Reading comprehension—taking meaning from printed words—is the goal of all reading. Before reaching this goal, independent readers need to advance through three other stages: recognizing that the 42 sounds in English are represented by 26 letters and combinations of letters; recognizing that arranging those letters or letter pairs with other letters creates words; and being able to say the words aloud (or in the mind) in such a way that the sounds represent the way people speak English. If children can do this, then children are in a position to comprehend what they read.
But even with all this good foundation, some children flounder when it comes to understanding what they read. There are many reasons. One of the most important, especially for ESL students and for culturally deprived children, is not understanding the vocabulary.
What can a parent or teacher do to jump start reading comprehension?
Ask the right kind of questions, according to reading expert Timothy Shanahan, a reading researcher whose views are highlighted in the February issue of Reading Rockets, an online source for excellent information about reading. (For a link, see the end of the blog.)
According to Dr. Shanahan, three kinds of questions should be asked to guide students into understanding a text:
- First, what are the important issues and important details raised by the reading selection? When Junie B. Jones misses the school bus, for example, the young reader should be questioned about why Junie B. didn’t want to take the school bus, not where she sat on the bus or who annoyed her. At the end of the story, why did Junie B. finally run outside to talk to the janitor? “Close reading”—the kind of reading demanded by the Common Core Standards—is not the same as trivial reading, according to Dr. Shanahan.
- Second, how has the author crafted the reading selection? These kinds of questions should be “text dependent.” That is, the child should be able to answer these questions only if the child has read the text. In Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, for example, what kind of mood is Alexander in when he wakes up? Why is that kind of mood important for the start of the story? Is Alexander the oldest child, the middle child or the youngest child? What difference does this make in the story?
- Since a part of crafting a reading selection is choosing the vocabulary to use, children should be asked about important vocabulary words. What is Australia? Where is Australia? What is a janitor? Why is he at school when the children have gone home?
- Third, what are the conclusions a reader can take from the story? What are the big ideas? What has Junie B. learned? Why are Junie B’s mother and teacher happy and not mad at the end of the story? Will Junie B. take the school bus in the future? Why does Alexander’s mother say again and again that some days are like that, even in Australia? Why does she say Australia and not a nearby city? Why does Alexander say that too, at the very end of the book? The purpose of these questions, according to Dr. Shanahan, is to interpret the text.
Dr. Shanahan recommends asking questions in the same order as the information is presented in the reading selection. He says it is not important to ask a particular number of questions, or that the number of questions from each of the three categories be equal. Always there should be some questions from each category asked, but sometimes one kind of question needs to be more thoroughly investigated than the other two. In particular, understanding how a writer crafted a reading selection will demand closer reading and might require more questions from a parent or teacher.
To read the posting on Reading Rockets, go to http://www.readingrockets.org/blog/examples-close-reading-questions. While you are there, sign up for the free monthly newsletter full of good ideas about teaching reading.