Using SQ3R Method with Fourth Grade ESOL Students

By Kristina Hedberg, ESOL Teacher

Deer Park Elementary School, Fairfax Co Public Schools




This action research project is a case study involving three fourth grade students enrolled in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program at Deer Park Elementary School in Centreville, Virginia.  The researcher is the school’s ESOL teacher who supports approximately forty-five second language speakers in grades 1-6.   The following is a seven-step process investigating a topic of interest to the researcher.  Using a triangulated data collection plan, the teacher researcher will show evidence of how the direct instruction of the SQ3R learning strategy helped improve the students’ comprehension and retention of social studies content material.   




The focus of this project began with my own interest in improving the content reading comprehension of my fourth grade ESOL students during social studies.  In fourth grade, students in Fairfax County Public Schools study for the history part of the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) tests.  Therefore, in order to prepare my students to take these tests I began looking for a strategy that might help them better comprehend and retain the social studies content. 

Through the direct teaching of a learning strategy, students enhance their ability to organize new information, relate it to what they know, and retain what is important to them (Chamot & O’Malley, 1994). After some searching I was intrigued by the SQ3R method.  Sagor, (2000) points out that an individual teacher, while developing a focus for inquiry, can use the reflective interview process.  During the interview the teacher researcher talks through her concerns regarding an issue of significant concern. 

I shared my idea of using SQ3R with my fourth grade regular classroom cohort in a reflective interview.  She informed me that she had used this method successfully in the past with fourth graders.  Finally, I decided to implement this learning strategy and observe the effect it might have on my students’ reading comprehension.


Resulting from this curiosity a research question emerged:


How will the direct instruction of the SQ3R method affect fourth grade ESOL students’ comprehension and retention of Virginia history?   


Theoretical Rationale


When I began this action research project I based my theoretical assumptions on what I have learned about English language learners (ELL’s) and reading comprehension.  First and foremost, I recognized the importance of tapping students’ prior knowledge.  O’Malley and Valdez Pierce, (1996) discuss how prior knowledge positively affects reading comprehension and that ELL’s often do not have the background knowledge that is needed to understand a given text.  This is something I have observed with my own ESOL students.  The material we are studying is new content and often these children do not have background knowledge to build upon.

  According to Scott, (1994) SQ3R is very useful when used orally during a shared nonfiction book experience because it helps children verbalize what they already know before reading and trying to understand new material.  This is another reason why I decided to try the SQ3R method with my fourth graders.  Through discussion during the first step of the process the students are actively sharing background knowledge and getting ready to study the assigned social studies chapter.

  SQ3R is a reading strategy that can be used when students are expected to read and remember content material.  The acronym stands for the steps in the process: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review (Mallow & Patterson, 1999).  SQ3R requires modeling and teacher support for struggling readers.  Students who are not strong readers cannot be expected to apply this strategy independently (Rhodes & Dudley-Marling, 1996). My ESOL students read below grade level and require much teacher support when reading and learning new content in class.  Therefore, I chose to scaffold the SQ3R method for them by providing a visual poster outlining the five steps, using note cards explaining the process, and modeling how to apply SQ3R in social studies.  Additionally, by having the students use an SQ3R scaffold worksheet they were able to write down information as they proceeded through each step of the process. 

            The first step of SQ3R encourages students to survey or preview the reading material.  By looking at headings and pictures they are able to activate prior knowledge.  According to Call (1991), SQ3R is a very strong strategy to activate prior knowledge and integrate it with new information.  SQ3R has been found to be even more effective when students are asked to write down information gained before, during, and after reading.  The writing component allows children to tap into all four modes of learning: listening, speaking, reading, and writing (Call, 1991).  For this reason I also decided to create an SQ3R scaffold worksheet.  Using this worksheet my ESOL students could write down their observations while surveying the text.  Then, during the second step, they would write their own questions formed from the headings.  Using the third step, after reading, we tried to answer the questions the students formulated in their writing.  This would also take care of step four of the process where we attempted to recite or answer questions about the content.  Finally, during the last step of the process, they could go back and review what they had learned using the worksheet. 

            Considering the factors that affect my students’ content reading comprehension, I decided to create a priority pie to gain more perspective on what I was researching.  Sagor, (2000) believes the priority pie helps a researcher see which variables are most significant to the issue being investigated.  The variables I brainstormed as relevant were prior knowledge, English language proficiency, English phonemic awareness, vocabulary, and new concepts.  Then I assigned a percentage corresponding to the items’ importance for content reading comprehension.  The illustration below in Figure 1 shows a graphic representation of my priority pie.  The variables I felt to be most significant were prior knowledge and English language proficiency.


Figure 1  Priority Pie :


Summary of the Method


The SQ3R method is a learning strategy that enable to students to use their own background knowledge to understand and retain new content material.  During SQ3R the students begin by sharing background knowledge aloud while surveying the text.  This first step allows them to link their own experiences to the new reading material.  Additionally, English language proficiency plays a large part in comprehension because children need to use language cues to help them negotiate the meaning of text (Fowler, Jackson & McCallum, 1995).  Many non-proficient English speakers do not apply language cues because they are unable to predict what word or words would make sense when reading. The language functions and discourse in social studies are often different from what ELL’s are used to reading (Chamot & O’Malley, 1994).  English phonemic awareness is another factor that greatly affects reading comprehension.  Many second language learners do not have a strong knowledge of English letter sounds and therefore are unable to sound out words in the text.  Therefore comprehension will be affected. 

Finally, vocabulary and new concepts work together to affect comprehension.  Both of these factors deal will academic language.  Non-native English-speaking students often lag behind their native English-speaking peers in academic language development.  However, the use of learning strategies for reading and note taking helps ELL’s understand and remember content material (Chamot & O’Malley, 1994).


Research Questions


Throughout this action research project, I began to formulate many related questions that I hoped would be answered through data collection after implementing the SQ3R method with my fourth grade ESOL students.  Some of these questions were as follows:


·    How will SQ3R affect content reading comprehension?

·    What strategies, if any, do my ESOL students utilize while reading social studies content material?

·    Will scaffolding provide enough support for fourth grade ESOL students to use SQ3R?

·    How will the writing component through the use of an SQ3R worksheet affect how the students use this strategy?


These questions will be addressed later in the Data Interpretation section of this report.


Data Collection


This action research project is a case study of three fourth grade ESOL students during a period of six weeks. These three children receive instruction from me, their ESOL teacher, during language arts in the morning and during social studies in the afternoon.  The students are pulled out of the regular classroom and instructed in a small group setting for approximately 45 minutes twice daily.  All three of the students are at an intermediate level of English proficiency.  They do not share cultural backgrounds as they speak Spanish, Vietnamese, and Russian at home.

            At the start of this project I came up with a data collection plan.  Sagor, (2000) asserts that using multiple sources of data, through a method called triangulation, helps a researcher establish validity and reliability.  Therefore, for my multiple data sources I chose to use a pre and post reading strategies survey (Appendix 1), teacher observations, test results, and an SQ3R scaffold worksheet (Appendix 2).


The figure below illustrates my plan for triangulated data collection:




Figure 2           Plan for Triangulated Data Collection


Before teaching the SQ3R method to my students, I administered a reading strategies survey.  I was curious to see if my ESOL students were aware of any strategies they might use during social studies or language arts.  After instructing them in SQ3R and allowing them time to practice the strategy, I re-administered the survey to see if their knowledge of reading strategies had changed.  Throughout the case study I made anecdotal records of relevant behaviors I noticed during social studies.  These would include how or when they applied the SQ3R method as we read a new social studies lesson.  Also, the students took many chapter tests and I recorded their results.  I wanted to see if their achievement on the tests would improve through the application of the strategy.  Finally, during the last two weeks of the case study I developed an SQ3R scaffold worksheet so they could apply the steps of the method in writing.  These worksheets were another useful data source because I was able to make different observations about how my students were using SQ3R by analyzing their written work.

            Sagor, (2000) asserts that authentic student work helps to ensure validity.  Additionally, he says that if your data is an accurate representation of reality you can assume reliability exists.  All of my data sources gave me authentic work samples of my ELL students during social studies instruction.  Also, these data tools including the reading strategies survey, test results, my own observations, as well as the SQ3R worksheet gave me data that actually represented how my students were applying the new strategy during social studies content reading instruction.  By using multiple, reliable sources of data, I was able to observe changes in my students’ comprehension and retention of the social studies content.


Data Analysis


When a researcher begins to analyze data during the data collection process it is important to look for patterns or trends that might emerge (Sagor, 2000).  Here is where I will use the data I collected to illustrate what changes occurred resulting from the direct teaching of a learning strategy to my ESOL students.

First, I would like to note that when I looked over the test results of my students, I noticed an upward trend.  All three of the students’ chapter test scores improved throughout the study.  As illustrated by the graph in figure 3, Students A and B showed steady improvement on the chapter tests.  However, Student C significantly improved his test scores toward the end of the study.



Figure 3     Test Scores



In addition, when I surveyed the group initially about reading strategies, two of students were unable to tell me in writing about any strategies they use while reading.  However, when I repeated the survey at the end of the study after they had learned and practiced the SQ3R method, all three of the students were able to tell me some strategies they use before, during, and after reading.  This type of qualitative data was also noted while I observed their reading behavior during social studies. 

Finally, I observed the SQ3R method affecting the way these students read during social studies as well as during language arts.  Scott, (1994) points out that even though SQ3R is thought of a nonfiction reading strategy, it can be very useful during fiction shared reading, too.  It appeared that my ESOL students used this method as we began a new novel during the language arts class as well since they were looking at the prompting resources (the SQ3R chart and flip books with each step) that I provided for them to use.


Data Interpretation


            After analyzing the data I began to draw some conclusions based on what I observed.  Sagor, (2000) recommends using the data to try to answer the questions generated throughout the case study.  Looking at the data, I feel that the SQ3R method has had a positive impact on how my students read and comprehend the social studies text.  The behaviors I observed appeared to show the children using their background knowledge when surveying the text since they were observed referring to the SQ3R chart posted on the wall or flipping through the prompt cards. They appeared to be thinking more about their reading using the questioning step, and remembering more of what they read as evidenced in their steady improvement on the chapter tests and in their written work.   

            Before introducing SQ3R, my ELL students lacked reading strategies.  On their reading surveys they listed their glasses, the dictionary, pointing at words, or an adult as things that help them read and understand text.  Only one of the students identified some actual reading strategies such as sounding out words and rereading.  However, after learning and applying the SQ3R method their responses changed dramatically on the post survey.  Now all three were able to tell me some specific strategies they find useful when reading.  These included looking over the chapter, looking at the pictures, and rereading for meaning.  In my opinion these changes in their knowledge and application of reading strategies are significant and are a result of the direct teaching of the SQ3R method. 

            As mentioned previously, I also observed these students applying the SQ3R strategy during language arts.  Upon beginning a new novel during reading class they told me we should survey the book and look at the pictures.  When I asked them why we should do this the students told me that it would help them get an idea of what they were going to read.  I was pleasantly surprised that they were applying parts of the SQ3R process when reading genre other than nonfiction.

            Finally, I feel that SQ3R helped my students remember the social studies content.  By practicing the steps and writing down relevant information using the scaffold worksheet they showed steady improvement in their chapter test scores.  Two of the students made more rapid progress, but the third student showed progress in the final weeks of the study.  Maturity and attention may have influenced his slower progress as well.  It is possible that with more time to collect data additional changes could have been observed.  Since all students learn new concepts at different rates, the short time that this study was conducted could be viewed as a drawback. Overall however, the data collected while using the SQ3R method show evidence of affecting these ESOL students’ content reading behavior in a positive manner.


Action Plan


            During this last step of the action research project, Sagor, (2000) talks about using what one knows to change or improve his or her teaching.  This action research project has reminded me about how ESOL students read and comprehend content material.  The use of SQ3R validated much of what I have learned regarding prior knowledge and reading comprehension.  By guiding the students through the steps, SQ3R helps them tap their own background knowledge and learn to read for information that is relevant and important to comprehension.  When students survey the text, they begin to make connections to what they already know.  Also, by using the content information to formulate their own questions, the reading becomes more relevant to them. 

            This experience has also showed me how effective the direct teaching of a learning strategy is to ESOL students.  After finding out on the reading surveys that my students lacked strategies in reading, teaching them SQ3R seemed like an excellent idea.  Since the students were so receptive and successful with SQ3R, I am motivated to teach them additional strategies in the future.

  Often as educators, we get used to teaching one way and resist trying new methods.  I feel positive about trying new approaches with my ESOL students and am confident that they will be receptive to learning them as well. Furthermore, I feel that the SQ3R method has helped my students develop academic language.  They were encouraged to talk about the social studies material in different ways.  They practiced formulating questions about the content material and then used those questions to respond in writing about the content.  Rather than just reading and answering questions about the chapter, they were interacting with the text in a more meaningful way.


Finally, even though I feel that this case study was a positive experience for all involved, I wish it could have been conducted over a longer period of time.  Throughout the project I felt as though the students and I were gradually improving and learning with the direct instruction of the SQ3R strategy.  For this reason I plan to continue using this method with these fourth grade ELL’s.  With time I hope to observe even more changes in their content reading comprehension.              




Clay, M. (1991) Becoming Literate.  Portsmouth, NH :



Fountas, I. & Pinnell, G.  (1996)  Guided Reading.  Portsmouth,

           NH : Heinemann. 


Fowler, D., Jackson, R. & McCallum, S. (1995)   Primary Purposes

Language Arts Resource Guide.  Fairfax, VA : Department of Instructional Services Fairfax County Public Schools.


O’Malley, J. M. & Valdez Pierce, L. (1996) Authentic Assessment

            for English Language Learners :  Practical Approaches for

            Teachers.  Reading, MA :  Addison-Wesley.

Appendix I


Reading Strategies Strategy


Name __________________________ Date ____________


1)     What do you do before you read something?





2)     Does anything help you while you are reading?






3)     If you come to a word you do not know when you are

reading, what do you do?





4)     What can you do if you do not understand what you read?



Appendix 2


_____ Step 1: Survey the chapter.  Write down your observations.


_____ Step 2: Question: Look at the headings for the chapter.  Make questions out of each heading.


Q#1 ____________________________________________