Religious Literacy Practices for Young Readers

Eric D. Rackley and Rebekah Kay Strain

Eric D. Rackley and Rebekah Kay Strain, "Religious Literacy Practices for Young Readers," Religious Educator 23, no. 1 (2022): 51–72.

Eric D. Rackley ( is an associate professor of teacher education at Brigham Young University–Hawaii.

Rebekah Kay Strain ( is an adjunct faculty member in Religious Education at Brigham Young University–Hawaii.

Young readers study the scripturesFor young readers to take full advantage of scripture and have the truths of the gospel “become clear, bright, and familiar,” they must develop the tools to successfully navigate its pages. © Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Although much of our gospel knowledge depends upon our interactions with scripture, misconceptions about reading it persist. One of the most enduring is the illusion of comprehension in which young readers mistakenly believe that reading words is sufficient to understand ideas.[1] To understand the important insights embedded in scripture and other complex texts, “reading must go considerably beyond the words alone.”[2] Words are sketches of ideas—not ideas themselves—so no text, however descriptive or eloquent, can include all the information necessary to understand its most compelling truths. For young readers to take full advantage of scripture and have the truths of the gospel “become clear, bright, and familiar,”[3] they must develop the tools to successfully navigate its pages. Religious literacy practices can be an important part of this process.[4] But what are religious literacy practices? What do they look like? How should we use them? Informed by relevant reading and religious literacies research, this article addresses these questions by identifying and explaining specific practices that can help young readers[5] gain access to the sacred and potentially transformative truths in scripture.

Reading as a Process

To help seventh-grade history students understand the processes used to construct meaning, Daniel asked them to think about sports. He explained that if you want to score a goal or make a basket, then you need to do something. You cannot just expect things to happen. “Reading is like that,” he said. “You can’t just say the words and hope to learn. You have to engage your mind to understand what you read. Let me show you what I mean.” With an erasable marker in hand, Daniel turned to the Gettysburg Address projected on the board and modeled how to be an active reader of historical texts by sharing his mental processes while reading aloud[6] the first part of Lincoln’s historical speech. The students saw how their teacher made connections to the text, activated his prior knowledge, and paused to think about what he was reading. They also saw him infer meaning not directly stated in the text, reread selected portions, and ask a variety of questions.

After a few minutes of modeling his reading process, Daniel invited students to share what they noticed him saying and doing. As they talked, Daniel clarified what was happening in his head as he read and explained how specific practices influenced his understanding. He explained how one question took him down the wrong path, causing him to go back, reread a section, and ask a different question. He explained how he tried to contextualize the text by drawing on his prior knowledge. He also explained why he found some practices more useful with this text than others and how he would approach it differently if he were to read it again. In this demonstration, Daniel helped his students (re)conceptualize reading as a process in which they, as readers, could be “constructively responsive” by altering their reading practices in response to the demands of the text and their own reading purposes.[7]

Religious Literacy

Young readers can feel overwhelmed by scripture and struggle to manage its complexities.[8] Often, youth think reading difficult texts is a talent some people are born with or that there is a kind of magic to it. Daniel demonstrated that reading complex texts was a learnable and teachable skill. Good readers, he showed, have specific practices they use to successfully make sense of even the most difficult texts. What we know about the practices of skillful readers comes from a body of reading research that began in the 1960s and continues today.[9] However, this work has rarely been used to understand the literacy practices of religious young people, the demands of sacred texts on religious readers, and other issues related to youths’ religious literacies.

Religious educators and researchers have conceptualized religious literacy as the development of religious knowledge,[10] the relationship between religious acts and language,[11] and the search for ultimate truth.[12] A cultural studies approach argues that religious literacy entails identifying and analyzing “how religion intersects with other dimensions of human experience.”[13] In this study, religious literacy is conceptualized as a broad and multifaceted construct that attends to the construction of meaning of the sacred, which can be experienced through scripture and manifest in a variety of ways.[14] Although navigating sacred texts can employ meaning-making processes such as reading, writing, speaking, thinking, and praying, this article focuses on reading because it is often the primary means through which young readers engage with scripture. Putting reading research in conversation with religious literacies research allows us to reimagine religious literacy practices that are simultaneously grounded in rich bodies of scholarship[15] and sensitive to youths’ everyday experiences with scripture.

Religious Literacy Practices

Meaning does not spring into existence as we look at words or even as we say them;[16] rather, meaning develops as we engage our hearts and minds in the construction of knowledge and faith, which one young reader described as “reading with all your curiosity and love.” Developing young people’s religious literacy practices is one way to help them use scripture “consistently and effectively and to drink deeply from the reservoir of living water,” said Elder Bednar.[17] Below we identify ten religious literacy practices young readers can use to engage more readily and skillfully in the process of constructing meaning of sacred texts, adding not only breadth but also depth to their study and helping them become good and increasingly better readers of scripture.


“Prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I am about to give unto you” (Doctrine and Covenants 132:3).

Before they begin reading, good readers often take a moment to preview the text.[18] They look at the front and back covers, read the inside flaps, view the pictures, consider what they know about the author, read the captions, and identify the text structures. Like priming a pump, previewing helps students get ready for scripture by marshaling the intellectual, spiritual, and textual resources they might need to make sense of a passage. As they prepare to read, youth might do some of the following:

  • Read the chapter heading
  • Review annotations in the margins
  • Read relevant entries in the Bible Dictionary
  • Recall what they know about the author and chapter
  • Recall how they feel about the author and chapter
  • Scan the footnotes
  • View relevant maps and photos
  • Recall prior experiences reading the chapter
  • Skim previously highlighted verses

Previewing warms up a cold reading and gets youths’ hearts and minds ready for the hard work it can take to understand scripture.

Previewing is quick. It should only take a few minutes and eventually become second nature. We may direct readers to certain parts of a passage (headings, verses, and footnotes) and to certain parts of scripture (Bible Dictionary, index, and maps), but we should remember that our role is to guide their preview and help them see how it informs their reading, not do it for them. In time and with support from us, students should be doing the work involved in previewing. As they learn to preview students will develop a sense of what they need to get ready to read scripture, which can make their scripture-reading experiences richer, more informative, and more rewarding.

Motivated to Read

“The religion embraced by the Latter-day Saints, if only slightly understood, prompts them to search diligently after knowledge. There is no other people in existence more eager to see, hear, learn, and understand truth.”[19]

Good readers are motivated to read even when they know it will be difficult, and they tend to read more and more in-depth than unmotivated readers.[20] Motivation also mediates what we do and what we learn; that is, our instruction must pass through students’ motivation for it to translate into learning.[21] Imagine a teacher showing her students how to read scripture, but the students are not motivated to engage with the lesson. Because they are unmotivated, the chances of the lesson improving students’ ability to read is limited. However, if students are motivated, then they are much more likely to engage with the texts and the teacher’s instruction, which increases the chance of them learning the intended lesson.

A recent study found that religious youth are motivated to read scripture for the following reasons:[22]

  • Scripture helps them develop important knowledge about their faith.
  • Scripture gives them power to endure life’s challenges.
  • Scripture helps them become the types of people they want to become.
  • Scripture helps them connect with divinity by giving them tools to develop a relationship with God and Christ.
  • Scripture makes them feel loved and gives them a sense of well-being unlike other texts.

Designing curricula and instruction that attend to these motivations can encourage youth to see the value in scripture and help them develop a willingness and readiness about engaging with it.

When youth are motivated to read an important shift takes place. They no longer expect teachers to do the intellectual and spiritual work required to understand scripture. Motivated youth are willing to do the work primarily on their own, for their own purposes, and for their own rewards.[23] They see scripture as a puzzle to be solved and an adventure to be experienced, not simply a task to be endured. Motivated young people tend to be more agentive in their scripture reading and are willing to use their agency more wisely to explore scripture and push through it to construct new knowledge even when it is difficult.


“This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope” (Lamentations 3:21).

Summarizing involves condensing a passage to its most important parts, removing extraneous details, and avoiding personal commentary. It is a complex and important literacy practice that can help youth become more aware of what they read and how ideas relate to each other.[24] Through summarizing, good readers can monitor their comprehension of large and small units of scripture. At the micro level, youth can summarize their understanding of phrases, sentences, and verses. They can establish a clearer view of these smaller, chunked units by verbalizing their summaries or writing them in the margins of their scriptures or in a scripture-reading journal. They can also summarize larger units to make sure they understand the big ideas and developing themes. These two types, or levels, of summaries help students remember what they have read and use that knowledge to continue making sense of scripture. The ability to summarize, however briefly, the history of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, for example, can make the events of Alma 24 not only more interesting but infinitely more applicable and spiritually and personally powerful.

Summarizing as they read can help youth become more aware of their reading processes and therefore their construction of meaning. Summaries can also provide important comprehension benchmarks by giving readers clues about what they are—and are not—understanding. The ability to summarize chunks of text signals that readers are making sense—at a basic level—of what they read. The inability to summarize signals the need to return to the text for more careful examination. Because understanding scripture requires much more than summarizing, we should teach youth to move beyond summaries. We might think of summaries as launching pads into more nuanced and in-depth explorations of scripture.


“As each element of truth is encountered, you must carefully examine it in the light of prior knowledge to determine where it fits. Ponder it; inspect it inside out. Study it from every vantage point to discover hidden meaning.”[25]

By the time youth are old enough to attend secondary school, many have come to rely on teachers to tell them what scripture means. Teachers can be all too eager to oblige. As appropriate, we might instead show students how to draw rich and meaningful knowledge from scripture through inferences. Inferring involves taking what a text says, adding our own careful thinking, and arriving at a justifiable conclusion not directly stated in the text. Because inferences are suggested and not stated outright, it takes both—the text and the reader—to determine what is lying beneath the surface, deep inside an inference. Students who struggle inferring often rely too heavily on their opinions or background knowledge, thinking that what they believe is enough to construct meaning. Scripture, however, does not mean whatever we want it to mean. Good readers recognize this and they infer, or “read between the lines,” to discover new possibilities in scripture.

Reading educators have called inferencing the bedrock of meaning making.[26] To infer, students can use two types of texts: seen and unseen.[27] A seen text is anything students can see, such as words, pictures, charts, graphs, or any visual clue in the text. An unseen text includes information students hold in their heads, such as experiences, opinions, ideas, and relevant background knowledge. Together, seen and unseen texts help readers make reasoned judgments about scripture, freeing them from relying solely on their teacher, their prior knowledge, or their opinions to figure out what a text can mean.

Inferring may be the single most critical skill for understanding scriptural nuances and the relationship between what a passage says and what it might mean, or what it is about and what it is really about. [28] Inferences help us understand the difference between Mormon 8:37 saying in the last days people will love material things more than one another and perhaps meaning that in the last days those with power and influence will let others starve, live on the streets, and have chronic illnesses en masse because they treasure the trappings of wealth more than the lives and well-being of others. Inferring what scripture means or what it is really about can also help readers make reasoned judgments about scriptural themes, what to do with scripture, and how to apply it to their lives.

Stop and Think

“The things of God Are of deep import and time and expeariance, and car[e]ful and pondurous and solom though[ts] can only find them out.”[29]

Elder D. Todd Christofferson counseled Church members to “study the scriptures carefully, deliberately. Ponder and pray over them.”[30] Good readers understand that reading is thinking and feeling[31] and that engaging with sacred texts means engaging their hearts and minds. We can encourage young readers to stop periodically to consider their reading experiences. When they stop, they might do the following:

  • Recall what they read.
  • Re-create an especially rich image in their minds.
  • Relive a powerful feeling.
  • Ask for direction or insight.
  • Consider some especially provocative language.
  • Enjoy the language.
  • Wonder about a character’s motivation.
  • Listen to the Spirit.
  • Thank God for teaching them an important principle.

Stories can be powerful teachers if we stop and think about them. “Stories teach us empathy. They reveal to us ourselves in the skins of others.”[32] As he read Jacob 7, one Latter-day Saint young man stopped in the chapter heading and said, “I was just thinking about people who never really have a home . . . and how it would be wandering around, always being, like, hunted by the Lamanites.”[33] Stopping and thinking about what he was reading helped this young man make important connections to Jacob 7. It also inspired empathy by expanding his ability to understand and relate to those he was reading about. Good readers stop and think to improve their comprehension and develop their faith. Stopping and thinking can also allow the Spirit to reveal important truths because thinking carefully about what we are learning—as we are learning it—can invite revelation.[34]

After reading James 1:5, Joseph Smith “reflected on it again and again” (Joseph Smith—History 1:12), explaining that the passage helped him realize he “must either remain in darkness and confusion, or . . . do as James directs [and] ask of God” (Joseph Smith—History 1:13). President Joseph F. Smith received the revelation that became section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants as he sat “pondering over the scriptures; and reflecting upon the great atoning sacrifice that was made by the Son of God” (Doctrine and Covenants 138:1–2). Teaching youth to stop and think signals the importance of thoughtful reflection about what they are reading. It also increases the promise of revelation because it gives the Spirit time to whisper truth to their hearts and minds. The insights youth can gain from taking the time to simply think and feel as they read scripture are difficult to calculate.


“And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me: Look! And I looked and beheld” (1 Nephi 11:8).

Although artists’ visual representations of scriptural events play an important role in gospel learning[35] we could also encourage young readers to use their imaginations to “look and behold” as they engage with scripture. When done correctly, visualizing can add a new personalized dimension to scripture study. One young man explained visualizing as “watching a movie in your head.” Good scripture readers are simultaneously reading words and watching mental movies as they read. They are mentally adding new characters, zooming in and out of scenes, shifting settings, and observing facial expressions.

As we read 1 Nephi 15, for example, we might imagine the chapter opening with a wide shot of Nephi in the distance walking toward Laman and Lemuel. Laman and Lemuel are in the foreground, arguing about their father’s words. They are standing near a large tree. We might not be able to hear their conversation, but we can see them talking heatedly. When Nephi realizes what is happening, his eyebrows knit together and his shoulders slump with fatigue. We might imagine Nephi praying about what he should say to his brothers when he reaches them. Clearly, we have taken some directorial license, but some of that is necessary to make the words unfold like a movie, frame by frame, so we can experience what we read. Authors do not include all the necessary details in a text. Readers must fill in the gaps. Visualizing helps make that possible. There is also an added measure of empathy when readers can look into the eyes of the characters and see their anxiety and surprise, feel their despair and joy.

As she read Proverbs 1, a young woman used visualizing as one of her primary meaning-making processes. She began by imagining the speaker addressing a large crowd, using the phrases “I see,” “I envision,” “I visualize,” and “I picture” to create a mental movie of the events.[36] Creating these images seemed to help her bridge the historical and cultural distance between herself and scripture. It gave her a way to follow the chapter and simultaneously develop her own understanding of it based on what she read. Visualizing can improve students’ understanding of scripture because it gives them a narrative framework for organizing the sequence of events as they unfold.[37] Importantly, one clue that good readers use to determine when a text has stopped making sense is the movie becomes riddled with gaps, loses is focus, or cuts out entirely. When this happens, young readers need tools to help the text regain its clarity.


“There is a beauty and clarity that comes from simplicity that we sometimes do not appreciate in our thirst for intricate solutions.”[38]

We all struggle reading certain texts. Rarely do we read everything with equal skill and understanding. One of us might read fiction well, but not physics. Some of us might get popular memes but not poetry. We do ourselves a favor by accepting—and teaching youth to accept—that confusion is part of the reading process, especially with scripture. Confusion can be “the perfect starting place for learning”[39] because it signals problems in the construction of knowledge, which is the first step in addressing them. Clarification is the process of (re)constructing meaning when it breaks down. Youth must know that they need to clarify confusion and misunderstanding and how to do it. [40] The following can help young readers clarify scripture when meaning-making suffers:

  • Use scripture-based resources, such as footnotes, maps, and chapter headings.
  • Reread the unclear part.
  • Vary reading speed.
  • Reread the previous sentence.
  • Ask others for help.
  • Ask Heavenly Father for help.
  • Ignore the unclear part(s) and read on.
  • Change the reading purpose.
  • Recall prior knowledge.
  • Talk about it with someone.

To make clarifying scripture a regular and important part of classroom practice, we might simply make it a habit to ask young readers how they got through a confusing part of scripture or what they did to make senses of a particular set of verses. These questions draw attention to students’ meaning-making processes and to the relationship between confusion and clarification. They also help young readers realize they are not powerless in the face of complicated scripture passages.

Make Connections

“Diligently searching to discover connections, patterns, and themes is in part what it means to ‘feast’ upon the words of Christ. This approach can open the floodgates of the spiritual reservoir, enlighten our understanding through His Spirit, and produce a depth of gratitude for the holy scriptures and a degree of spiritual commitment that can be received in no other way.”[41]

Good readers can connect to scripture in a variety of ways.[42] They can make text-to-text connections by identifying how one text relates to another. A student may recognize, for example, that the Savior’s command to be childlike in the Book of Mormon is similar to his command to be childlike in the New Testament. Good readers can also make connections between texts and themselves, or text-to-self connections. They might connect the Savior’s command to be childlike to their own desires to be a disciple of Christ by being “submissive, meek, humble, patience, [and] full of love” (Mosiah 3:19). Good readers can also make larger, text-to-world connections. Contrasting and complexifying, for example, becoming childlike with the increasing opportunities to move more quickly into an adult world. Connections keep readers interested and actively involved in scripture by helping them personalize what they read and relate it to other texts, experiences, and ideas. It is not enough to simply make a connection though. Connections must deepen readers’ understanding of scripture. Why does it matter that students connect a passage from one book of scripture to another? How does this influence their understanding of what they read? We must invite youth to do both: connect to what they read and explore how the connections influence their comprehension.

Connections can promote understanding as long as they enhance—and do not detract from—readers’ scripture-reading experiences. Readers, for example, should not try to make as many connections as possible, nor grasp for obscure connections that have only the thinnest associations with what they read. Forgetting the purpose of making connections—to enhance understanding—can hinder the development of gospel knowledge. When making connections becomes more important than developing knowledge and faith, connections become obstacles, not tools, for developing scriptural understanding.

Ultimately, connecting is a way for students to see consistency in the core teachings of the gospel. For example, making connections can help young readers recognize the numerous manifestations of the love of God and understand that the Atonement of Jesus Christ applies to all people throughout history. As taught by Moroni, “For do we not read that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and in him there is no variableness neither shadow of changing?” (Mormon 9:9–10). Learning to connect (with) scripture may be an important step toward helping young readers identify and connect the miracles, revelations, and manifestations of God’s great mercy through the long arc of scriptural narratives and in their own lives.

Ask and Answer Questions

“To ask and to answer questions is at the heart of all learning and all teaching. Questions invite inspiration.”[43]

Constantly curious, good readers express their wonder by asking questions and trying to answer them.[44] Based on their prior knowledge and experience, they may ask questions of the text, author, or themselves before they read. They can also ask questions as they read in an effort to understand the text. Good readers also ask questions after they read to check for understanding, reflect on their reading experience, and apply scripture to their lives. Asking a variety of questions is also helpful:

  • Knowledge-based questions explore what is happening in a text.
  • Application questions look to solve problems or apply principles in new or personal ways.
  • Analysis questions break apart the text and examine the parts in-depth for more fine-grained understanding.
  • Synthesis questions pull ideas or events together in new ways to create new structures, patterns, and understanding.
  • Critique questions evaluate texts based on a set of implicit or explicit criteria.

Because they want to know more, good readers are curious about how things work in scripture, what happened before, and what might happen next. They do not necessarily take passages at face value. Good readers ask questions because they see scripture as open for exploration, not as a set of books that only have one story to tell that must be understood the same way every time. The alternative to asking questions is reading without wonder, reading without curiosity. This kind of reading is not only dull, it misses the adventure, flattens the stories, and obscures the possibility of youth learning to discover scripture for themselves. Good scripture readers might wonder, for example, if Ammon was afraid when he went before King Lamoni, if he ever worried about his parents when he was teaching the Lamanites, or if he missed his life as King Mosiah’s son with all the privileges of royalty. These questions might not have readily available answers—the best questions often do not—but they keep readers exploring scripture, savoring it, which improves their ability to appreciate it, learn from it, and remember it.

Understand Question and Answer Relationships

There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to know the answer to a question just because it exists, but it is almost always more productive to have a clear purpose in mind or problem to solve when asking a question.”[45]

Good readers understand that questions and answers are related to one another—namely, we can find answers to questions by looking in the correct places and by using the correct techniques.[46] Some questions are literal and require students to simply point to the place in the passage that answers it. These are Right There questions. For example, what did Nephi break in 1 Nephi 16? Verse 18 has the answer. It is right there. His bow. Other questions are inferential and require careful reasoning in combination with text-based evidence. These are Text + Me questions. For example, in 1 Nephi 16 why did Nephi ask his father where to find food? The chapter does not directly answer the question. A reasonable response requires evidence from the passage and our own careful reasoning. Because we must read between the lines to answer, Text + Me questions responses will vary from person to person.

Other questions require readers to go beyond the text and find answers in their own experiences. These are On My Own questions. For example, what would you do if you were in Nephi’s place? Students could try to use 1 Nephi 16 to answer the question, but On My Own questions require students to develop responses primarily on their own. Although the passage may provide a context for addressing the question, it is unlikely to speak directly to it. There is no one way to answer an On My Own question because each of us would probably have different ideas about what we would do.

When students can categorize questions—Right There, Text + Me, On My Own—they have a better sense of how to answer them. If the question is a factual, Right There question, then students should review the text by carefully scanning to find keywords or phrases. If the question is an inferential, Text + Me question, then students would likely have to review the text but also think carefully about what they have read and what they know and how those fit together. They would also have to do some predicting to determine if their responses would make sense if played out in the passage. Text + Me questions demand much more thinking than Right There questions. If the question is an application or On My Own question, then youth would need to think about what the text said, what they already know and how they feel, and then make connections to arrive at a reasonable response. Trying to find answers in the text would probably not work. Ultimately, understanding that questions and answers are related to each other helps young readers know where to go and what to do to find answers, which helps them navigate scripture more skillfully and successfully.

Call to Religious Educators

“As Church education moves forward in the 21st century, each of you needs to consider any changes you should make in the way you prepare to teach, how you teach, and what you teach if you are to build unwavering faith in the lives of our precious youth.”[47]

We cannot assume young people will understand scripture simply because we ask them to read it. It is not enough to point them to the fountain of living water; we must teach them how to drink deeply from it.[48] Given our experience and training as religious educators we may be ideally situated to teach youth how to read scripture. At this stage in our lives, however, navigating scripture can be so natural for many of us that we may have forgotten what it is like to read with comparatively limited skill and understanding. We may, therefore, struggle teaching young people in the early stages of their scripture-reading journey the specific skills they might need throughout their journey. The following three steps provide a simple framework for teaching youth to engage with scripture by drawing upon our own scripture-reading expertise to identify and model religious literacy practices and by giving students opportunities to use religious literacy practices in their gospel learning.

Step 1: Identify the Practices

To begin, we could identify the meaning-making practices we use in our own scripture study. Some of our practices may overlap with the ones in this article, and some will likely be new. In practical terms, slowing down and stretching out our reading can help us notice the experiences we are having with scripture and how we read it. As we slowly stretch out our reading, we tend to pay more attention to where our eyes go, how we feel, which parts of the passages draw our attention and why, and what we are thinking. We might also notice when we get confused and how we try to overcome our confusion. The tools we use may feel intuitive, especially if we have used them for years, but many of them will likely be new to our students. Making a list of the religious literacy practices we use most often and find most beneficial, especially in specific reading situations, may help. We might also compare our list to current literacy, religious literacy, and youth development scholarship to make sure it aligns with relevant fields of study. Although what we name these practices is less important than capturing how they influence our reading, table 1 can help translate experiences with scripture into concise statements of religious literate practice.

Table one. Translating experiences into religious literary practices

Step 2: Model the Practices

Modeling our religious literacy practices means opening our hearts and minds to show youth what reading scripture looks like or how scripture reading happens. We might select a passage and enlarge it so everyone can see it. Then, following a brief introduction about what it means to read scripture, we could model some of our practices, as Daniel did, by verbalizing our thoughts and feelings as we read.[49] As we think aloud, we show specifically what youth can do to read scripture more skillfully. We might also write in the margins of the enlarged text or on sticky notes as a way to represent our reading experiences and clarify our thinking. In addition to the religious literacy practices in this article, we might also demonstrate the following:

  • Keeping our thinking flexible
  • Making and testing predictions
  • Rereading
  • Monitoring our thoughts
  • Praying for understanding and direction
  • Determining importance
  • Establishing (or changing) our reading purpose
  • Synthesizing ideas
  • Activating background knowledge
  • Attending to language
  • Identifying and overcoming confusion
  • Using resources

Demonstrating no more than a few practices at a time is ideal for developing young readers’ scripture-reading repertoires. We can also explain how using specific practices informs our understanding. How, for example, does asking questions influence the way we make sense of the Savior’s visit to the Americas? How does determining what is important about Ammon at the waters of Cebus affect what we focus on and what we get out of the passage? How does identifying our background knowledge about war influence how we read the final battle between the Nephites and the Lamanites? We might say, “When I pause to ask questions of the author, I find myself becoming more empathetic to his reasons for writing. His words seem to carry more interest for me because I have a renewed appreciation of what he is trying to do.” Students are more likely to use and value scripture-reading tools in their own study if they understand what they are, how to use them, and why they are valuable for deepening their gospel knowledge. Having modeled for students how to use specific religious literacy practices, the next step is to give them opportunities to practice them.

Step 3: Practice the Practices

Practice is an essential part of literacy development.[50] To give youth opportunities to practice using scripture-reading tools, we could invite them to focus on two things: how they read and how their reading influences their learning. Pairing what they learn (content) with how they learn it (practice) can demystify scripture reading and give students access to sacred texts in ways that feel more rewarding, empowering, and edifying. Frequency and authenticity are important aspects of practice. For young readers to use scripture-reading tools intuitively, they must practice them regularly with actual passages that are part of the curriculum. Over time as students have regular opportunities to practice and talk about their scripture-reading processes and experiences, they are more likely to be motivated to read on their own, manage their reading behaviors, and increase their scripture knowledge and their faith. These benefits do not occur simply because we ask youth to read scripture; rather, they are more likely to occur when we explicitly teach them religious literacy practices and give them opportunities to use them in their gospel learning.


Religious education is more than teaching youth what scripture means—or can mean. It should also include teaching them how to make sense of it. A recent study found that understanding scripture was a low-ranking outcome for 563 Latter-day Saint teenagers in the greater Salt Lake City area. Of the twenty items measured in the study, youths’ perception that religious instruction enhanced their ability to understand scripture ranked eighteenth.[51] This suggests that there may have been a misalignment between scripture-based instruction and learning about scripture. Increased knowledge of religious literacy practices and how they work to construct meaning of sacred texts can be an important tool for helping young people improve their ability to understand these texts. The recent shifts from scripture mastery to doctrinal mastery[52] and from reading assigned scripture blocks to a more personalized reading schedule[53] reflect a move from reading and memorizing scripture to engaging more deeply and personally with scripture. Indeed, these recent changes may demand that we give more attention to young people’s scripture-reading practices, which can help them develop the ability to take on increasingly complex texts, such as scripture, with increasing skill and understanding. As religious educators, it may behoove us to reshape our instruction and classroom culture in ways that attend to the identification, development, and promotion of relevant religious literacy practices.



[1] See Daniel Druckman and Robert A. Bjork, “Illusions of Comprehension, Competence, and Remembering,” in Learning, Remembering, Believing: Enhanced Human Performance, ed. Daniel Druckman and Robert A. Bjork (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1994), 57–80.

[2] Paula J. Schwanenflugel and Nancy Flanagan Knapp, The Psychology of Reading: Theory and Applications (New York: Guilford Press, 2016), 196.

[3] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Receiving a Testimony of Light and Truth,” Ensign, November 2014, 22.

[4] See Eric D. Rackley, “Reading for Understanding: Methodist Youths’ Shared Scripture-Reading Practices,” International Journal of Christianity & Education 22, no. 1 (2018): 39–54.

[5] “Young readers” and related phrases, such as “youth” and “young people,” describe learners in their early to late teenage years. Religious educators who teach students in this age range are this article’s intended audience.

[6] See Beth Davey, “Thinking Aloud: Modeling the Cognitive Processes of Reading Comprehension,” Journal of Reading 27, no. 1 (1983): 44–47.

[7] Michael Pressley and Peter P. Afflerbach, Verbal Protocols of Reading: The Nature of

Constructively Responsive Reading (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1995), 2; see Byeong-Young Cho and Peter Afflerbach, “An Evolving Perspective of Constructively Responsive Reading Comprehension Strategies in Multilayered Digital Text Environments,” in Handbook of Research on Reading Comprehension, ed. Susan E. Israel (New York, NY: Guilford, 2017), 109–34.

[8] See Eric D. Rackley and Michelle Kwok, “‘Long, Boring, and Tedious’: Youths’ Experiences with Complex, Religious Texts,” Literacy 50, no. 2 (2016): 55–61.

[9] See Nell K. Duke et al., “Essential Elements of Fostering and Teaching Reading Comprehension,” in What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction, ed. S. Jay Samuels and Alan E. Farstrup (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2011), 51–93; John T. Guthrie et al., “Influences of Stimulating Tasks on Reading Motivation and Comprehension,” Journal of Educational Research 99, no. 4 (2006): 232–45; P. David Pearson, Laura R. Roehler, Janice A. Dole, and Gerald Duffy, “Developing Expertise in Reading Comprehension,” in What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction, ed. S. Jay Samuels and Alan E. Farstrup (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 1992), 145–99.

[10] See Michael Barnes and Jonathan D. Smith, “Religious Literacy as Iokahi: Social Harmony through Diversity,” in Religious Literacy in Policy and Practice, ed. Adam Dinham and Matthew Francis (Bristol: Policy Press, 2015), 77–97.

[11] See Jonathan M. Watt and Sarah L. Fairfield, “Religious and Sacred Literacies,” in The Handbook of Educational Linguistics, ed. Bernard Spolky and Francis M. Hult (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 355–66.

[12] See Andrew Wright, Religious Education and Critical Realism: Knowledge, Reality and Religious Literacy (London: Routledge, 2016).

[13] Diane L. Moore, Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Schools (New York: Palgrave, 2007), 93.

[14] See Eric D. Rackley, “Scripture-Based Discourses of Latter-day Saint and Methodist Youths,” Reading Research Quarterly 49, no. 4 (2014): 417–36; Cushla Kapitzke, Literacy and Religion: The Textual Politics and Practice of Seventh-day Adventism (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1995); Emily K. Ronald, “More Than ‘Alone with the Bible’: Reconceptualizing Religious Reading,” Sociology of Religion 73, no. 3 (2012): 323–44.

[15] See Duke et al., “Essential Elements of Fostering and Teaching Reading Comprehension”; John T. Guthrie et al., “Influences of Simulating Tasks”; P. David Pearson, Laura R. Roehler, Janice A. Dole, and Gerald Duffy, “Developing Expertise in Reading Comprehension.”

[16] See Louise M. Rosenblatt, Literature as Exploration (London: Heinemann, 1968); Louise M. Rosenblatt, “The Transactional Theory of Reading and Writing,” in Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading, ed. Donna E. Alvermann, Norman J. Unrau, and Robert B. Ruddell (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2013), 923–56.

[17] David A. Bednar, “A Reservoir of Living Water” (Church Educational System fireside, February 4, 2007),

[18] See 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. Farstrup and S. Jay Samuels (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2002), 205–42; Ruth Schoenbach, Cynthia Greenleaf, and Lynn Murphy, Reading for Understanding: How Reading Apprenticeship Improves Disciplinary Learning in Secondary and College Classrooms (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012).

[19] Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997), 194.

[20] See Allen Wigfield and John T. Guthrie, “Relations of Children’s Motivation for Reading to the Amount and Breadth of their Reading,” Journal of Educational Psychology 89, no. 3 (1997): 420–32.

[21] See John T. Guthrie and Allen Wigfield, “Engagement and Motivation in Reading,” in Handbook of Reading Research, vol. 3, ed. Michael L. Kamil, Peter B. Mosenthal, P. David Pearson, and Rebecca Barr (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000), 403–19.

[22] See Eric D. Rackley and John Hilton III, “Principles and Practices for Motivating Youth for Scripture Literacy,” Religious Educator 19, no. 1 (2018): 119–37.

[23] See Emily Fox, “Readers’ Individual Differences in Affect and Cognition,” in Handbook of Reading Research, vol 4, ed. Elizabeth B. Moje, Peter A. Afflerbach, Patricia Enciso, and Nonie K. Lesaux (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2020), 180–96.

[24] See Tom Trabasso and Edward Bouchard, “Teaching Readers How to Comprehend Text Strategically,” in Comprehension Instruction: Research-Based Best Practices, ed. Cathy Collins Block and Michael Pressley (New York: Guilford, 2002), 176–200.

[25] Richard G. Scott, “Acquiring Spiritual Knowledge,” Ensign, November 1993, 88.

[26] See Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis, Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension to Enhance Understanding (Portland, ME: Stenhouse, 2017), 163.

[27] See Cris Tovani, I Read It, but I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers (Portland, ME: Stenhouse, 2000).

[28] See Schoenbach, Greenleaf, and Murphy, Reading for Understanding.

[29] Joseph Smith, “Letter to the Church and Edward Partridge, 20 March 1839,” The Joseph Smith Papers,

[30] D. Todd Christofferson, “The Blessing of Scripture,” Ensign, May 2010, 35.

[31] See Emily Fox, “Readers’ Individual Differences in Affect and Cognition”; Sarah Levine, “Making Interpretation Visible with an Affect-Based Strategy,” Reading Research Quarterly 49, no. 3 (2014): 283–303.

[32] Justin Simien, “Fostering Empathy through Literature,” Greater Good in Education, GGIE_Fostering_Empathy_Through_Literature_Elementary.pdf (

[33] See Eric D. Rackley, “Motivation for Religious Literacy Practices of Religious Youth: Examining the Practices of Latter-day Saint and Methodist Youth in One Community” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2010).

[34] See Helaman 10:2–3; Luke 1:8–11; and D. Todd Christofferson, “The Blessing of Scripture.”

[35] Anthony Sweat, The Role of Art in Teaching Church History and Doctrine,” Religious Educator 16, no. 3 (2015): 45.

[36] See Eric D. Rackley, “Scripture Reading Practices of Methodist Youth,” Religious Education 112, no. 2 (2017): 136–48.

[37] See Mark Sadoski and Allan Paivio, Imagery and Text: A Duel Coding Theory of Reading and Writing (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2001).

[38] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Of Things That Matter Most,” Ensign, November 2019, 19.

[39] Schoenbach, Greenleaf, and Murphy, Reading for Understanding, 68.

[40] See Lori D. Oczuks, Reciprocal Teaching at Work: Strategies for Improving Reading Comprehension (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2003); Annemarie S. Palincsar and Ann Brown, “Reciprocal Teaching of Comprehension-Fostering and Comprehension-Monitoring Activities,” Cognition and Instruction 1, no. 2 (1984): 117–75.

[41] Bednar, “A Reservoir of Living Water,” 3.

[42] See Eric D. Rackley, “Reading for Understanding: Methodist Youths’ Shared Scripture-Reading Practices”; Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis, Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension to Enhance Understanding.

[43] Henry B. Eyring, “The Lord Will Multiply the Harvest” (address to Church Educational System religious educators, February 6, 1998),

[44] See Eric D. Rackley, “Scripture Reading Practices of Methodist Youth”; Isabel L. Beck and Margaret G. McKeown, Improving Comprehension with Questioning the Author: A Fresh and Expanded View of a Powerful Approach (New York, NY: Scholastic, 2006).

[45] Cecil O. Samuelson, “The Importance of Asking Questions” (Brigham Young University devotional, November 13, 2001),

[46] See Taffy Raphael, Improving Question-Answering Performance through Instruction, Reading Education Report No. 32 (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: Center for the Study of Reading, 1982); Taffy Raphael, “Teaching Learners about Sources of Information for Answering Comprehension Questions,” Journal of Reading 27, no. 4 (1984): 303–11; and Taffy Raphael, “Teaching Question Answer Relationships, Revisited,” Reading Teacher 39, no. 6 (1986): 516–22.

[47] M. Russell Ballard, “Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century” (address to Church Educational System religious educators, February 26, 2016),

[48] See Bednar, “A Reservoir of Living Water.”

[49] See Davey, “Thinking Aloud: Modeling the Cognitive Processes of Reading Comprehension.”

[50] See Kristen A. Munger and Maria S. Murray, “Text Complexity and Deliberate Practice,” in Best Practices in Adolescent Literacy Instruction,” ed. Kathleen A. Hinchman and Heather K. Sheridan-Thomas (New York: Guilford, 2014), 99–119.

[51] See Arch Chee Keen Wong, Anthony Sweat, and Ryan Gardner, “Pedagogy of the Spirit: Comparing Evangelical and Latter-day Saint Youth Self-Reported In-Class Spiritual Experiences,” Religious Education 112, no. 5 (2016): 569–84.

[52] Marianne Holman Prescott, “New Doctrinal Mastery Program Is Replacing Scripture Mastery for Seminary Students,” Church News, June 6, 2016,

[53] Camille West, “Church Announces Changes for Seminary in 2021,” Church News, December 15, 2020,