How To Improve Comprehension

You may recall in a previous post that I stated that reading is comprehension. This is a very important point. For example, someone who can call out printed words in a fluent matter may not be actually reading because he or she does not actually comprehend. With that said; the question that must be thoroughly addressed is; “What can I do to help my child learn to comprehend / read?

Comprehension Facilitates Communication

Reading is not decoding words. It is not memorizing rules. It is not breaking up words into syllables. Although these skills help with the process, it must be very well communicated that reading is comprehension. When we are successful at conveying understandings /comprehension from one person to another via printed symbols; then we are truly reading.

The ability to communicate through the printed word separates us from other animals. Birds and apes communicate by bowing and waving. Honey bees dance. One-cell organisms emit chemicals. Human beings read and comprehend. They also think about their thinking. This thinking about how we think is called metacognition.
Well, enough of the educational terminology. We need to be aware of the fact that we cannot assume that our children will actively think about what they are reading or doing. In fact, the skill of thinking about one’s thinking is not well developed at all in young children.

The Need For Strategies

Dr. Jay Carter, author of the book entitled “Executive Function,” talks about how we can become upset at children because they can’t say what they’re thinking and feeling. Actually, they do not have this ability until about age 14. The same thing can be said about children being able to think about reading actively.
The bad news: It is not natural for young children to make predictions, formulate questions and effectively interact with the text. The good news: We can help them in this area through coaching and modeling. In my many years of working with children, I have seen how good teachers will coach and model appropriate behaviors and skills, which help students before they develop and acquire this higher-level thinking ability.

I remember a kindergarten teacher who showed her class a tray that contained a certain number of objects. He told the students to look at the objects and then he covered the tray. The short-term memory of the students was then tested when the teacher asked them to name the objects on the tray. The students did not do as well as expected. After class I asked the teacher if the students knew any strategies for remembering the objects that were on the tray. He had a puzzled look and wanted to know what I meant. I proceeded to explain that the children needed to know how to think about the objects on the tray and facilitate their short-term and working memories.

As we know, there are limitations to short-term and working memory, so I suggested that the teacher tell the students about making associations and looking for clues to help their memory, such as locating and grouping certain objects. In other words, the students needed a strategy to help with their recall.

Seven Strategies That Help Children Comprehend

Below is a list of seven strategies that can be used to help your child to understand or comprehend the written material. I believe that each one of the strategies take advantage of how the human brain learns best. We will take a look at each one separately. Again this is exactly what reading is all about!

1. Its Your Turn
2. Make A Test
3. What If?
4. SQ3R
5. QAR
6. GRASP
7. Reciprocal Reading

It’s Your Turn

Let’s start out by taking a look at a very simple but powerful strategy that can help to increase reading comprehension. Taking turns with reading passages from novels and textbooks is a procedure that is not used nearly enough. You can start out by reading a few sentences orally and then have your child read a few sentences. Go back and forth that way through the written material. You can determine when to switch readers in multiple ways: a) every two or threes sentences, b) every other paragraph, c) the person who is reading decides when to pass the task over by pointing or passing a baton, etc. , or d) you can set up a timer, e) have a third party decide. A little bit of novelty can go a long way to add interest to the activity and thus increase performance.
There are a number of benefits for doing this activity. Hearing you read parts of the written peace provides your child with a good model for what we call “fluency.” Fluency is the ability to read quickly with expression. Now, when I say read quickly, I do not mean the reading needs to be super-fast. It just needs to flow without much hesitation and / or stumbling over words. The human brain needs to detect patterns and it loses the meaning of the written text when there are long pauses in the reading. So, your modeling of fluent reading and ongoing practice sessions with your child taking turns with the reading can help to greatly improve this critical skill. Have fun at taking turns!

Make A Test

You know, one of the things that I remember about my days in elementary school (I certainly do not remember much) is a time or two when the teacher allowed us to construct some of our own questions for an upcoming test. She even used some of the questions on the test. Wow! What a way to study. We took ownership of the material and were motivated by the fact that we were actually allowed to write some of the questions.
The same type of motivation can result from allowing your child to construct a set of comprehension questions after she has completed reading specific story. If you tell your child that she will do this prior to the reading, you will be reinforcing a very important reading skill which is known as question generating. When children read, they should have some questions in mind about the written piece. This engages the child and makes them an active participant in the reading of the material. Too often we approach reading without thinking about what questions may be answered and by the time we have completed a few sentences, we do not have a clue about what the written passage means.

What If?

Similar to visualization; imagination is another powerful tool or strategy. You can tap into this power by simply asking your child to use his imagination after he has finished reading a written piece. One way to stimulate a child’s imagination is by posing to them “What If” questions. For example after reading the first few chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone you could pose a couple of “What If” questions to further your child’s imagination and increase comprehension. For chapter 6 The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-quarters you might ask, “What if Harry did not hear the woman talking about muggles? What do you think would happen next?” Or… in chapter 7 The Sorting Hat “What if Harry was sorted into Hufflepuff instead of Gryffindor?”

You can use this strategy at all age levels. For example, in Beatrix Potter’s classic, Peter Rabbit, you could ask your young child, “What if Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail were just as naughty as Peter? or… What if the friendly sparrows did not overhear Peter when he was caught in the gooseberry net?”
You can have a great deal of fun with this activity and you will help to improve your child’s comprehension skills in the process. To me that is what we call a “Win-Win” situation!

SQ3R

This happens to be one of the grand daddies of all of the comprehension and organizational strategies. SQ3R (Robinson, 1970) is a method for the comprehension of material that you read, say in a textbook. Here are the five steps that you can use with your child:

1. Survey: Before the actual reading of a story or textbook chapter begins, have your child look through the whole chapter. See what the headings are — the major ones and the subheadings; this type of structure seems to be particularly easy for our brains to latch onto — check for introductory and summary paragraphs, references, etc. Resist reading at this point, but see if you can identify a few of the major ideas in the chapter.
2. Question: Next ask your child what he thinks the chapter or written piece is about: What is the question that this chapter is trying to answer? Or — along the curiosity lines — What question do I have that this chapter might help answer? Repeat this process with each subsection of the chapter, as well, turning each heading into a question.
3. Read: As your child reads the text, he should look for the answers to the questions that were identified. This is what is meant by active reading and requires focus anc concentration.
4. Recite/Write: Have your child retell or write down the answers to the questions. It is important that he uses his own words and does not just copy a phrase from the book. We tend to remember our own (active) connections better than ones given to us (passive).
5. Review: Finally ask your child questions about the written piece or have your child ask himself questions. This is important to do right away. Have your child re-read sections that were not recalled.
Again, the SQ3R strategy has been around for a long time, but it does provide the structure and organization that the brain needs in order to be most effective with the reading process.

QAR

Another basic and brain-compatible comprehension strategy is sometimes overlooked ( Raphael, 1986). The strategy is Question Answer Relationships (QARs).
The QAR strategy enables your child to think about her own thinking (meta-cognition). Once your child is aware of how to approach specific comprehension questions, she becomes much more confident and successful. We cannot assume that all children already know how to do this.

The QAR strategy addresses the four ways to approach answering questions:

•Right There: Children learn that the information needed to answer a question is “right there” in the text.
•Think and Search: Children learn that the information from the text must be put together in order to answer the question. They have to think about the implications of the question and search through the text for information that can be combined to reflect the inference, interpretation or conclusion derived from the thinking and searching.
•The Author and Me: Children learn that information and ideas from the text have to be put together with information and ideas they already hold in their memory, and drawn from context schema (prior knowledge).
•On My Own: Children learn they can refine, extend, elaborate or expand on ideas that are stipulated by the text material.

Again, sometimes we assume that children know how to look at questions in this manner. My experience proves that assumption wrong. As an elementary school principal I supported the use of this strategy beginning in the primary grades. We used to have huge QAR letters posted in the lower grades with illustrations of a book for “Right There” and “Think and Search” and pictures of people for “The Author and Me” and “On My Own.”

Reciprocal Reading

Another excellent comprehension strategy (A.S. Palinscar and A. Brown, 1984). This strategy requires one person to serve as the leader .The leader reads the selected written piece in advance. You can serve as the leader of the session first and then allow your child to assume a leadership role. The leader sets the stage for discussing each one of the four objectives. The four objectives are:

1.Prediction: Children hypothesize what the author will discuss in the text. To do this successfully, they must activate the relevant background knowledge they already possess. Children learn that headings, sub-headings and questions contained in the text are useful ways to anticipate what might occur next.
2.Question Generating: Children become more involved in the reading activity and the text when they are pondering and answering questions.
3.Summarizing: This excellent tool helps integrate the information presented in the text.
4.Clarifying: This emphasizes the need to read for understanding. Poor readers get in the habit of just saying words correctly and do not follow through to clear up the meanings of certain words and concepts.

After the predicting and question generating segments are completed your child will then read the material. Following the reading a discussion takes place in reference to summarizing the information that is presented in the written piece and clarifying terms and phrases that are not clear. These are necessary steps that are not always followed as children and adults read for pleasure and information.
In my experience, the reciprocal approach has worked very well from grade 3 and upward. Some students who are not good active readers begin to develop the good habits of prediction, question generating, summarizing and clarification from the interaction with their peers.

GRASP (Guided Reading and Summarizing Procedure)

You can help your child with summarizing information through the guided reading and summarizing procedure. Any type of reading material will work for this activity.
Start out by selecting story to read. Figure out how much you want to read at a time. For first and second graders it is a good idea to have them read orally. You can start out by selecting a paragraph or two to read and then gradually increase the lengths of the passages that are to be read in one sitting. Introduce the story by making predictions as to what the passage is about and try to come up with some questions that might be answered in the passage. Once the passage has been read by your child, ask him to turn the book face down.
Now it is time to ask your child to tell you about what they remembered about the passage. You should write down their responses. (It is a good idea to keep a record of your child’s responses. It will be interesting to see how the responses change over time and with practice.)

At this point, it is a good idea to have your child re-read the passage to see if there is additional information that needs to be mentioned. You can then ask your child to identify the main points that were made in the passage and write these down on chart paper or on a note pad that your child can see.
Now, ask your child to identify any subordinate points and place them under the appropriate main points. You and your child are now ready to write a summary of the passage based on the main and subordinate points. You may even want to take a short break (a protein snack would be a good idea) and then come back to the passage and possibly revise the sentences a bit. Have your child read the summary that you wrote together and then move on to the next passage.

You Know Your Child

You may not wish to use all of the seven comprehension strategies. Use the ones that will work best for your child. You may have to try a few out initially and then you may stick to two or three that work very well. Remember that all children are unique. The brain also likes different approaches so you can change things up a bit when you sense that things are becoming routine. For example, you may only what to use the “What If” strategy once in a while to add a little spice to the tutoring sessions and you may use “SQ3R” daily. Just go with what works best and be confident that you know your child!

Jim Gamble

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