The Key Word Strategy

Synthesizing is one of the most challenging things we ask children to do, and yet the children who can demonstrate it clearly have full and rich understanding of the text they are reading.

The Key Word Strategy is a high-utility, easy-to-implement comprehension strategy.  It asks children to pause as they are reading a challenging text, and then to think of a single key word or short phrase that sums up the section of text they’ve just read.  It makes them slow down their reading in difficult texts and narrow down their focus while reading and consider main ideas.  This strategy also encourages close reading and re-reading, since students will need to return to passages about which the meaning is unclear.

Students can be given small sticky notes and asked to place the key word or short phrase on the sticky note, and leave it on top of the section of text they were reading.

BONUS: A reverse of this strategy is called “Story Impressions,” in which you’d give students a chronological list of key words or phrases from a passage, and use it to build background knowledge, explore vocabulary and predict before reading.

The Key Word Strategy is a beautiful thing, in large part, because of its large “bang” for your (relatively small) buck.  It requires little advance preparation, but is a perfect strategy to throw out to a group of children (or an individual child) when you see them losing hold of their comprehension, particularly in nonfiction texts.

It is also a simple enough strategy for beginning readers, since there is relatively little writing required.  As children begin to approach second grade, this strategy can also be translated into a t-chart graphic organizer on another sheet of paper.

The left side of the t-chart can be labeled “section headings,” and the right can be labeled “key words.”  Students can then keep track of all key words, phrases, and ideas for each section of a book they read.