Supporting Literacy and Comprehension in Religious Education

Stephen A. Nelson

Stephen A. Nelson, "Supporting Literacy and Comprehension in Religious Education," Religious Educator 22, no. 3 (2021): 83-99.

Stephen A. Nelson ( teaches seminary in Vernal, Utah, and has a master’s degree in secondary education.

Imagine the following scenario unfolding in a seminary classroom: The assigned scripture block that day is James chapter 1, and the instructor is anxious to facilitate a meaningful discussion focusing on verses 5 and 6. To help his students identify the principle “God generously gives wisdom to those who ask of him in faith,” he writes the following question on the board: “What did James advise his readers to do to find answers to their questions?”[1] After a compelling readiness activity, the teacher invites a young man to read James 1:5–6 aloud while the rest of the class follows along looking for answers to the question on the board. His choice of reader is intentional; the young man is quiet and reserved, and the teacher sees this as a good opportunity for him to be more involved. As soon as the young man begins reading, “If any of you lack wisdom,” the class immediately notices the unnaturally long pauses between each word. Their attention to his reading increases when he substitutes the word “giveth” with “giving.” As he hesitates before the word “liberally,” the teacher encouragingly proffers the correct pronunciation. Moments later, a well-intentioned classmate seated next to the young man does the same thing for the word “upbraideth.” Flustered, he begins to read more rapidly. However, when he miscalls the word “wavereth,” another student interrupts him to correct his mistake. When the young man finishes reading, his eyes remain glued to the page. The teacher thanks him and returns to the question on the board, asking the class to share the answers they’ve identified. When his question is met with ten or twelve seconds of silence, the instructor somewhat desperately encourages students to scan over the verses again. After another difficult period of prolonged silence, a young woman offers the answer, “We have to ask.” Relieved, the teacher thanks the young woman, writes the principle on the board, and the lesson continues.

While there are multiple changes a teacher could make to address the issues presented in this scenario, none will enhance the educational experience as fundamentally as a thoughtful consideration of the literacy principles involved. Literacy is integral to learning, and religious education is no exception. Indeed, “reading is the skill that makes virtually all other learning possible.”[2] It is a gateway to worlds of information, knowledge, leisure, imagination, emotion, and even faith. Although literacy is not a prerequisite to religious conviction, the ability to read and comprehend sacred texts is nonetheless critical to a student’s spiritual development. Therefore, it is profoundly advantageous for religious educators to intentionally integrate into their teaching research-based practices that support literacy.

The relationship between literacy and spiritual development has existed since the days of Adam and Eve and was instituted by the Lord. Latter-day revelation provides us with the following insight:

A book of remembrance was kept, in the which was recorded, in the language of Adam, for it was given unto as many as called upon God to write by the spirit of inspiration; and by them their children were taught to read and write. . . . And death hath come upon our fathers; nevertheless we know them, and cannot deny, and even the first of all we know, even Adam. For a book of remembrance we have written among us, according to the pattern given by the finger of God. (Moses 6:5–6, 45–46)

One of the most effective ways of impressing upon a person’s mind the importance of any subject is to paint a picture of what life would be like without it. This method has been used to great effect by masterful religious educators such as Lehi, Alma, and Russell M. Nelson.[3] Likewise, the following examples illustrate the predicament faced by gospel students who are unable to adequately access religious texts due to barriers in literacy. The first comes from Elder Craig W. Zwick, who describes an experience he had while serving as a mission president:

A young elder arrived with apprehension in his eyes. As we met in an interview, he said dejectedly, “I want to go home.” I thought to myself, “Well, we can fix this.” I counseled him to work hard and to pray about it for a week and then call me. A week later, almost to the minute, he called. He still wanted to go home. I again counseled him to pray, to work hard, and to call me in a week. In our next interview, things had not changed. He insisted on going home.

I just wasn’t going to let that happen. I began teaching him about the sacred nature of his call. I encouraged him to “forget [himself] and go to work.” But no matter what formula I offered, his mind did not change. It finally occurred to me that I might not have the whole picture. It was then that I felt a prompting to ask him the question: “Elder, what is hard for you?” What he said pierced my heart: “President, I can’t read.”

The wise counsel which I thought was so important for him to hear was not at all relevant to his needs. . . . This valiant elder did learn to read and became a very pure disciple of Jesus Christ.[4]

The second example is taken from an article in a Church magazine and highlights the important role literacy plays in the process of personal conversion:

Once when I was a new student in a class, a girl taunted me, “You can’t read or write!” I’ll never forget how ashamed I felt at that moment. After six years in elementary school, I was sent to a special school for poor achievers. I stayed there three years.

After leaving school, I drifted for several years. I had no skills and felt like a ship without a rudder. Then I met a neighbor who became like a father to me. He encouraged me to seek knowledge, to use my intelligence. One day I saw him compose a telegram. Sending a telegram would be a simple thing for most people, and I determined then that one day I would learn to read and write properly so that I, too, could send a telegram.

I began to ask questions. The world suddenly became a fascinating place. I enrolled in an adult extension class and read my first complete book, a 150-page children’s book. Deciphering its contents occupied me for a long time. Next I enrolled in an evening middle school where I had a wonderful, caring teacher. Thanks to this dedicated teacher, I finally learned to read and write. Just knowing how to do these simple things that most people take for granted gave me a magnificent feeling.

One day two missionaries gave my brother a copy of the Book of Mormon during a street contact in Cologne, Germany. I was curious about the book and began reading it. I caught the spirit of it. My desire to learn the gospel was insatiable. Then I read the Bible. Suddenly I realized that I, who had been a learning-disabled boy, had read the two most important books in the world! . . .

I received instruction from the missionaries, and a week and a half later I was baptized.[5]

As a direct result of literacy impediments, both of these gospel students faced substantial—though by no means insurmountable—limitations to their spiritual development. Only after overcoming these obstacles could their spiritual progress continue.

Lastly, the opening chapters of the Book of Mormon bespeak the imperative spiritual necessity of having access to God’s written word. Following a commandment from the Lord, received in a dream by their father, Lehi, Nephi and his brethren embarked on a life-threatening journey to obtain a set of scriptures recorded on plates of brass, a task they accomplished only by means of divine assistance (1 Nephi 3–4). Upon their return, Lehi’s family praised the goodness and mercy of God in providing the plates of brass, concluding the episode with these words: “We had obtained the records which the Lord had commanded us, and searched them and found that they were desirable; yea, even of great worth unto us, insomuch that we could preserve the commandments of the Lord unto our children. Wherefore, it was wisdom in the Lord that we should carry them with us, as we journeyed in the wilderness towards the land of promise” (1 Nephi 5:21–22).

The significance of this episode is reinforced once again by a contrasting experience when Nephi’s descendants discover a group of people who had undertaken a very similar journey without the blessings of the written word:

And they discovered a people, who were called the people of Zarahemla. Now, there was great rejoicing among the people of Zarahemla . . . because the Lord had sent the people of Mosiah with the plates of brass. . . . And at the time that Mosiah discovered them, they had become exceedingly numerous. Nevertheless, . . . their language had become corrupted; and they had brought no records with them; and they denied the being of their Creator; and Mosiah, nor the people of Mosiah, could understand them. (Omni 1:14, 17)

This experience may have prompted Mosiah’s son Benjamin to share the following words with his children:

My sons, I would that ye should remember that were it not for these plates, which contain these records and these commandments, we must have suffered in ignorance, even at this present time, not knowing the mysteries of God.

For it were not possible that our father, Lehi, could have remembered all these things, to have taught them to his children, except it were for the help of these plates; for he having been taught in the language of the Egyptians therefore he could read these engravings, and teach them to his children, that thereby they could teach them to their children, and so fulfilling the commandments of God, even down to this present time.

I say unto you, my sons, were it not for these things, which have been kept and preserved by the hand of God, that we might read and understand of his mysteries, and have his commandments always before our eyes, that even our fathers would have dwindled in unbelief. . . .

O my sons, I would that ye should remember that these sayings are true, . . . and we can know of their surety because we have them before our eyes.

And now, my sons, I would that ye should remember to search them diligently, that ye may profit thereby. (Mosiah 1:3–7)

Since the time in which the Book of Mormon was written, the availability of scripture has dramatically increased, largely due to the miracle of modern technology. However, physical access to God’s written word is of little use if gospel students are unable to mentally access it as well. Thus, many students within the Church Educational System are spiritually disadvantaged because they struggle to engage with religious texts. Some of these challenges stem from learning disabilities such as dyslexia or attention deficit disorder. Others are simply the result of insufficient experience with the peculiarities of religious texts. Regardless of the cause of these challenges, religious educators can make a profound impact on their students' spiritual development by promoting and supporting good reading. In particular, strategies and methods relating to comprehension are especially valuable.

Weighing the Benefits and Risks of Whole-Class Oral Reading

Before continuing, it may be helpful to address an approach to reading that can potentially diminish comprehension: the practice of calling on students to read passages aloud without the opportunity to prepare in advance. It’s important to recognize that whole-class oral reading can be immensely beneficial when used intentionally and appropriately. Oral literacy specialists Michael Opitz and Timothy Rasinski identify twelve key reasons why it continues to be a necessary mode of classroom reading.[6] In the context of religious education, it has the potential of building a reader’s confidence in studying the scriptures, whetting their appetite for further study, developing their scriptural vocabulary, and promoting the discovery of an author’s intended meaning.[7] Examples of these benefits can be found in the recommended practices section below.

However, whole-class oral reading also carries certain risks. The handbook for teachers and leaders in Seminaries and Institutes of Religion (S&I) contains the following counsel: “Teachers need to be careful not to embarrass those who do not read well or who are very shy. Students who prefer not to read aloud should not be forced to do so, but teachers can encourage them to participate in ways that they are more comfortable with. For example, assigning a short scriptural passage to a student beforehand so he or she can practice reading it may be an appropriate way for that student to participate in class.”[8]

Many of the practices endorsed by S&I curriculum, such as group reading or silent study, reflect these recommendations. However, further analysis of these materials may indicate that calling on students to read aloud is an overused technique. For instance, the Old Testament curriculum currently available to seminary instructors contains the phrase “invite a student to read” 1,055 times.[9] Less prevalent but of greater concern is the “round-robin” style of oral reading.[10] Round-robin reading is “the outmoded practice of calling on students to read orally one after the other.”[11] In S&I materials, this method is can be seen in the instruction to “invite several students to take turns reading,” a phrase found in the Old Testament Teacher’s Manual sixty-six times.[12]

These practices can detract from comprehension in the following ways: In the most basic sense, oral reading is less efficient because it prolongs the process of identifying doctrines and principles. It “consumes valuable classroom time that could be spent on other meaningful activities,” such as analyzing principles found during a silent reading activity.[13] Although spontaneous oral reading is often prompted by a well-intentioned desire to engage students in the learning process, it can perpetuate inattentive behaviors, a well-studied phenomenon that literacy experts have repeatedly emphasized when responding to teachers who persist in using this practice.[14] Round-robin-styled reading activities can also cause listening students to become distracted, “either because they are bored or because they are trying to give themselves some practice before they will be expected to read aloud before others.”[15] This inattentiveness may result in disjointed reading, and “rather than looking at the connections that occur across the selection, readers end up focusing their attention on brief passages.”[16] In other words, students may become more concerned with their own performance than they are with understanding the text.[17] Lastly, oral reading is often “a source of anxiety and embarrassment for students,” causing them to associate negative feelings of fear and shame with the act of reading the scriptures.[18] When viewing these impediments side by side, it’s possible to see how a relatively minor habit in teaching can subtly detract from the learning process by distracting students from the quiet promptings of the Holy Ghost.

Recommended Practices in the Context of Religious Education

The field of literacy education has been growing steadily for multiple decades and a wealth of research-based books and articles have been published on the topic of literacy within secular education. These resources are not limited to the language arts but include a variety of interdisciplinary studies. Yet the application of literacy academia to religious education remains relatively unexplored and there exists a need for further scholarship in that area.

The absence of explicit literacy instruction in religious education is understandable. Specific training in processes of decoding, fluency, and composition largely fall outside the scope and objective of religious institutions. In many cases, religious educators have just cause to assume that their students come to class equipped with the most basic of reading and writing skills. However, in light of the inextricable link between literacy and spiritual development, it is of great worth for religious educators to thoughtfully consider the literacy practices they incorporate into their teaching. Certain techniques lend themselves to different outcomes, and it’s necessary for teachers to be intentional about when and why they use specific in-class reading strategies.

Reading strategies are “processes for enhancing comprehension and overcoming comprehension failures.”[19] The language and writing style of scriptural texts is often unfamiliar and challenging to the average reader. Thus, teaching methods designed to enhance comprehension are exceptionally valuable. The following strategies are supported by current literacy research, but teachers should be judicious about when and how often they are used, taking into account their students’ unique circumstances and the inherent advantages and disadvantages of each technique. They are organized into three categories based on the in-class reading mechanism they pair with most naturally: whole class reading, small group and paired reading, or silent reading. This classification is not fixed, and the strategies can be tailored to fit a variety of needs. Most importantly, they are presented in the context of religious education as a means of enhancing spiritual development by supporting comprehension.

Whole Class Reading

As mentioned previously, whole-class oral reading is not only necessary in some situations but can also enhance literacy and comprehension when used correctly. Studies have shown that the following strategies accentuate these benefits while mitigating many of the risks.

Think-aloud strategy. Research shows that older readers with comprehension difficulties benefit from teachers “modeling and thinking aloud how to self-question and reflect during and after reading.”[20] The think-aloud strategy accomplishes this by vocalizing the internal comprehension process that all strong readers undergo when they encounter a difficult text. This strategy also “has been shown to improve students’ comprehension both when students themselves engage in the practice during reading and also when teachers routinely think aloud while reading to students.”[21]

The example below uses a commonly misinterpreted verse from 1 Corinthians 10—with vocalized teacher thinking italicized in parentheses—to demonstrate multiple comprehension-promoting skills commonly employed by proficient readers. These include asking questions, using references, defining terms, rewording phrases, slowing down, rereading, and summarizing. Teachers can pick and choose which techniques to emphasize depending on the principles they want to identify and the outcomes they hope to achieve.

  • “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man:” (The footnote for “taken” says the Greek translation is “seized upon.” So the temptations that have “seized upon” the Corinthians are “common” or normal.)
  • “but God is faithful,” (Another word for faithful is trustworthy.)
  • “who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able;” (The word “suffer” means to feel pain, but that doesn’t make sense in this context. However, if I look up “suffer” in the dictionary it says that another definition is “to tolerate or allow.” But if God will not “allow” me to be tempted more than I am able, does that mean he will make my temptations go away if they’re too much for me to handle on my own? I’m going to keep reading to see if I can find an answer to that question.)
  • “but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” (That last line seems important; I’m going to re-read it more slowly to try and understand it better.)
  • “but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” (It’s not saying God will make my temptations go away; it’s saying he will help me bear my temptations. So, the whole verse says that everyone is tempted, but we can trust that God will help us to bear those temptations.)

Directed listening thinking activity. This practice will likely be familiar to many teachers, and examples of similar activities can be found in the current S&I curriculum. To perform a directed listening thinking activity, the teacher reads a text aloud to the class while stopping periodically at designated points to ask questions that encourage students to think about what they’re listening to. For greater variety, it could also be combined with other reading activities, such as reader’s theater or small group reading, where students play a more active role in the reading and questioning process. This technique is an effective way of helping students establish connections between their lives and the text, make predictions, analyze character motives, and identify key principles.[22] Students can share their responses as part of a class discussion, with a partner, or by writing in their study journals.

For instance, while reading selections from the chapter “Too Late, Too Late” from Saints, vol. 2: No Unhallowed Hand, which describes the events of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the teacher could stop periodically to provide the following prompts: “Based on your own experience with confrontation, why is it sometimes difficult to let go of hard feelings?” and “With your partner, discuss some of the influences that might persuade a person to do something they aren’t comfortable with.” and “In your study journal, write down one or two key lessons you feel members of the Church in today’s world need to learn from the Mountain Meadows Massacre.”

Small Group and Paired Reading

The benefits of group activities outlined in the following passage apply equally to small group and paired reading: “Small group activities can often allow a greater number of students to participate and can provide a safe environment where students can share feelings, thoughts, and testimony with each other. These activities can also provide opportunities for students to teach the gospel to others and . . . instill confidence in reserved students, drawing out of them more meaningful participation.”[23] Thus, not only do the following reading strategies encourage more students to interact with the scriptures in a nonthreatening way, but they also provide students with opportunities to reinforce one another’s comprehension of the text. When properly implemented, reading in small groups or with partners will bolster the meaning-making process, and students often make connections and discover truths they would not have identified on their own.

K-W-L charts. This is a three-tiered approach to deepening students’ comprehension of a selected text. The acronym “K-W-L” represents the words “know,” “want,” and “learn,” taken from three central questions the activity is based on: “What do you know?” “What do you still want to know?” and “What did you learn?”[24]

The first question uses the simple process of brainstorming to draw out a student’s prior knowledge of a particular topic. These knowledge structures, known as schemata, provide a foundation on which students can build as they begin to analyze the text and process new information.[25] This method works particularly well in groups because it allows multiple students to benefit from the individualized schemata of their peers.

At first students are encouraged to bring forth anything and everything they know about the assigned subject, but gradually the teacher can help to focus students’ attention on the gaps in their schemata.[26] “All this prereading activity develops the students’ own reasons for reading—reading to find answers to questions that will increase their reservoir of knowledge on this topic.”[27] These questions are recorded in response to the second prompt, “What do you still want to know?” In this step, teachers urge students to record the questions they are most interested in.[28] Students then share these questions with their group; this has the effect of making students accountable to their peers while simultaneously providing others with the opportunity to aid in the discovery of principles that are personally significant to their classmates. Armed with these questions, students are now primed for a meaningful and relevant wrestle with the text, after which a review of their findings are shared in response to the final question, “What did I learn?”

Alma’s powerful sermon on faith recorded in the Book of Mormon provides an ideal opportunity to incorporate the K-W-L method. Working with partners or in small groups, students could begin by brainstorming answers to the question, “What do you know about faith?” After sufficient time, teachers could use the following questions to help their students recognize the deficiencies in their cognitive constructs regarding faith: “What aspects of faith are most confusing to you?” or “What’s something about faith you wish you understood better than you do now?” This will naturally lead to questions that students can list in the category, “What do you still want to know about faith?” Outfitted with personally significant inquiries of their own composition, students are then ready to search the scripture block, after which they can report their findings to the group in response to the question, “What did I learn?”

Reciprocal teaching. Reciprocal teaching trains students to employ four comprehension-fostering skills: predicting, clarifying, questioning, and summarizing.[29] In the prediction phase, students rely on the context of the scripture block to make inferences about the content. Clarifying describes the process of interpreting unknown words or unclear portions of the text through syntactic clues, footnotes, or other available resources. Questioning encourages students to think critically about the subject matter while reading. Lastly, the cycle of reciprocal teaching culminates by requiring students to summarize the key concepts, ideas, and principles they’ve identified in the text.[30] Consistent with the fundamentals of gospel teaching and learning outlined in S&I training materials, this activity also promotes the establishment of context and content and the identification and analysis of gospel principles.

Proficiency in predicting, clarifying, questioning, and summarizing can be difficult for students who are unfamiliar with the process, and teachers may need to provide a greater level of support when introducing this practice. Applying the technique to a group setting has the added benefit of dividing the responsibilities of predicting, clarifying, questioning, and summarizing. This affords students the chance to observe their peers executing each of the four comprehension-fostering skills while at the same time providing them with an opportunity to practice implementing those skills themselves. Naturally, each round begins with the prediction phase, but those predictions should be revisited in tandem with the other three steps. Gradually, students are inculcated with these skills as they become accustomed to the reciprocal process.

Teachers could implement this strategy with the following activity: While studying Doctrine and Covenants 12, 14, 15 and 16—each of which came in response to inquiries concerning matters of individual duty connected to the restoration of the gospel—students could take turns assuming each of the four roles. Prior to reading the section, teachers should provide a sufficient amount of historical background for the first students to base their predictions on. While reading the section, the next student in each group would be watching for words and phrases that could benefit from additional clarification. Then, using resources such as footnotes, dictionaries, and encyclopedias—a process greatly enabled by technology—they would then expound on those portions of the text. Meanwhile, students assuming the role of questioner should analyze the section in search of probing questions they could use to spark a post-reading group discussion. Finally, the remaining member of each group would assimilate all this information and conclude the reciprocal episode with a concise summary of the group’s findings. The responsibilities would then shift to different students and the process could begin again with a new section.

Silent Reading

“Silent reading is the way we most often read in everyday life.”[31] Thus, while the benefits of whole class, small group, and paired reading are necessary for a balanced and holistic approach to supporting literacy and comprehension, common sense tells us that silent reading is the most natural means of inviting students to connect with the text. Furthermore, studies show that group silent reading increases attentiveness during reading, as well as participation in post-reading discussions.[32] The following strategies are designed to enhance in-class silent reading.

Structured notetaking. When students use critical thinking to generate elaborate notes, rather than copying verbatim from the text or simply paraphrasing the content, the process triggers several cognitive operations that are immensely beneficial to comprehension. These include heightened attention while reading, the activation of prior knowledge, and increased mental function.[33] Structured notetaking trains students to think critically about the text by teaching them to take notes that complement the text structure. In the context of religious education, this strategy could be described as the process of visually representing the author’s inspired intent.

To accomplish this, students complete a graphic organizer that is derived from the structure or purpose of the text.[34] Some of the most common structures utilized by scriptural authors are description, cause-effect, problem-solution, and problem-solution-result. In descriptive structures, the author’s intent is to list the characteristics of a concept or event. The purpose of the cause-effect structure is to reveal an event’s origin and consequence. Problem-solution structures demonstrate a dilemma and its resolution, while problem-solution-result structures build on this pattern by adding the effect of the resolution.[35] Possible graphic organizers for each of these text structures are found in figure 1.

Figure 1. Structural Graphic Organizers Common to Scriptural Texts

The following examples use scriptural references to demonstrate the use of each graphic organizer. For instance, Isaiah 53 uses a descriptive text structure to illustrate the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Thus, using the corresponding graphic organizer, students could study the chapter looking for connections to the concept “what Jesus Christ has done for me.” Comments would certainly include direct quotes and paraphrased responses, such as “carried our sorrows” and “bruised for our iniquities.” However, students should also be encouraged to record descriptors that come to their mind as they read. For example, one student may be impressed to record “willingly submitted himself” while reading the line “he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). Interpreting the text in this way is a clear sign of comprehension.

In similar fashion, the cause-effect graphic organizer pairs nicely with the story of Joseph who was sold into Egypt. Problem-solution structures are clearly evident in the brother of Jared’s experience. Likewise, the Book of Mormon’s great sermons on the plan of redemption, such as those recorded in 2 Nephi 9 or Alma 42, provide powerful examples of problem-solution-result formatting. Often teachers will discover that multiple text structures exist in a single block of scripture. When this occurs, the instructor can choose to combine graphic organizers, distribute different assignments throughout the class, or focus on one specific structure depending on the desired outcome of the lesson.

Close reading. The close reading strategy was designed to help students access short, high-quality, complex texts, which makes it especially applicable to religious education.[36] It uses three main methods to accomplish this aim: repeated readings, annotating, and discussions that are founded on evidence taken directly from the text.[37] In order to avoid fatigue, the repeated readings are typically spread over multiple lessons and focus on different aspects of the text. Annotations are made directly on the text and may include circling, underlining, or marginal notes. This operation heightens the reader’s attention and reinforces the use of scripture-based responses during discussion. The discussion phase of each reading session can be carried out as a whole class, in small groups, with partners, or as journal entries. Likewise, although close reading is predominantly a silent-reading activity, over the course of multiple lessons the teacher may choose to incorporate whole class, small group, or paired reading strategies as well.

Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision provides an excellent example of when and how close reading could be used. In that context, implementation of this strategy might take on the following appearance: After an initial study of the First Vision centered on the opening of a new dispensation and God’s invitation to “hear him,” the teacher decides to delve deeper into certain aspects of this remarkable event by performing two or three close reading sessions over the following days and weeks. The first rereading would invite students to look for characteristics and attributes of God the Father and Jesus Christ. The second session contrasts that aspect of the vision by focusing on the tactics Satan employs in his attempts to hinder the work of the Almighty. Finally, the teacher chooses to conclude with a rereading directed at helping students to “learn for [themselves]” that God the Father and Jesus Christ did in fact appear to the boy Joseph Smith (Joseph Smith—History 1:20).


Speaking to religious educators throughout the world, President Henry B. Eyring said,

Our students cannot know of God . . . unless they are taught by the Holy Spirit. Only by the Spirit can they know that God loved us enough to send His Son, . . . that Jesus is the Son of God and that Christ paid the price of their sins. Only by the Spirit can they know that Heavenly Father and His resurrected and glorified Son appeared to Joseph Smith. Only by the Spirit can they know that the Book of Mormon is the true word of God. And only by inspiration can they feel the love of the Father and the Son for them in giving us the ordinances necessary to receive eternal life.[38]

Thus, the purposes of religious education cannot be accomplished without the assistance of the Holy Ghost, and “once they understand the crucial role the Holy Ghost performs in spiritual learning, teachers will do all they can to invite the Spirit.”[39]

National test scores in the United States alone indicate that a significant number of students in the Church Education System struggle with reading.[40] For them, difficulties in comprehension and other literacy complications present a legitimate stumbling block in their ability to receive revelation through the Holy Ghost in conjunction with the written word of God. However, there are several research-based comprehension strategies teachers can implement to mitigate these challenges, including think-alouds, directed listening thinking activities, K-W-L charts, reciprocal teaching, structured note-taking, and close reading. As they do, literacy obstacles that distract from the influence of the Holy Ghost in their classrooms will recede. Furthermore, if students will internalize the comprehension-fostering skills embedded in these strategies, it will engender meaningful encounters with the scriptures throughout their lives.

Reading is an essential part of a student’s spiritual development. As such, religious educators can further contribute to their students’ eternal progression by helping them to personally connect with sacred texts. Thus, by enabling students to more fully engage with the word of God, teachers will be able to join with the prophet Alma in saying, “The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and . . . do witness that there is a Supreme Creator” (Alma 30:44).


[1] Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, New Testament Seminary Teacher Manual (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2016), 493.

[2] D. Ray Reutzel and Robert B. Cooter Jr., Teaching Children to Read: The Teacher Makes the Difference (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2015), 5.

[3] See 2 Nephi 2:11–13; Alma 42:15–22; Russell M. Nelson, “The Book of Mormon: What Would Your Life Be Like without It?” Ensign or Liahona, November 2017, 61.

[4] Craig W. Zwick, “Lord, Wilt Thou Cause That My Eyes May Be Opened,” Ensign or Liahona, November 2017, 97.

[5] Gunther Steffans, “I Couldn’t Read or Write,” Ensign, October 1996, 52.

[6] Michael F. Opitz and Timothy V. Rasinski, Good-bye Round Robin: 25 Effective Oral Reading Strategies (Portsmouth, NH: Heinmann, 2008), 3–12.

[7] Opitz and Rasinski, Good-bye Round Robin, 10.

[8] Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, Gospel Teaching and Learning: A Handbook for Teachers and Leaders in Seminaries and Institutes of Religion (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2012), Gospel Teaching and Learning, 64.

[9] Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, Old Testament Seminary Teacher Manual (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2015), 22.

[10] Peter Sloan and Ross Latham, Teaching Reading Is . . . (Melbourne: Thomas Nelson, 1981), 135.

[11] Theodore L. Harris and Richard E. Hodges, The Literacy Dictionary: The Vocabulary of Reading and Writing, (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 1995), 222.

[12] Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, Old Testament Seminary Teacher Manual, 21.

[13] Opitz and Rasinski, Good-bye Round Robin, 10.

[14] Opitz and Rasinski, Good-bye Round Robin, 10; Melanie R. Kuhn, “What’s Really Wrong with Round Robin Reading,” Ask a Researcher (blog), International Literacy Association, May 7, 2014,'s-really-wrong-with-round-robin-reading-; Timothy Shanahan, “Is Round Robin Reading Really That Bad?,” Shanahan on Reading (blog), Reading Rockets, July 30, 2019,

[15] Opitz and Rasinski, Good-bye Round Robin, 11.

[16] Kuhn, “What’s Really Wrong with Round Robin Reading.”

[17] Opitz and Rasinski, Good-bye Round Robin, 11.

[18] Opitz and Rasinski, Good-bye Round Robin, 11.

[19] Annemarie Sullivan Palinscar and Ann L. Brown, “Reciprocal Teaching of Comprehension-Fostering and Comprehension-Monitoring Activities,” Cognition and Instruction 1, no. 2 (November 1984): 118.

[20] Meaghan S. Edmonds et al., “A Synthesis of Reading Interventions and Effects on Reading Comprehension Outcomes for Older Struggling Readers,” Review of Educational Research 79, no. 1 (March 2009): 273.

[21] Nell K. Duke and P. David Pearson, “Effective Practices for Developing Reading Comprehension,” in What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction, ed. Alan E. Fastrup and S. Jay Samuels (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2002), 214.

[22] Opitz and Rasinski, Good-bye Round Robin, 24.

[23] Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, Gospel Teaching and Learning, 67.

[24] Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Douglas Williams, “Seven Literacy Strategies That Work,” Educational Leadership 60, no. 3 (November 2002): 71.

[25] Diane H. Tracy and Lesley Mandel Morrow, Lenses on Reading: An Introduction to Theories and Models (New York: The Gilford Press, 2017), 61.

[26] Donna M. Ogel, “K-W-L: A Teaching Model That Develops Active Reading of Expository Text,” The Reading Teacher 39, no. 6 (February 1986): 566.

[27] Ogel, “K-W-L,” 566.

[28] Ogel, “K-W-L,” 567.

[29] Matthew K. Burns et al. “Using Performance Feedback of Reciprocal Teaching Strategies to Increase Reading Comprehension Strategy Use with Seventh Grade Students with Comprehension Difficulties,” Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal 22, no. 1 (2017): 22.

[30] Palinscar and Brown, “Reciprocal Teaching,” 120.

[31] Opitz and Rasinski, Good-bye Round Robin, vii.

[32] Bonnie B. Armbruster and Ian A. G. Wilkinson, “Reading to Learn: Silent Reading, Oral Reading, and Learning from the Text,” The Reading Teacher 45, no. 2 (October 1991): 154.

[33] Patricia L. Smith and Gail E. Tompkins, “Structured Notetaking: A New Strategy for Content Area Readers,” Journal of Reading 32, no. 1 (October 1988): 46–47.

[34] Smith and Tompkins, “Structured Notetaking,” 48.

[35] Smith and Tompkins, “Structured Notetaking,” 47.

[36] Sheila Brown and Lee Kappes, Implementing the Common Core State Standards: A Primer on “Close Reading of Text” (Washington, DC: The Aspen Institute, 2012), 3.

[37] Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, “Close Reading as an Intervention for Struggling Middle School Readers,” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 57, no. 5 (February 2014): 368–69.

[38] Henry B. Eyring, “To Know and to Love God,” An Evening with President Henry B. Eyring, February 26, 2010 (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2010), 2.

[39] Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, Gospel Teaching and Learning, 11.

[40] U.S. Department of Education, NAEP Report Card: Reading, National Center for Education Statistics (Washington, DC, 2019), In 2019, 66 percent of eighth-grade students and 63 percent of twelfth-grade students in the U.S. scored below the national proficiency standard in reading.