Is reading with your kids driving you crazy?
Note: A shortened/simplified version of this article is How to Help your Kids Read at Home.
One of the hardest aspects teaching reading comes after the child has learned how to “decode”, or perform the mental trick of turning a row of symbols on a page into meaning. While teachers work on comprehension from the beginning, once the child knows how to decode and has a good grasp of phonics, the focus turns to comprehension, and really, what kids and adults do for the rest of their reading lives is work on that.
Many people thing that comprehension is about being able to literally repeat back what “happened” in the story, but that is just one level.
In fact, if you tested me on “what happened” in anything that I have read, I would probably get about an 80% because I definitely do not remember all the details of what I read, especially specific names or anything else I can easily look up.
Kids might also not do well with this type of assessment simply because they are bored or not motivated, but really, that’s ok.
What is really important is trying to help the student develop deeper comprehension by actively engaging with the story, picturing what is happening, and thinking about what it all means. That’s what we are going for when we get to middle and high school literature studies especially, but children should be doing all of these things from the beginning, as soon as they are old enough to understand language and listen to a story. As LESS attention goes to decoding, MORE goes to comprehension.
Being an English teacher is frustrating because you go into it thinking that you are going to have all of these great conversations with kids about great books, but then you find that a lot of times they don’t get the reading done unless you put all of these extra measures in place, and all of them are either pretty poor from a theoretical perspective (e.g. quizzes), or are an untenable burden on the teacher from the perspective of grading time (e.g. journal responses). It’s difficult not to end up just lecturing to the kids or having a large group “discussion” with about five kids while the rest just listen and possibly take notes.
You might remember this from your own days in high school.
When I was an English Head of Department, we found the answer to this problem in a well-known book (in our discipline) called Mosaic of Thought. Mosaic of Thought outlines 7 comprehension strategies that good readers do. Within our department, teachers developed a list with key “thinking” questions that was easy for students to follow. We used the exact same document across the secondary school (grades 7-12) so that the students didn’t have to relearn the system each year. As they got older, they were expected to complete more reading with less supervision, and go deeper, but the basic structure didn’t change. The idea is that by the time the students were in the IB Diploma Programme, which most of our students did, they would be able to read and keep their “Think Aloud” notebook with little attention to the executive function skills of keeping the notebook and greater attention to using the note taking process to actively read and mentally interact with the text.
It worked! Within a year or two, our enrollment in our most advanced English course, which is voluntary in the IB program, doubled, and our students’ average score rose to a point (on a seven point scale) above the world average.
What was even better is that engagement and interest in discussions in classes completely changed because we had the notebooks to use as tools that became the basis for our discussions and class activities. In these lessons, teacher talk would go down to about 20%; students talked the rest of the time.
As a teacher, I read every single one of the notebooks. We instituted a very simple marking scheme that was designed to ensure that students made a basic effort, but as they got older, these marking schemes decreased in importance because the students knew how important the note taking itself is for their final exam preparation.
Since then, I have used it for grades 2, yes, 2, up to grade 12. I have worked with teachers who used the strategies with children even younger during circle time.
The absolute, most important thing to remember is that all the readers get to have their own opinions. If you are the most experienced reader in the group (i.e. the adult), you can give extra background information and you can ask questions if there is a factual error, but you don’t get to know more because you are older. If you think you do, you have to put it in a question so the students can defend their answers. It’s good to do this also because sometimes the kids are right, often they have a point of view you never thought about, and all the way around, you can save face in front of the kids.
Once my students said to me, at the end of 12th grade (and I think I had been teaching that student since 10th): You would never admit we were wrong.
Once I said to a class, when I was teaching Higher Level for the first time and was a bit nervous: It’s not my job to know all the answers. I have the experience that makes me good at helping you figure out the questions.
Here are the strategies, from most concrete to most abstract and some key questions that can be used for ages 8 and up:
Predicting: Anticipating what will happen both at the beginning and during reading.
Monitoring Meaning: Keeping track of the literal understanding of what is happening. Part of monitoring meaning is writing down any unfamiliar vocabulary words, but I would never discuss word meanings with students while they were reading, and I didn’t encourage them to look up words while they were reading unless it was absolutely necessary. Most of the time, one word will not keep you from understanding the whole thing, and it’s important for kids to know that.
Questioning: This one is a bit tricky to differentiate from the others, but the idea is that we should always question what we read…do we believe it or not? Why?
Visualizing: Visualizing is the most important aspect of reading. Readers who do not visualize do not progress. I always required sketches (even if the art was horrible) and/or pictures printed out and pasted in. Because of things I could see my students didn’t understand, I got better about showing them pictures and video of unfamiliar settings before we read too.
Making Connections: We remember more when new learning is connected to our previous knowledge. Period.
Inferring: Understanding what isn’t said directly.
Determining Importance: This is why I don’t do that well on “comprehension” quizzes. Good readers determine what is important to the text and also what is important to them. We can’t possibly remember everything.
Synthesizing: This the most abstract one. How do you put everything together to form a response to the text? Also, for older readers, how do the literary techniques work together to make me feel a certain way? Even little kids can get this if you phrase the question properly. For example, if there are animal sounds (onomatopoeia), talk about why the author put those in. It’s ok if the kid can’t verbalize the answer yet; hearing the question is important.
With students who really struggle, have them “visualize”, or sketch what they read. Some students also respond well to acting out what they read, and they report having trouble understanding without doing that.
The idea behind this is to get kids to read actively and think about what they are reading. Don’t let them ask you questions as they do; they need to concentrate for a while on their own. If there is no one to answer their questions, they will practice thinking for themselves. Every so often, stop and talk to them about what they read, but remember the rules above! Don’t shut them down!
If you have questions about how to do this, leave a comment or e-mail The Lois Level using the link above.
Note: Comprehension Questions to use with kids are at the bottom of this article.
Books to help
7 Keys to Comprehension: How to Help Your Kids Read It and Get It! by Susan Zimmerman and Chryse Hutchins is the parent-friendly book that best describes how to use comprehension strategies at home.
Mosaic of Through: The Power of Comprehension Strategy Instruction by Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmerman covers similar information with a bit more depth and assumption of prior knowledge. It is designed for educators.
You Gotta BE the Book: Teaching Engaged Reading with Adolescents by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm discusses a range of methods for helping students “get into” what they read. His methods jibe well with Zimmerman’s et al above and are especially good for kids who need to talk, act, or draw to really get what they are reading. He also includes case studies of good readers to demonstrate differences among readers.
Comprehension Questions to Help People Read Better
What do I think this text will be about?
What is happening in this piece of writing? What confuses me, and how can I understand? What words are new, and how can I guess what they mean?
What questions before, during and after reading can deepen my understanding of the text? What questions can focus my attention on vital parts of the text?
What do I see, hear, touch, taste and smell as I read?
What do I imagine as I read?
Can I make connections to myself, other texts and the world? Where can I get the information I need to understand the text?
What do I know about this text that it doesn’t tell me directly?
What ideas do the author want me to remember?
How does this text make me feel?
What is the author trying to do?
How does the author use different techniques effectively?
The first time kids try using this technique, you can limit which questions they focus on, but don’t go so far as to force them to do one or two. Give them all the questions, and then limit those who struggle. Good comprehension comes from a variety of responses that work together in the brain, and asking readers to exclude some is counterproductive. It’s ok to emphasize certain ones, or have them go through the text more than once so that they can focus on the more abstract techniques the second time.
With young kids, I have given them a limited card with the techniques that is slightly smaller than the notebook they use. I have them paperclip it into the notebook for storage, but while they are working, I have them put it on the table above their notebook so they can see it.