I was working with a fifth grader the other day. He read a passage and needed to answer questions about it in writing. One question asked, “What is the value of doing X?” He went back through the passage, turned to me and said, “It doesn’t say.”
“Yes, it does say,” I responded.
He scanned again. “No, it doesn’t.”
I pointed to the paragraph containing the answer.
He read it again and shrugged.
“What are you looking for?” I asked to be sure he understood the question.
“I’m looking for a sentence that says ‘The value of doing X is . . .’ and it’s not there.”
I “translated” the paragraph for him, pointing out what the value of doing X was, according to the passage.
“Well, why don’t they just say so?”
“Because they are trying to get you to think.”
“Well, I wish they’d just tell me.”
I see many kids like this one, unaccustomed to understanding a passage well. They can operate at the “knowledge” level just fine, but can’t make that giant step up to “understanding” or “comprehending.” They can’t “translate” an idea into a form required by a question.
What can a parent or teacher do to help such literal learners?
- Start with a comfortable reading passage for the student, such as a fairy tale. Read it together. Ask questions, starting with literal, knowledge-level questions like “What is the name of the girl in the passage?” “Little Red Riding Hood.” “Where is she going?” “To her grandmother’s house.”
- Then ask questions at the understanding level. “Why is Goldilocks bringing her grandmother food?” “The grandmother is hungry.” “Yes, but why is she hungry?” “I don’t know.” “Look at the picture. It shows a skinny white-haired woman in bed.” “She can’t get out of bed.” “And why might that be?” “She’s old.” “Most old people don’t stay in bed.” “She’s sick?” “Maybe.” “But it doesn’t say she’s sick.” “No, but why would an old grandmother stay in bed and need someone to bring her food?” “Oh.” “So why is Goldilocks bringing her grandmother food?” “Because the grandmother is probably sick and can’t get up to cook.”
By fifth grade students need to expect that answers won’t be found word-for-word the way a question is worded. Students need to realize they must bring their own knowledge to a reading passage.