A reader’s purpose affects everything about reading. It determines what’s important in the text, what is remembered, and what comprehension strategy a reader uses to enhance meaning. When students read difficult text without a purpose, they express the following complaints:
- I don’t care about the topic.
- I can’t relate to the topic.
- I daydream and my mind wanders.
- I can’t stay focused.
- I just say the words so I can be done.
- I get bored.
Readers behave like this when they don’t have a reason for reading. They pronounce the words, finish the assignment, and rarely come away with a thorough understanding. It is a waste of time; they haven’t constructed meaning and can’t use the information.
According to researchers Pichert and Anderson (1977), readers determine what is important based on their purpose for reading. When I ask students why they read outside of school, they usually have a reason—but they don’t think it counts, because it isn’t school related. When I ask students why they read in school, they say their teacher makes them: “Read chapter 10. There will be a test on Monday.” Or, “Finish reading acts 1 and 2 so you can write a character analysis.” Rarely do students have the opportunity to determine their own purpose for reading. It is no wonder they come to rely solely on the teacher for the reasons they read.
Unfortunately the teacher’s purpose is often too vague to help. Her psychology teacher told Michelle, an excellent student, that there would be a test on the first three chapters in the textbook. When Michelle asked for more specifics, the teacher reiterated, “Just read and know the information in the first three chapters.” Michelle knew she couldn’t remember that much material and didn’t know how to determine what was important. Michelle isn’t an exception. Most students don’t know how to set their own purpose. They tend to think everything they read in a textbook is equally important. As I prepared for my first biology exam as a college freshman, I diligently highlighted anything and everything that seemed remotely important. After all, this was college, and I was reading a college textbook. I felt I needed to memorize the text, and I thought highlighting the majority of it would do the trick. My purpose was too broad. It didn’t allow me to distinguish main ideas from interesting details.
I could have highlighted places in the text that were confusing, but that still would have been much too broad a purpose. I didn’t have enough background knowledge to understand most of what I was reading. A better purpose would have been to find places in the text that were connected to the class lectures. That would have helped me determine what the professor thought was important and therefore what might be on the test.
Students need to be taught why it is important to have purpose and how to establish one. The following passage, from Pichert and Anderson (1977), is a wonderful example to use to demonstrate why it is important to set a purpose.
room. Mark bragged that the bathroom in the hall was his since one had been added to his sisters’ room for their use. The big highlight in his room, though, was a leak in the ceiling where the old roof had finally rotted.
The two boys ran until they came to the driveway. “See, I told you today was good for skipping school,” said Mark. “Mom is never home on Thursday,” he added. Tall hedges hid the house from the road so the pair strolled across the finely landscaped yard. “I never knew your place was so big,” said Pete. “Yeah, but it’s nicer now than it used to be since Dad had the new stone siding put on and added the fireplace.”
There were front and back doors and a side door which led to the garage which was empty except for three parked 10-speed bikes. They went in the side door, Mark explaining that it was always open in case his younger sisters got home earlier than their mother.
Pete wanted to see the house so Mark started with the living room. It, like the rest of the downstairs, was newly painted. Mark turned on the stereo, the noise of which worried Pete. “Don’t worry, the nearest house is a quarter mile away,” Mark shouted. Pete felt more comfortable observing that no houses could be seen in any direction beyond the huge yard.
The dining room, with all the china, silver, and cut glass, was no place to play so the boys moved into the kitchen where they made sandwiches. Mark said they wouldn’t go to the basement because it had been damp and musty ever since the new plumbing had been installed. “This is where my Dad keeps his famous paintings and his coin collection,” Mark said as they peered into the den. Mark bragged that he could get spending money whenever he needed it since he’d discovered that his Dad kept a lot in the desk drawer.
There were three upstairs bedrooms.Mark showed Pete his mother’s closet which was filled with furs and the locked box which held her jewels. His sisters’ room was uninteresting except for the color TV which Mark carried to his room. Mark bragged that the bathroom in the hall was his since one had been added to his sisters’ room for their use. The big highlight in his room, though, was a leak in the ceiling where the old roof had finally rotted.
Hand out a copy of these paragraphs to every student. Then:
1. Ask students to read the piece and circle with their pencil whatever they think is important. (In the five years I have used this piece, I have never once had a student ask me what he or she should circle. They all dive in seeming to know what to highlight.) When I do this activity with teachers, they usually set a purpose for themselves. They highlight the boys skipping school and often ask about the leaky ceiling in the bedroom.
2. Ask students to read the piece again and this time use a pink highlighter to mark places in the text a robber would find important. Students will notice that having a purpose makes it much easier to highlight important points.
3. Have the students read the piece a third time. Ask them to mark with a yellow highlighter any places in the story that a prospective home buyer might think are important. By now, it will be obvious how much easier it is to determine what is important when the reader has a purpose.
4. Ask students what they notice about the three times they highlighted. Point out that the first time was probably the hardest, because they didn’t have a purpose.
5. On a projected transparency, jot down what students think is important for the robber and for the home buyer. Compare the two lists and discuss why each item is important. If an item is on both lists, discuss why both a robber and a home buyer would find it important.
Once students see the importance of establishing a purpose when they read, it’s time to teach them different purposes for reading. Access tools are specific materials and strategies that help students organize and synthesize their thoughts as they read. They make material more accessible. Students of all grade levels can use these tools with almost any type of material. They’ll quickly figure out which tool works best for their particular purpose.