Increase comprehension by using the SQ3R method

Ever hear of the SQ3R* (or SQRRR) reading method? SQ3R is a method of reading which improves comprehension.

  • S means Survey headlines, subheadings, bold and italicized print, and graphics before reading a passage.  Also read the introduction and conclusion.  From them, develop an understanding of what the text concerns before you read.
  • Q means Question.  Write down questions you have about what you will be reading.  One way is to turn the headlines and subheadings into questions.
  • R means Read.  Answer the questions you asked while you read.  Take notes, highlight, and draw diagrams to help you understand and remember what you read.
  • R means Recite.  Say out loud what you have learned from your reading.  Use your own words.  This process helps move the information into your long-term memory.
  • R means Review.  Save your annotated text or notes and study them many times. 

SQ3R has evolved into SQ4R for some readers, who suggest the fourth R should be Rewrite.  Write a summary of the passage in the margins, on post-it notes, on notebook paper or on computer/tablet/phone. 

Can this method be used with young readers?  Absolutely.  If you are reading a book about whales to your preschooler, for example, first survey the cover, read the title, page through the book, and look at the pictures.  Ask what the book is about and what the youngster hopes to learn from the book.  Then read the book.  Ask the child to tell you what the book said.  Later that day and the next day, again ask the child to tell what the book was about or to draw a picture of what the book was about.

*SQ3R was developed by Francis P. Robinson and described in his 1946 book Effective Study.

Which is better—online or in-hand books—for little kids?

According to former professor of linguistics at American University Naomi Baron, we must consider two components of reading, the physical medium and the child’s mind-set, to say which is better.

Professor Baron recommends using physical reading materials with young children.  This is because a child often asks questions or makes comments to the adult reading the book.  The child is less likely to pause to speak when seeing a book online.  Online materials sometimes have ads, pop-ups or such visually stimulating material that the child is distracted from the meaning of the material. 

Dr. Baron says that because children use online modes for games and socialization, they are used to absorbing material on tablets or cell phones effortlessly.  When they see a book online, they expect to understand it just as effortlessly.  They are unprepared for deep engagement with online reading materials.

For more information, see Dr. Baron’s new book, How We Read Now: Strategic Choices for Print, Screen and Audio.

Should students repeat a grade to overcome the “covid slide”?

This week I received an email from a mother who wants me to tutor her daughter in reading.  The child has been attending kindergarten online and has not learned as much as her big sisters had after one semester.

From what I read in the news, many parents have this same concern.  Check out these headlines:

  • Students are falling behind in online school. Where’s the COVID-19 ‘disaster plan’ to catch them up?  —USA Today
  • Research Shows Students Falling Months Behind During Virus Disruptions—The New York Times
  • The Results Are In for Remote Learning: It Didn’t Work—Wall Street Journal

What is a parent to do?  How about opting to have their children repeat the grade they are in now?

Florida State Senator Lori Berman has introduced a bill (SB200) to allow parents the choice of having their children repeat the 2020-2021 school year during the 2021-2022 school year.  Usually this choice is made by school systems.  The bill passed out of the education committee with a unanimous vote on Wednesday, February 10.

Florida Governor Ron deSantis endorsed such an idea in the in spring 2020, but he has yet to make it policy.  “Parents may, at their discretion, choose to keep their child in the same grade for the 20-21 school year,” he said many months ago. 

But the Florida Department of Education stepped back from the governor’s blanket endorsement.  “Promotion decisions should be made in consultation with parents, teachers and school leaders based on the students’ classroom performance and progress monitoring data.”

Some Florida principals have opposed the idea of parents, not educators, making the decision to repeat a year of schooling.

If the bill in enacted, parents of elementary and middle grade students would have until June 1 to formally request that their child be retained.  School systems could not negate this request.  Students who are retained would need to complete the 2021-2022 school year in the retained grade even if parents later change their minds.

The bill does not include high school students because, according to Berman, those students have many teachers monitoring their performance and because those students are old enough to advocate for themselves if they fall behind.  Also, assessing age eligibility for athletics makes repeating a year more difficult for high school students.

 Florida school went online last spring as fears of the covid virus spread.  In the fall some schools opened for in-school learning, but many remained online until this past month.

School systems might oppose SB200 for budgetary reasons.  It costs more to educate a student for 13 years than it does for 12 years.  School systems prefer to hire teacher specialists—in reading and ESL, for example—to work with children who have fallen behind.

What do you think?  Should parents, not educators, decide if their children should repeat this school year?

Understanding content–the later part of reading comprehension

Reading comprehension requires a child to understand two broad skills according to The Simple View of Reading, proposed in 1986.**  Those skills include recognizing words (usually through organized phonics instruction) and understanding the content of language.  In our last blog we talked about word recognition.  Today let us discuss language comprehension.

Understanding content depends on four elements:

  • Understanding vocabulary,
  • Having a wide and somewhat sophisticated knowledge base,
  • Understanding sentence structures, and
  • Understanding figurative language.

In kindergarten, first and second grades, children focus on building phonics skills so they can code and decode words.  In third grade, children’s focus shifts to understanding the content of written language.  This is the time when children recognize as sight words many of the words they have worked for two or three years to code and decode.  With less thought going into deciphering letter sounds and combining them into words, children have more energy to focus on understanding what those words, phrases and sentences mean.

By third and fourth grade, children have mastered the basics of phonics, including words of many syllables.  They recognize letter patterns quickly if the reading is grade appropriate, though they still struggle with technical language, subject specific vocabulary, and words of foreign derivation.  They rely on their understanding of prefixes, root words, and suffixes as well as context to figure out the meaning of new words.  They might reread a passage when they realize they don’t understand it.  They might look up words in dictionaries.  They might predict, summarize and conclude.  They might scan headlines, subheadings, captions and graphics to gain understanding.

Until third and fourth grade, most students’ oral language skills—using precise words, speaking in complicated sentences and using irony, for example—outstrip their reading skills.  But in third and fourth grades that gap narrows.  A child’s comprehension depends far less on decoding skills and more on understanding a wide vocabulary, having a sophisticated understanding of the environment and understanding how sentences, paragraphs and various genres of writing are constructed.

Sometime in late middle school, children’s oral language converges with their reading comprehension.*  Students gain new vocabulary and understanding of their environment more from reading than from conversation.  At this time of life, it is important for students to read widely and often to increase their vocabulary and knowledge base, to understand how ideas are structured and to appreciate how figurative language enriches comprehension.

This understanding of reading skills—a combination of word deciphering skills and comprehension skills—was proposed in 1986 by Gough and Tunmer.** They called this understanding The Simple View of Reading (SVR).

*Biemiller, A.  (1999).  Language and reading success. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.

**Gough PB, Tunmer PB. Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education. 1986;7:6–10. doi: 10.1177/074193258600700104.

Four stages in learning to read

The saying goes, in kindergarten through third grade, a child learns to read (think phonics); in third and later grades, a child reads to learn (think comprehension).*

But practically, what does this mean?

Child with arms stretched out at his sides, forming the letter T.

By the end of kindergarten:

  • Students can recognize almost all letters, upper and lower case.
  • Some students can state the sound represented by an individual consonant letter, and they can recognize closed (short) vowel sounds.
  • Some students can read consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words.
  • Most students cannot yet read open (long) vowel patterns such as oa and ight.
  • Many students rely on first and last letters in words to sound words out.
  • Students rely on pictures to help figure out words.

By the end of first grade:CVCC twin consonants

  • Students can decode one-syllable CVC words, including those with blends.
  • Students can decode one-syllable words ending in a silent e.
  • Students can read one-syllable open (long) vowel words like he and my.
  • Students can read one-syllable r-controlled words like star and dirt.
  • Students can read some one-syllable words with two-vowels like bee and boot.
  • Many students need to sound out common one-syllable words rather than recognizing them as sight words.
  • Students depend less on pictures and context clues to decipher words.

By the end of second grade:children looking at picture of Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln

  • Increasingly, students are able to decode two- and three-syllable words if those words follow rules of phonics.
  • Students can decode words by separating familiar suffixes and prefixes to find root words and then reassembling the parts.
  • Students recognize common letter patterns.

By the end of third grade:girl reading Junie B. Jones

  • Students have mastered decoding of words using phonics, including many multi-syllabic words.
  • Students recognize most common words by sight.
  • Students recognize word families and can use that knowledge to decipher new words.

This breakdown covers word recognition.  But there is another part of learning to read, namely, language comprehension.  We will discuss that in the next blog.

*Researcher Jeanne Chall (1983) first coined this idea.

See researchers Linnea Ehri (1991, 2005) and Spear-Swerling (2015) for more indepth discussion of reading stages.

Frustration in teaching remotely

As many teachers and students head back to their virtual classrooms this week, I’d like to share my experience learning Zoom and Google Docs, changing from a PDF to an editable format and teaching reading and writing to students ten miles and three time zones away.

In four words:  I have been overwhelmed.

Before the pandemic, I had used GoToMeeting with one student whose father set everything up for us.  That worked, in part because the father hovered nearby and anticipated his daughter’s and my needs.

But as I returned to teaching in November, after seven months of babysitting grandchildren, I struggled to learn Zoom.  For my first classes, my husband (my IT person) sat at my side off camera and slipped his hands on the keyboard from time to time to rescue me.  I couldn’t have done it without him.

For me, teaching via Zoom has been like my trying to teach English in Vulcan aboard the Starship Enterprise with Mr. Spock at my side.  I know the content, but grapple with how to use the technology.  For example,

  • If my student writes her homework in a workbook, how can I see her answers via Zoom? She can hold the workbook in front of the camera, but she might hold it too close or too far away or she might jiggle it.  With time, I learned how to solve this problem.  Her parents can scan her work before our lesson and send it to me as an email attachment which I can then open and share on Zoom.  It took me weeks to learn that.

 

  • And what if I want to scan information to send to my student as an email attachment? Before, I would make a photocopy and bring it with me to a lesson.  Scanning and inputting is on my to-learn list.

 

  • If I want to see what my student is writing by hand, how can I? Her writing surface is out of camera range.  I learned that if I ask her to reread the corrected writing, I know if she changes it.

 

  • For some students, I can see only the tops of their heads. Asking a student to sit up works until the student slumps a minute later.  I have asked parents to adjust the camera angle, and that helps, but some children deliberately hide.

 

  • One of my students is hyperactive, sliding in his chair, contorting his body, standing, stretching, walking around and darting off camera. He even falls asleep.  When I teach in person, I use eye contact or a tap on the desk to engage him.  But via Zoom, if he is not looking at the camera, I have only my voice.  I am still working on this problem.

 

  • Many of my students are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Sometimes I ask my students to bring their parents to the camera at the end of our classes. When I try to explain homework expectations or student behavior to the parents, they nod, smiling without saying a word, and I know I have not made my message clear.  I have learned to recap a lesson in writing immediately after the lesson concludes.  I include the homework assignment and any other work a student might need—like a prewriting organizer the student worked on.  I send everything as an email to a parent’s email.

These are small problems.  Bigger ones are caused by my lifetime of relying on my husband to handle online technology.  On Monday, for example, I kept losing Google Docs I had downloaded and opened, ready to revise with a student.  My husband pointed out something basic that I was unaware of:  At the top of my screen are tabs for documents I unload from the internet.  At the bottom of my screen are browser and application icons.  Duh.

I am writing about my frustration using virtual technology because many of your children’s teachers are going through the same ordeal.  They were trained in math or reading, not in how to teach remotely.  They were trained to walk the classroom to engage students, but they were not trained to monitor two dozen children on a computer monitor, peering at faces the size of postage stamps.  Older teachers, who are experts in their subjects, are wrestling with a technology learning curve.  What might seem so basic to a thirty-year-old who was born with a smart phone on her hip seems odd and even frightful to a veteran teacher.

Two months teaching in this new mode is not enough for me to master it.  Nor is a semester for many of your children’s teachers.  My New Year’s resolution is to forgive myself for my ignorance and to practice, practice, practice Zoom and Google Docs and any other technology that will help me be a better teacher.

As Mr. Spock said, “Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them.”  I have no wish either, but we all must to get through this pandemic and beyond.

Recognizing POV takes practice

Point of view (POV) is a difficult concept for little children to grasp.  If you are reading a picture story to a child, and you ask who is telling the story, the child might say, “You are, Nana.”  The child is right—you are reading the story—but the child is also wrong—you are not the narrator in the story.

I find that using many examples, and repeating those examples over and over until the light bulb goes on, is a good way to teach POV.  But first of all, a child needs to understand the various possibilities for POV.

  • First person—The person telling the story refers to himself as “I” or “me” and refers to groups that he belongs to as “we” and “us.” Autobiographies and memoirs are told in first person.
  • Second person—The person talking speaks to you, and uses “you” as a pronoun. TV commercials often use the second person.  (“Are your feet hurting?  You should buy XYZ foot cream.”)  Almost no literature is written in second person.
  • Third person limited—The person telling the story knows the internal thoughts of just one person. Readers can hear the thoughts of just one person.
  • Third person omniscient—The person telling the story—we don’t know who it is—knows the internal thoughts of more than one person.

Some rules to make it easier:

  • Eliminate dialog before trying to determine POV. Cross out direct quotes or internal dialog (a person talking to herself) and analyze what is left.
  • If both first and third person pronouns are used(I told my brother I didn’t like his crying), the POV is first person.

Here are some examples meant for third graders or older students.

  1. It was great living with Jerry Barker as his cab horse.  Not all horses were taken care of like I was.  I was never overworked and I was clean all the time.
  2. I won Dribble at jimmy Fargo’s birthday party.  All the other guys got to take home goldfish in little plastic bags.  I won him because I guessed there were three hundred and forty-eight jelly beans in Mrs. Fargo’s jar.
  3. At Aunt Grace and Uncle Edwin’s the air was hot and stuffy and the furniture was hot and stuffy and Aunt Grace and Uncle Edwin were stuffy.
  4. Every clear day Gawaine rose at dawn and went out to kill dragons.  The Headmaster kept him at home when it rained, because he said the wood were damp and unhealthy at such times.
  5. [Mr. Popper] had never been out of Stillwater.  Not that he was unhappy.  He had a nice little house of his own, a wife whom he loved dearly, and two children, named Janie and Bill.  Still, it would have been nice, he often thought, if he could have seen something of the world before he met Mrs. Popper and settled down.
  6. They were all so happy they could hardly speak at first.  They just looked with shining eyes at those lovely Christmas presents.  But Laura was happiest of all.  Laura had a rag doll.
  7. That night I thought about Will’s advice.  Then I had a great idea.  I’d look for pet-sitting jobs.  That would show I was responsible!
  8. Andy didn’t hear him.  He was staring at the list.  Root hairs?  He didn’t even see any roots.  Then he thought of the picture in his science book.  Duh.  Roots were under the ground.
  9. I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater I the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
  10. My name is Junie B. Jones.  The B stands for Beatrice.  Except I don’t like Beatrice.  I just like B and that’s all.

Answers

  1. first person POV as told by Black Beauty, a horse, in Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
  2. first person POV as told by Peter Hatcher in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume.
  3. third person omniscient POV as told by an unknown narrator in Half Magic by Edward Eager
  4. third person omniscient POV as told by an unknown narrator in The Fifty-First Dragon by Heywood Broun
  5. third person limited as told by an unknown narrator in Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater
  6. third person limited POV as told by an unknown narrator in Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  7. first person POV as told by Teddy, a boy, in The Green Dog by Melinda Luke
  8. third person limited as told by an unknown narrator in What Homework? By Linda Hayward
  9. first person as told by Alexander, a boy, in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
  10. first person as told by Junie B in Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus

 

DISTAR and the Initial Teaching Alphabet–a system of teaching reading that didn’t catch on

Ever hear of DISTAR?  The Direct Instructional System for Teaching and Remediation—DISTAR for short—is a phonics-based reading program developed in the 1960s.

Its advantages are

  • Learning goes fast at first.
  • One letter corresponds to only one sound.
  • It uses a one-to-one logic system little children intuitively understand.

With these advantages, why is DISTAR not widely used?

  • DISTAR uses a unique alphabet called the Initial Teaching Alphabet, not the standard English alphabet.
  • Teachers need to know and consistently use this alphabet for the system to work.
  • Most parents have no experience with this alphabet, so they cannot help their children without instruction.
  • Eventually, students must be weaned from this alphabet to the standard English alphabet, causing confusion.
  • Few books are written using this alphabet.
  • Children who try to use this alphabet to handwrite can wind up with impossible-to-read handwriting.

Initial Teaching Alphabet is shown below.

 

As you can see, some letters are the same as standard English letters, including 19 consonants and the five vowels used as closed or short vowels.  Open or long vowels are written as two vowels joined.  Digraphs, less used vowel sounds and certain consonant sounds are written as either double letters or single letters.  But those letter shapes do not correspond to standard English letter shapes.

The Initial Teaching Alphabet was developed in the 1960s by Sir James Pitman.  He hoped the alphabet could help children learn to read easier than using a traditional alphabet.

This alphabet uses a distinct typeface developed specifically for it.  All letters are considered lower case.  When capitals are needed, a larger version of the lowercase letter is used.

Because children needed to learn two alphabet systems in the primary grades if they learned using the Initial Teaching Alphabet and DISTAR , these systems were not widely used.  During the 1960s, the teaching of reading was switching from a phonetic approach to a whole language approach, another reason for DISTAR’s and the Initial Teaching Alphabet’s lack of support.

Today research shows that a phonetic approach is the best way to teach young children to read.

 

How to teach beginning compound words

After students learn to read two- and three-letter words (consonant-vowel-consonant or CVC words), many are ready to learn compound words.  Because compound words are longer, reading them makes students feel like they are making progress.

It is important to select the words you use carefully.  Many compound words are not CVCCVC words.  Some words the child should be able to decipher include those below.

backpack Batman bedbug
bobcat cannot catnap
catnip cobweb hatbox
hilltop hotdog hotrod
laptop pigpen pinup
sunset sunup zigzag

Let the child study a word for a few seconds.  Tell him the word has two little words in it.  If he cannot figure it out, tell him that the two little words come together in the middle of the long word.  If he still is stumped, put your fingers over the syllables, one at a time, and ask the child to sound out each part.  Then ask him to put both parts together.  If he has already forgotten the first syllable, do it again.

Techniques for teaching a young beginning reader

I learned to read when I was in first grade, when I was six years old going on seven.  But so many of the beginning readers I teach today are much younger.  Right now I am working with a five-year-old kindergartener, one of the youngest boys in his class.  Although he is bright and ready to learn to read, he is also fidgety and inattentive.

Maybe you are working at home during the pandemic with such a kindergartener?  How do you teach such a child without both you and he becoming frustrated?

The answer is to have multiple ways of teaching the same concept, so when attention wanes, you can try different approaches.

Suppose you are teaching blends at the beginning of short-vowel one-syllable words.  For such a child, I would schedule either multiple ten-minute lessons, or a thirty-minute lesson divided into three parts.  What could those parts include?

  • Review using lists for five minutes.  Reading lists of words is a good way to begin.  Reading lists is boring, so move on quickly.  If the words are printed in large type with lots of white space, that helps the words to look “friendly.”
  • Using flash cards make great reviews too.  They also can become boring quickly.
  • Making words of letter tiles covers a lot of words in a short amount of time.
  • Reading words on BINGO-like cards of words turns learning into fun.  Nine words per card (three words across by three words down) is few enough not to overwhelm the child.  Ask the student to cover a word when you pronounce it.  Then ask the child to pronounce the word and you cover it.  Pennies or tiny candies used as markers offer incentive to play this game.
  • Reading cartoons in workbooks can be fun.  The drawings attract the child, but sometimes they offer clues to words which the child does not sound out, so be careful.
  • Working on appropriate workbook pages from a supplementary series is another approach.
  • Having the child handwrite words reinforces them and improves printing skills.
  • “Writing” words in a dish of sand or sugar can seem more like fun  than learning.  I would use this type lesson at the end of the time period because other approaches might seem boring in comparison.
  • The same goes for online learning.  Often it is more attractive than “analog” methods.  But old-fashioned methods can target the child’s specific needs quicker.