“Okay, son. It’s 3pm. Time for reading. Get your books, I’m going to set the timer!”
Your child drags his feet away from the snacks and pulls out a thick, pictureless book from his backpack. Nice, you think to yourself with satisfaction, that looks like a serious chapter book!
He settles down onto the sofa and starts thumbing through his book. You settle down at your computer and click away while he reads away. Getting those 20 minutes in of required reading every day isn’t so hard, right? But here’s the thing: A compliant, quiet kid in front of a thick book does not mean useful reading is happening. Here are the telltale signs your child is just enduring those minutes without processing many words at all:
Sure, if you have plans to take him swimming with friends in an hour, then time may feel like it’s passing slowly for him while he’s reading… but if these are regular characteristics of your child during silent reading time, it wouldn’t hurt to check in and see if this book is the right level for him.
When I first started teaching, I was surprised to find how frequently students chose books that were too hard for them. Some chose them because their friends recommended it and liked it, and they wanted to try it out. Some chose the too-difficult book because they wanted to look like they were reading at a higher level than they actually were able to. Others chose it just because the title or picture on the front cover looked interesting, with little regard to whether or not they could actually understand the text. Choosing a “just right” book merits a couple mini-lessons all its own in the beginning of the year!
As a teacher, I always made it a point to keep an eye on what books my students were reading. If I saw any of the telltale signs listed above (boredom, disinterest) or simply knew that a book was beyond a particular students’ reading level, I’d pull them back for a quick check to make sure they really picked a “just right” book. Most often, the book was indeed too hard. Ideally, though, it doesn’t take a teacher or an adult to tell a young reader that a book is too difficult for him. Ideally, a child will be able to tell himself that a text is too hard within the first page of reading it. Many students do pick up on this quickly, but others won’t pause to think about it unless I point it out for them. These students are weak in monitoring their comprehension: they don’t get that they are not getting it!
What does it mean to monitor comprehension?
Monitoring comprehension is a basic reading strategy that every good reader does. It is basically having the awareness to realize when you do and do not understanding the text. Lack of understanding could be due to many reasons, but the first step is to be able to take a step back and say, “Hm. I don’t get it!”
Admitting it is the first step.
The next step is to apply strategies to improve comprehension. This can include any of the following:
How do I teach this reading strategy to my child?
As stated above, there are a basically two parts to this reading strategy:
1. Know when you do and do not get it.
2. Apply fix-it strategies when you don’t get it.
Here is an example of how I might teach the first part: knowing when you do and do not get it.
Teacher: Today we’re going to read a story called The Wretched Stone, by one of my favorite authors, Chris Van Allsburg. This is a really interesting story, and I want to make sure you understand what is happening while we’re reading! Let’s look at the front cover. What do you see?
(At this point, we would have a conversation talking about the sea, boats, and sailors, where I am simply activating background knowledge to help the new information in the story to make more sense and stick better once we start reading. We’ll cover that strategy more in another post.)
It sounds like you know a lot about boats and sailing! Thanks for sharing. Sometimes, when we’re reading, some things don’t make sense to us, or we don’t always get what’s going on. That’s okay– it happens to everyone. The important thing is to first NOTICE when you don’t get it, though! Good readers don’t act like they always understand things– they know when they don’t understand something, and they try to fix it! This is called monitoring comprehension. Today I’m going to show you what it looks like to notice when you just don’t get it. I want you to also start to notice when you don’t get it, and let me know when that happens, okay?
2. Model the strategy:
Teacher: Let’s begin the story. “May 8: We finished bringing supplies aboard early this morning. At midday we left on the tide and found a fresh breeze just outside the harbor. It is a good omen that our voyage has begun with fair winds and a clear sky.”
Hmm, that’s interesting. I think I get what’s happening- this is a journal entry, and they are getting reading to go on a sailing trip. But I’m confused when it says, “It is a good omen that our voyage has begun with fair winds and a clear sky.” I’m confused because I don’t know what omen means. Did anybody else have some confusion around that word? Ah, yes. So here is a good example of noticing that we don’t get something. A good strategy is probably to look up the word, but for now, I will keep on reading. Today we are just focusing on noticing when we don’t get it.
May 9: The first mate, Mr. Howard, has brought together a fine crew. These men are not only good sailors, they are accomplished in other ways.
Hm, I’m not really sure what’s happening here. So it seems like there is another person, called a first mate, who put together the ship’s crew. It says they are accomplished in other ways. I don’t really get that, but I do know what an accomplishment is, so maybe this means they have many accomplishments besides sailing. Let’s keep reading.
I would continue in this fashion for the next page or two, reading a section and pointing out spots where I could talk about how I don’t understand something. At some point, I would probably “accidentally” skip a line and then do a double-take and think out loud, “Hey, that sounded really awkward and didn’t really make sense. Hm. I wonder what happened… oh! I see. I skipped a line!” After I feel I have clearly shown them how I notice my breakdowns in comprehension, then I invite them to start raising their hands (or, if you have just one child, they can just speak out) when they come across something that doesn’t completely make sense to them.
3. Share the strategy.
We talk about each instance, first just pointing out that there was something that didn’t make sense, and probably following up with a short discussion on why it didn’t make sense. But don’t focus too much on the latter part, tempting though it may be. Going into more detail of the why I don’t get it and what to do about it is for another lesson. The whole point of mini-lessons is to have a very focused point and focused lesson. For this first lesson, I am just focusing on noticing that I don’t get it. We can talk practical fix-it strategies later. Keep it simple.
Keep reading and let the child share parts that don’t make sense, patting them on the back for simply noticing and acknowledging the breaks in their understanding. They will feel more comfortable admitting they don’t understand it when you make it clear that it’s okay and normal to not understand. They will feel more comfortable asking for help in the future if you make it clear that you appreciate knowing when they don’t understand something. Do not belittle them or embarrass them for not knowing something– that will completely shut down this lesson and instead push them to keep trying to pretend they get it when they really don’t. This will hurt them in the long run!
4. Independent practice.
In a classroom setting, I would dismiss students to work on their own after a few minutes of this. They would go to their seats, take out their independent reading books, and probably use sticky notes to mark spots when they noticed they didn’t get it: “What does amusing mean?” or “Why are there a lot of plants in the picture, but the author says there is no fruit?” or “What does it mean if something has an odor that is sweet and pleasant?” or simply, “I don’t get it.”
At home with my child, we would probably finish reading through the book together, and I would have my child point out all the instances she doesn’t get something. If this is a book that my child can read almost independently, then I’d let her read it and encourage her to point out her breaks in comprehension. If it were a text too advanced for her, I would read it and ask her to pause me whenever she wanted to point out her breaks in comprehension.
If your child is a pro at noticing when she doesn’t get it, great! We’ve cleared the first hurdle. The next step is to teach fix-it strategies to improve comprehension, which I listed earlier. Each of these strategies should get its own lesson and own day (or more) of instruction. At home, I would wait until the next day to talk about the first strategy of going back to and rereading.
Each lesson would get the same format of: 1) Introduce the strategy, 2) Model the strategy, 3) Share the strategy, 4) Child practices strategy independently. This is true of almost all of my lessons in reading and writing. Again, here are the major lesson objectives I would try to cover for the reading strategy of monitoring comprehension:
Here is a realistic “weekly lesson plan” of how I might teach my own child at home who is struggling to monitor comprehension:
Day 1: This is the lesson I wrote in great detail above. First, introduce the concept of monitoring comprehension. Model what it looks like to monitor comprehension, and simply notice that you don’t get it. Do shared practice of monitoring comprehension together with a shared book, reading together.
Day 2: Choose a slightly easier book, and review the concept of monitoring comprehension. Remind him that we’re still focusing on simply noticing that you didn’t get it. Ask your child to read the book out loud on his own (independent practice) and ask him to point out places when he doesn’t understand a word, lines, or section. You can still sit by him and provide support while he does this. By the end of day 2, he’ll probably have this down pretty well. You are ready to move onto fix-it strategies.
Day 3: Introduce concept of fix-it strategies: things you can do to improve comprehension. Talk about the specific strategy of going back to reread. Find a good book to read together where you can model that process for him. Once you’ve sufficiently modeled it, then do shared practice. Once he seems to have a good understanding of that strategy and seems comfortable with going back and rereading when something doesn’t make sense, then let him read the text on his own (independent practice) and continue to practice the strategy.
Day 4: Introduce concept of the second fix-it strategy: looking up a word. Find a good book to read together where you can model that process for him, pausing when there’s a difficult word, looking it up, and making sense of the sentence. Once you’ve sufficiently modeled it, then do shared practice. Tip: Help him look up the word quickly the first couple times, or let him use an online dictionary. As important as dictionary skills are, we don’t want to complicate the process by adding in too many factors at once. Working on dictionary skills can be for another time. For now, focus on one thing at a time, and right now, that is the strategy of fixing comprehension by looking up a word. Once he seems to have a good understanding of that strategy and seems comfortable with pausing to look up unknown words, then let him read the text on his own (independent practice) and continue to practice the strategy.
Day 5: Introduce the third fix-it strategy: keep on reading. Talk about the specific strategy of reading on in the text to find answers or clues. Find a good book to read together where you can model that process for him. Textbooks are pretty handy for this. Once you’ve sufficiently modeled it, then do shared practice. Once he seems to have a good understanding of that strategy and seems comfortable with reading on to look for something to resolve understanding, then let him read the text on his own (independent practice) and continue to practice the strategy.
Day 6: Introduce the fourth fix-it strategy: restate the text in your own words. Talk about the specific strategy of restating information in your own words to deepen understanding. I often mention how I do this when I’m chatting with friends, to make sure I am understanding them correctly, too. It’s a very important life skill! The main difference is the book won’t confirm that you’re right or wrong, but it’s still good to practice. Find a good book to read together where you can model that process for him. Once you’ve sufficiently modeled it, then do shared practice, encouraging him to restate certain main points in his own words. Once he seems to have a good understanding of that strategy and seems comfortable with restating the meaning of text in his own words, then let him read the text on his own (independent practice) and continue to practice the strategy. This will be a challenging task for many students, but it’s a great skill to work on! It might be a lesson for Days 6-10, or something that you keep integrating into future readings together.
Each day is starting to sound repetitive.
Did you notice that the Introduce-Model-Share-Independent Practice routine was happening again and again? Yup. And that’s a good thing. Kids don’t need you to keep the format fresh and fun and new and exciting all the time. As a matter of fact, when it comes to learning, kids oftentimes thrive on routine and consistency. Learning the new reading strategy is plenty of new stuff for your child to chew on. It helps them to follow them same lesson format every day, so they know what to expect and have fewer new things to adjust to. They can focus all their brainpower on the one new strategy you are focusing on for the day, rather than getting overwhelmed with all the new approaches you might want to try with them.
It doesn’t get boring, either. The apprenticeship model of learning has been happening for a very, very long time. You know, blacksmiths and their apprentices, bakers and their apprentices, teachers and their student teachers. It works well, and is a natural way for humans to learn. We watch, we imitate, we gradually grow more independent at doing it ourselves. Your children will also thrive with this model of learning. You will soon find yourself teaching all sorts of things with this model. It will become so intuitive you will wonder how you ever just expected them to know how to do something without having allowed them to observe it being done first.
Monitoring comprehension is one of the many strategies good readers use when reading. If your child isn’t adept at it yet, work with them to grow more cognizant of their thinking and to catch those breaks in comprehension sooner than later. Encourage them to be open when they don’t understand it, and provide them with the tools to improve understanding when it’s within their reach. If they are finding that they are not understanding most of the text on a page, or they’re stopping every other sentence to say, “I don’t get it,” then the whole book is probably too hard and it’s time to find a new (and easier) one.
Your child is lucky to have you reading this and investing in their future as readers! As you grow more familiar with these reading strategies in the series, you will probably even begin to see yourself differently as reader. You might even impress yourself with how many strategies you naturally already use! My hope is that you can pass these on to your children and help them to grow a lifelong love of reading!
Allsburg, Chris Van. The Wretched Stone. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991. Print.
“Seven Strategies to Teach Students Text Comprehension.” Reading Rockets. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 July 2015. <http://www.readingrockets.org/article/seven-strategies-teach-students-text-comprehension>.