Reading - the most important academic skill

Reading is a national crisis! According to the 2016 PIRLS study, 78% of children cannot read for meaning by the end of Grade 3.  Are we sure that our students really know the key skills in reading? What can be done to improve reading? 

Main Ideas

  • Every text has an overall idea
  • Every paragraph has a main idea

This sounds very obvious and simple, and it is. Yet it is the basis for so much of what we do academically.

  • Reading for understanding - if you do not recognise main points, a text is just a nightmare of hundreds of different words. Main ideas = concepts; understanding = concepts linked together.
  • Summarising (point form, paragraph and graphically via mindmaps) - re-writing the text is not a summary! identifying the main ideas, and then reducing them to keywords is.
  • Studying - notes need to reflect main ideas and the relationships between them; remembering is not difficult if it is based on understanding, especially if it is represented graphically. 
  • Making speeches and presentations - you need to know what points you are trying to make if your audience is to have any hope of doing so. PR Committee??
  • Writing well-structured essays means you know what you want to say (based on your mindmap plan) and express your ideas effectively with sufficient, relevant supporting information.

Where does tech come into this? 

For a start, we use:

  • mindmapping tools - which offer flexibility, sharing and exporting capabilities (eg Mindmup);
  • outlining - which provides structure and coherence in writing (eg Google Docs, MS Word).

But the point is the tool, and what it enables, not the tech itself.

Supporting Ideas

Apart from main ideas, what other stuff goes to make up a paragraph:

  • facts
  • details
  • descriptions
  • examples
  • explanations 

So, once you have the main idea of each paragraph, the rest of the information can be understood easily - it is “just” there to provide more information about the one main idea.

Also, one can see that without details, the main idea is not properly supported. 

This is important in writing. When planning, make sure you have enough information to support your one main point for each paragraph. That is what a plan is! (as opposed to a brainstorm of random ideas).

Where does tech come into this? 

  • mindmapping tools - allow us to collect random ideas and turn them into a plan by re-ordering them, something which is not so easy on paper.
  • outlining - allows us to write text non-sequentially. You can develop an outline and fill in the paragraphs’ details in any order.

The above strategy is not just relevant to stories. It points to one of the most basic ways information can be structured, viz. as a sequence of events.Consider: History, Experiments, any processes in all subjects, etc.


A sequence of events could be explained within one paragraph to support its main idea. Or the sequence could be the main points, with each paragraph explaining the steps in detail.

Ordering words provide the key to the sequence:

  • Firstly, secondly, etc.
  • Initially, then, subsequently, finally.

Obviously, when you write, you should make sure that you sequence your ideas correctly.

How does tech come into this?

Writing is flexible when using a computer. 

  1. Using an outline means that before you write, you can establish the sequence accurately;
  2. Subsequently, paragraphs and sentences can be easily moved around to ensure that the final sequence is correct.
  3. If you are using numbering for paragraphs or points, the automatic numbering system ensures consistent format and sequence.

Cause and Effect

Another fundamental way of thinking, which is encoded in writing, and hence in reading, is cause and effect.

As we think about events, actions and activities, we try to work out what happened, and why it happened. We use the language of cause and effect to put our thoughts into words. 

As an example, think about a comment on a student: 

Teacher: She achieved excellent results.
Parent: Yes, I can see that. She got 90%. So, what was the cause of this?
Teacher: She achieved an excellent result because she tackled her misunderstanding of percentages and managed to master that concept.

The cause and effect have been joined using a subordinating conjunction. This is logically and stylistically better than merely using “and”.

How does tech come into this?

Flexibility (which ultimately promotes intellectual honesty).

  1. Write separate sentences, then explore the possible arrangement of causes and effects using different conjunctions to join the sentences.
  2. Edit until you have a free-flowing, logically coherent sentence. You really cannot do this on paper.

Compare and Contrast

Our students need to engage in higher-order thinking work. It is not enough for them merely to rewrite information that has already been written and describe what is plainly in sight already. They need to compare and contrast various ideas, concepts and specific details, and ultimately come to their own conclusions. Are we making available information that requires this kind of higher-order thinking? Are we setting complex enough tasks?

Do our report comments make use of this kind of structure? eg: “Although her understanding of fractions is satisfactory, her poor grasp of decimals is a worry. However, if she attends extra lessons diligently she can easily master this area.

How does tech come into this?

Apart from the normal affordances of working digitally, think of other ways of doing comparisons, eg:

  1. Tables (use a spreadsheet for maximum flexibility).
  2. Charts/Graphs - use a spreadsheet to create these.

Although these can be done on paper, the possibilities for experimentation and creating visually appealing work are much greater when working digitally. Pivot Charts allow modelling of data.


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