me what word or words in those sentences are consistently referred to throughout the paragraph." Based on that criterion, several answers are possible: Edison and the electric chair; Edison's invention of the electric chair or Edison and electrocution (I have to say too I would not count Edison or the electric chair as wrong; they are just not the most efficient answers to get readers quickly to the main idea). All these answers would be correct as topics because they are all referred to throughout the paragraph, and they can all lead readers to the main idea via the question, "What does the author want to say about Edison (and electrocution or the electric chair)." Answer: "It's not widely known that Edison played a key role in inventing the electric chair" or "Many people don't know that Thomas Edison played a key role in making it possible to use electrocution as a method of execution."
  4. The variation among ways to correctly express the topic is not a problem with a multiple choice exercise that provides the answers. It is, however, when you do an exercise where the students provide the answers. Then you are going to see, or at least this has been my experience, variations in the answers. Some of them will be correct. For that reason, this particular strategy is time-consuming. You will have to work through a number of the exercise answers in class, tracking the references to say Benjamin Rush's prescriptions for health (or treatment) p.91 or the pandemic of 1918 (also possible, the flu outbreak of 1918 and the flu virus) p.124.
  5. I have found it useful to read a paragraph aloud with students reading along. Then I ask them to write down what they think is the topic of the paragraph. Next I ask different students to volunteer to read their topic. It's rare that everyone has written down the exact same topic. so the next step is to go through the paragraph sentence by sentence looking for repeated references to each topic. If it turns out that two topics are repeatedly referred to in the paragraph, then both are considered correct. For instance, I recently did this with the paragraph on triage on page 124. Several students in the group said triage, but one said "treating the wounded in war time." There was no way to argue that most of the sentences in the paragraph did not deal with treating the wounded in war time. And in fact, when it came time to take the next step and develop a main idea, the student with the topic about the wounded got the main idea right: "In war time, medical professionals treat the war wounded with a system called triage."
  6. Looking for the topic in a more open-ended fashion solves a problem I always had when teaching paragraph topics. Some student answers differed from those in the answer key yet seemed perfectly legitimate because they had a clear relationship to the main idea. Even worse, I didn't have a reason for saying why some answers were wrong except that the answer key said something different. When I couldn't explain why an answer was wrong, students were, I believe, suspicious of the supposed correct answer and reading instruction in general, not to speak of me. Once students think that what you are telling them doesn't really fit the text they are reading, you and they are in real trouble in terms of motivation, because getting the right answer seems to be a matter of lucky guessing rather than analysis. However, once the criteria for identifying the topic become quantifiable i.e. you can count the references throughout the paragraph, then you and your students are, I think, on firmer ground.
  7. It's only recently that I have started teaching topic in this more open-ended fashion so I haven't yet adapted the answer keys to the newer strategy. Thus I would suggest that all exercises—there actually aren't that many—which require the student to create the topic be done as a group in class.
  8. I would not finish all of Chapter 3 before going to Chapter 4 to discuss topic sentences. In fact, in the third edition of Reading Keys, currently in manuscript I have collapsed chapters 3 and 4 into one chapter. My suggestion to you would be to complete Exercises 3 and 4 of Chapter 3. Then use the Power Point on topic sentence to start the discussion of chapter 4. You can always go back and use the other exercises in Chapter 3 for additional in class or homework on topic sentences.

Chapter 4: Recognizing Topic Sentences

  1. Based on how much time students have spent at this point talking about general and specific sentences, I would show the first Power Point on topic sentences and ask them, "What do you think? Are topic sentences in a paragraph likely to be general or specific?"
  2. The Power Point slides on topic sentences introduce examples of introductory sentences without naming them as such. When you use the slides, I would tell students that if the topic sentence appears in second position, then the preceding sentence is an introductory sentence that paves the way or sets the stage for that sentence. Tell them as well that more discussion of introductory sentences will follow.
  3. I think the web site explanation of introductory sentences in Key Concepts at does a good job (excuse the immodesty) of not just explaining how introductory and topic sentences differ but also modeling how reading consists of expectations that are either confirmed or revised. Thus I would definitely tell students to read that web page carefully right after you finish the discussion of introductory sentences on page 128.
  4. As soon as you think that students understand the difference between topic and introductory sentences, I would spend a significant amount of class time discussing reversal transitions and their role in getting the reader from an introductory to a topic sentence. You might also go back to chapter 3 and point out places where reversal transitions such as "however" paved the way for the real point of the paragraph. (For example: Paragraph 1 on page 119 and paragraph 5 on page 121).
  5. Because so many textbook authors do open at least fifty per cent of their paragraphs with the topic sentence, I think you have to tell students to start reading with the expectation that the first sentence is the topic sentence. However, to be sure that the first sentence is the topic sentence, they have to pay close to the sentence that follows the opening sentence. If it does not pick up the thread introduced in the first sentence, then the first sentence is an introductory sentence.
  6. While I think "picking up the thread" of the previous sentence is a nice metaphor for describing how sentences continue to develop an idea, you need to do more than use the metaphor—at least in my experience—you need to actually spend some time tracking references to words or phrases introduced in one sentence and continued for the remainder of the paragraph. In other words, looking for topic sentences requires the same kind of close reading used to determine topics.
  7. Students need to understand that references to previously introduced ideas (or topics) are not necessarily explicit repetitions of words or phrases. The thread can be picked up as well by pronouns, associated words, examples, causes etc. Take, for instance, the paragraph about Faraday on page 131. If you ask students to pick up the thread from sentence 1, an introductory sentence, they won't get very far. Yes, they will find more references to Faraday in the remaining sentences. What they won't find are more references to Faraday's lack of formal education. Thus the main idea can't revolve around that topic. What does get picked up and elaborated on are the accomplishments of Faraday's "brilliant and imaginative mind." It's the references to this topic that thread their way through the paragraph, making the second sentence the topic sentence.
  8. If I had to name the most underestimated skill in reading and writing, it would be paraphrasing. To correctly paraphrase someone else's words is fairly difficult although it does get easier with practice. Therefore, in addition to the tips on paraphrasing provided on page 143, I would add the following: Paraphrasing while reading is different from paraphrasing for a term paper. The paraphrase does not have to be as complete or as grammatically correct. Reading paraphrases are like headlines. All they have to do is give a topic and an action or condition, "Photography important for first time in Civil War"; "Brain never stops growing"; "Johnson great political manipulator" (paragraph 4 on p. 147)

Chapter 5: Drawing Inferences About Implied Main Ideas

  1. I am maintaining in my suggestions the existing order of the second edition. But this is a place where I would skip around and do Chapter 6 next because it follows logically. In the new third edition, this is the revised sequence, and I revised on the basis of repeated reviewer comments to change the order. My idea was to wrap up main ideas, both stated and implied, before going on to supporting details. However, reviewer response suggests that many instructors feel more comfortable introducing inferences after supporting details have been discussed.
  2. If I had a nickel for every time I heard the comment, "If the main idea is not there to contradict me i.e. in a topic sentence, then why can't I infer anything I want," I would be a very wealthy woman. Thus I strongly suggest spending considerable time discussing effective and ineffective, or logical and illogical, inferences. Students need to understand that their inference has to follow from the author's statements. If they can't point to some statements that back their inference, there is something wrong with it.
  3. Before having students create their own inferences for exercise 6, I would assign them to complete Test 5. The test is from Reading for Reasults additional materials, but I don't think it is especially difficult. (You can tell them to ignore the purple vocabulary words in this exercise or learn the definitions)
  4. I'm really committed to the idea of helping students see that inferences are everywhere in reading and understanding allusions is just one example of how much we rely on inferences to make sense of a text. I would follow the short exercise on page 187 with the list of allusions from the web and the follow-up exercise.
  5. I would complete Test 1 in Chapter 5 and then move on to Chapter 6 assigning the remaining tests in class or for homework.

Chapter 6: Working Together: Topic Sentences and Supporting Details

  1. Emphasize the point made on page 208—"By means of supporting details, writers anticipate and answer questions readers might have about a main idea." One way to do this is to give students some sample topic sentences and ask them what questions they think the supporting details might need to answer, for example:
  2. One way to test the topic sentence is to turn it into a question and see if the supporting details answer that question. It's also true that the supporting details answering the question are usually major rather than minor details. Take, for instance, paragraph 2 on page 248. If you turn the topic sentence into a question, 'How was the world transformed for most Americans on September 11, 2001?" The answers to that question—people no longer felt safe; they were intent on revenge; people worried more about the plight of others—are all major details.
  3. I would follow Exercises 1 and 2 with this exercise from the web before going on to Exercise 3 (p. 216) in the text.
  4. In teaching Exercise 3, I find it pays to tell students that the paragraphs have been constructed to make diagramming easy so that readers can better understand the relationship between major and minor details. However, students need to know they should not always expect major and minor details to neatly separate as they do in textbook paragraphs. One major detail, for instance, might be followed by three minor ones. Students are often put off by the fact that the paragraphs in their textbooks don't, for instance, neatly introduce major details with transitions. But what they have to understand is that paragraphs, initially at least, need to be somewhat formulaic so that the skill being taught is easier to comprehend.
  5. Since students are often completely flummoxed by the idea that they need to decide what's important and what's not, I think you cannot emphasize enough the point that topic sentences contain "clues" to significance. They determine not just which details to remember or record but also the degree of detail necessary. Take, for instance, paragraph 4 on page 140. The topic sentence is the first sentence. That's easy to know from the way the second sentence in the paragraph picks up on the word "phases." However, the two words "three phases" also announce that the reader is expected to finish the paragraph knowing what those three phases are. That means that, in this case, the minor details, which further explain each phase, are probably as important as the major details. However, in the paragraph on Mary Surratt (p.146) the clue in the topic sentence is the phrase "those who doubt Surratt's involvement in Lincoln's death." The obvious question is why do they doubt her involvement? Only sentences 3, 4 and 5 explain the causes of that doubt and unlike the paragraph on the phases of healing, the minor details are not needed to explain the causes. Thus they don't need to be stored in memory or recorded as notes.

Chapter 7: Transitions and Paragraphs

    One way to show students how transitions work to guide readers is to give them some sentence pairs that don't seem to have a connection until a transition is inserted between them, e.g. 'She desperately wanted to succeed at her career. She was worried about the effect of work on her marriage." While the connection between the two ideas can be figured out, it's much easier for the reader to process the two thoughts when a transition is present, 'She desperately wanted to succeed at her career; however, she was worried about the effect of work on her marriage."
  1. I would stress again the importance of a transitional word or phrase located in the second or third sentence of a paragraph. I haven't done an empirical study, but I do read a lot of textbooks in order to write my own texts. I'm also a lover of essays. It is truly striking how often writers open with a general statement, which they immediately contradict in order to get the real point of the paragraph. Not surprisingly, the contradiction frequently opens with a reversal or contrast transition. Here's an example adapted from a January issue of Science News: 'Many, if not most, stars reside in pairs. Scientists, however, have discovered a rare, closely-spaced quartet of stars." The paragraph then goes on to describe not star pairs, but the recently discovered star quartet.
  2. Transitional sentences are less common in textbooks. But they are extremely common in essays and editorials. Because they highlight the statement-contradiction pattern I mention above, I would have students do some writing practice. Ask them to come up with a main idea they think they could discuss. It can be on any topic, academic or not. Tell them to introduce the main idea by means of an introductory sentence followed by a transitional sentence that paves the way for the topic sentence. Here's an example: 'Everyone likes to spend some time alone. But no one wants to spend a lifetime that way. There are times when even the most committed loner wants the company of a long-time friend. ' Like just about everything I suggest, part of the goal here is to get students used to the notion of tracking the twists and turns of a writer's thought. Only in this case, they are in the position of writer rather than readers.
  3. While students should definitely be made aware of the different kinds of transitions and the relationships they signify, you might want to mention as well that some authors make use of transitions a good deal more than others. I have noticed, for instance, that business texts make heavy use of listing transitions such as first, second, third to identify reasons, examples, or studies. History texts, in contrast, seem to use them much less. My point is that students should not always expect transitional signals to identify relationships between sentences. A good portion of the time, it is the reader's job to infer the appropriate relationship, for example: 'By the time he became president, Richard M. Nixon had had a confrontational relationship with the press for decades. In 1962, Nixon lost the California governor's race and told the press corp, ' you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore." In this pair of sentences, the second one offers an example of Richard Nixon's 'confrontational relationship with the press." However the author does not make the relationship explicit through the use of a transition. The reader has to infer it.

Chapter 8: Recognizing Patterns of Organization

  1. As I mentioned earlier, you can use the sentences introduced in Chapter 2 to start the discussions of patterns in this chapter. Start the discussion of time order, for instances, by first talking about how sentences can relate according to the order of events in time. (pp.61-65)
  2. I have a really old textbook called Reading Technical Books by Ann Eisenberg, who describes at great length the importance of diagramming both during and after reading. I couldn't agree more, and this is certainly a chapter where you might give that idea special emphasis. Diagramming takes time but in terms of both comprehension and remembering, it pays big benefits. I would emphasize, heavily, this aspect of the chapter's instruction.
  3. Students often struggle with patterns of organization and for good reason. There are many, many paragraphs that use two or more patterns just about equally, making it hard to decide what the exact pattern is. Thus it pays to be clear on two points:
  4. When I do a workshop on how to teach patterns, I always make the same comment, "A sentence or two does not a pattern make." Somehow students remember this line and are less likely to identify a pattern based on one or two sentences.
  5. The above mentioned textbook by Eisenberg stresses the importance of diagramming as much as possible in the margins of the text in order to understand difficult material. Since I do this myself a lot, I would really recommend it.
  6. Because at this point, students have covered all the basic comprehension skills, I start focusing on the longer readings included in the Digging Deeper sections of the chapters. I prefer to do the longer readings at this stage of the book because I can now cover the entire range of comprehension skills. Some instructors like to complete the Digging Deeper reading with each chapter covered. That's, of course, fine too.

Chapter 9: Mixing and Matching Patterns

  1. For this chapter, it's important to stress that the presence of several patterns doesn't mean that they are all equally important. Here again, the deciding factor is the main idea and the role the pattern (or patterns) of organization plays in explaining it. For example, if you use the paragraph on page 344 (about Ripkin) as an example, the topic sentence, sentence 1, emphasizes that Ripkin had become, by the end of his career, one of the country's "most beloved athletes." Thus, despite the fact that the paragraph emphasizes dates and events as well as the causes for that admiration, it's the causes that really matter for two reasons:
  2. I think it's reassuring to students to know that reading a multi-paragraph reading is, to a large degree, much like reading a paragraph: They are still looking for the main idea and the supporting details. However they do need to understand that both those elements in the context of a longer reading can be spread out. The these statement, for instance, can extend beyond a single sentence (See, for instance, the example on page 348). In addition, one supporting example can take up an entire paragraph.
  3. I believe more attention needs to be paid to the links between paragraphs, more precisely with helping students determine how the author bridges the gap between previous and new paragraphs. For that reason, I would spend some time discussing how readers figure out the relationships between parqagraphs within the context of longer readings. Start by telling students that the openings of paragraphs are where authors usually identify connections so that readers can move smoothly from paragraph to paragraph. Thus it's at the beginning of paragraphs that the reader has the best basis for making a prediction. For instance, on page 354, in the second paragraph of the essay on childhood abduction, ask students to predict, based on the first five words, how they think the author will continue her train of thought. Will she continue to talk about Amber's case or discuss child abduction in general? The opening five words of the second paragraph, which begin to generalize the topic, suggest that the author is going to talk more broadly about child abduction. Similarly for paragraph 4 of the same essay, ask students if they think, based on the opening clause—"If the Code Adam fails or if the child is abducted from some place other than a building"— that the author is going to continue to discuss Code Adam or move on to a different topic. The opening clause, students need to realize, clearly indicates that the author is moving away from Code Adam and onto a different strategy. On page 357, ask students to look at the second paragraph and decide if the paragraph will describe how people make themselves happy or why pessimism should be avoided. Here again, the author makes the link in the opening sentence of the paragraph, which signals that the author is not yet going to discuss how people can make themselves happy. But instead, she is going to explain why pessimism is a bad habit to get into.

Chapter 10: Drawing Inferences about Purpose, Tone and Bias

  1. Point out that informative writing, discussed on pages 385-388, is what one would expect in textbooks. However, even in textbooks, one can find evidence of attempts to persuade. The following statement is from a textbook titled American Government by Wilson and DiIulio. It clearly expresses an opinion and is meant to persuade. "Though its members may complain that Congress is collectively weak, to any visitor from abroad, it seems extraordinarily powerful, probably the most powerful legislative body in the world."
  2. As an on-going assignment, I would ask students to bring in textbook excerpts that reveal opinions. Give them five points for each authentic example, to be added on to their lowest grade.
  3. I like to stress the point made on page 405 that bias is not necessarily bad. We expect to find it in persuasive writing. What turns bias bad is
    I think students need to be aware that bias is, in and of itself, not necessarily bad. A writer can be biased but still open to considering opposing points of view, and even if he or she is not open to sharing that opposing point of view, the writer still has to show respect for the opposition. A writer who can't is too biased to be trusted. If instructors don't have this discussion with students, they are inclined to assume that only purely objective writing is trustworthy.
  4. Since I tend to think that pure objectivity is next to impossible, I do all I can to make students aware of the way bias intrudes even if we don't want it to. For instance, science would appear to be a purely objective discipline until you take into account that decisions made about what is important enough or worthy of study are also a reflection of personal bias.
  5. Several years ago, I had a very stimulating class discussion in which my students and I discussed the notion that there are two sides to every story. Ultimately we reached a consensus that some situations just don't allow for that kind of objectivity. There are times when one side is dead wrong, e.g. supporters of apartheid, the Nazis, those opposed to civil rights. I recommend this topic because it engages students. In my case, they started out saying that yes indeed, there were two sides to every story. However, they ended up with a more modulated view point. I also think they ended up with a much clearer understanding of what "objectivity" means.

Last change made to this page: September 2, 2008

Reading Keys: Additional Material