Category Archives: comprehension

Will avatars improve learning how to read?

What’s the future of reading?

Kindle pronunciation and definition pop-up

Already available on the Kindle, readers just touch unfamiliar words and a definition pop-up appears. (shown is an excerpt from “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett) CLICK on the picture for a link to the pronunciation.

A student who knows she has trouble reading long words creates an avatar—say an owl—to help her.  Then whenever she is reading online, the avatar would appear before every long word.  The avatar will help her to figure out long words–three and four syllable words.

The student could skip the avatar if she thinks she knows the word.  But if she  needs help, she could click on the owl and the owl might segment the word into syllables, making the word easier to deconstruct.  “Conversation” might show in a tiny screen as “con-ver-SA-tion.”

If the word does not follow the rules of phonics, the word might be shown as it is pronounced.  “Business” might appear as “BIZZ-ness.”

An option for the avatar to pronounce a word might also exist.  If a student can figure out “discreet” but not “discretion,” the avatar might pronounce the latter word.

With technology, we have the ability to personalize reading instruction, offering individual help for students.  Fast learners could have an avatar which acts as a high speed dictionary and thesaurus, allowing students to read difficult words without a word search.  Slower learners’ avatars could offer private tutoring help, allowing students to progress at their own slower pace with no one the wiser.  ESL students could get help with pronunciation.

Even older students reading advanced text books could use this help with the avatar segmenting the word, perhaps showing its root, pronouncing it, and defining it.  It could refer to previous pages in the book where the word is used the way an index does—all at the click of an avatar.

Sound farfetched?

With Google’s Alexa, some of this technology already exists.  If a student is stumped by a word, the student can spell the word and ask how to say it or what it means, and Alexa, after a split-second of “thinking.” would respond.

It’s only a matter of time before this kind of technology will be custom fit to meet individual students’ reading needs.

Guessing at long words means more phonics work is necessary

Suppose you have a reader  who  scores well on teacher assessments through first grade.  But then in second grade, she falters and starts guessing wrongly at new words.  What is going on?

It could be that this child has not learned the rules of phonics, or has learned the rudimentary rules but not the more advanced rules.  Instead, this student relies on a system of memorizing the look of words.

A child can get by for years using whole word guessing.  But then because of the sheer number of new long words, this system no longer sustains learning words with two, three and four syllables, words with prefixes and suffixes, words which must be sounded out first one way and then another to figure them out.

Research shows that a “whole language” approach to learning to read—that is memorizing new words—doesn’t work nearly as well as a system based on phonics.

I have worked with many students who can sound out one- and two-syllable words but who guess at longer words.  They say a word which begins the same way as the longer word but which doesn’t make sense.  They continue reading without stopping to consider that what they just said makes no sense, a clue that they are not comprehending what they read.

For example, suppose a sentence says, “The President issued an executive order.”  A student reads, “The President issued an exercise order.” In a split second the student searched her mind and retrieved “exercise,” a familiar word that begins the way the original word begins.

If you have a child who slurs longer words or who substitutes a word that begins the same way as the original word, this child probably needs advanced phonics work.  By advanced I mean learning rules for splitting long words into parts and for understanding how prefixes and suffixes attach to a root word and change the pronunciation and meaning of a root.

Even after children can read, they need to continue to work with phonics.

Diagrams help students read

“Scaffolding” is an educator term to describe teacher actions to help students  learn something new.  Scaffolding could be a series of questions meant to prepare students for what they are to read.  Scaffolding could be a timeline of a topic—say American history—to show where a subtopic—say the Civil War—fits into the big picture.

Scaffolding can also be simple diagrams to help visual learners, ESL students and students with comprehension issues understand what they are about to read or write.  These diagrams help students “see” the organization of a reading passage, or they help students “see” the structure of a paragraph or essay they are about to write, providing clarity.

For example, suppose a student needs to read a biography of Coretta Scott King.  To help the student see the organization of Mrs. King’s life, the teacher could draw a color-coded diagram of important activities in Mrs. King’s life.   Take a look.

This diagram is a simple visual pattern following Mrs. King’s life, more or less in chronological order.  With a little help, the student might see that Mrs. King’s life was private until she married; then her life became public as she worked with her husband on civil rights matters; then her life became even more public after his death as she led efforts to honor him and she spoke and wrote about ongoing civil rights matters.

If each box of the diagram is outlined in a color which corresponds to a portion of Mrs. King’s life or activities, the overall organization of the essay becomes clear.   Color-coding the information is important because it helps visual learners “see” how the reading passage breaks down into smaller chunks.

Whether it is Junie B. Jones’ fear of school buses or why polar bears face a bleak future, a diagram showing students what they will read before they read it allows them to see the big picture and each subtopic in the order in which they will read about it.  For children learning English or children with reading comprehension problems, a diagram can help them understand and remember what they read.

What’s the right age to read Harry Potter?

Harry Potter turns 31 tomorrow, July 31, a good time to ask if there is a right age for children to read the Harry Potter books.


When the books were first published, Harry was 11, and The Sorcerer’s Stone was more fantasy and magic—owls who delivered mail, a sorting hat, photos who talked—than menacing evil.  No need for concern.  But later books focused on evil and Harry’s fight to conquer it.  Much tougher reading.

The first book came out in 1997; the second in 1998; the third in 1999; the fourth in 2000; the fifth in 2003; the sixth in 2005; and the seventh in 2007.  Kids who read the first book when they were eight couldn’t read the fifth book until they were 18 and, presumably, mature enough to handle its content.

But today, voracious eight year olds can devour the series in a month or two.  Should they?

Here are some suggestions to consider if you have a child coming of age to read Harry Potter.

Book one:  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone  Lexile 880 (grades 5-6 reading level)

Harry turns 11.  Kids usually like to read about child characters who are slightly older than they are, so readers 8,  9, 10, and 11 years old (usually, third, fourth and fifth graders) might enjoy the first book.

However, a child’s reading level needs to be considered.  Some third graders are just starting chapter books while others have been reading chapter books since kindergarten.  Lagging readers might miss out on much of the meaning in Harry Potter books because of a lack of vocabulary or difficulty with inferences.  For them it might be better to wait.

Precocious readers, on the other hand, might be able to handle the first Harry Potter book with ease.  Two scary parts (a troll fight and a final fight between Harry and Voldemort) are a little scary, but not scarier than what children have been exposed to in the evening news or in video games.  They will miss some of the cultural differences between British writing and American writing (such as a cupboard in London being a closet in the US) but they will still understand what is important.

A child’s emotional resilience needs to be evaluated too.  If children suffer nightmares from TV shows or scary picture books, Harry Potter novels might not be a good choice until the children are older.  Or you could tell them when they start the first book that by the end of the last book Voldemort is dead and Harry is alive.  But that takes some of the suspense from the reading.

Book two:  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets  Lexile 940 (grades 5-6 reading level)

If a child can read book one, that child is ready for book two.  It has another fight scene at the end, but in other ways The Chamber of Secrets is a fanciful children’s story like book one.

Book three:   Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban  Lexile 880 (grades 5-6 reading level)

Ditto for books one and two except that the concept of a serial killer is introduced.  This concept foreshadows events in a later book.

Book four:  Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire  Lexile 880 (grades 5-6 reading level)

Two minor characters die in this book right in front of the reader’s eyes.  Also, children learn that some people cannot be trusted when one such person tries to lure Harry away.  The tone of this book is darker than the previous three, and for that reason precocious first and second graders probably shouldn’t read it, and sensitive third and fourth graders might not be emotionally ready. As a parent, you should be prepared to discuss the themes of death and trustworthiness with your children before you let them read book four.  I recommend waiting until fifth grade or middle school for this book.

Book five:   Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix  Lexile 950 (grades 5-7 reading level)

Someone Harry loves dies in this book.  Its tone is about the same as book four, that is, darker than in the first three books.  Harry is 15, indicating that readers should probably be almost that age too.  Postpone this book until middle grades for most children.

Book six:   Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Lexile 1030 (grades 6-8 reading level)

Book six is too tough for elementary school children and even for some middle grades children.  Harry, 16, must take on enormous responsibilities and he has no one to protect him.  No place is safe.  Another scary idea is that people exist who murder for the heck of it—not for a rational reason but just because. At the end of the book a pivotal character dies a terrible death at the hands of another pivotal character. Harry vows to avenge his friend’s death.

Book seven:   Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2  Lexile 980 (grades 6-7 reading level)

More deaths occur, but none so chilling as at the end of book six.  A reader who can stomach book six can stomach book seven.  Read during late middle grades or high school.

A few students in my class read quickly. What do I do to keep them on task?

You could prepare a quiz ahead of time on the reading selection. Let the quiz focus on the pages to be read.  Ask students to raise their hands when their reading is done, give them the quiz and watch.  Since the quick readers are often gifted students, ask questions not at the knowledge level, but at higher level thinking.  Ask inference questions too which everyone finds tough.  Ask students to write not only the answer but the page and paragraph or line number which proves their answers.  Collect and check the quizzes to know if the quick readers are skimming or truly gaining knowledge.

dhild running with book in hands

You could ask quick readers to outline the reading passage. If it is nonfiction, then the outline could name the way information is presented, such as chronological, problem and solution, cause and effect, or whatever is appropriate.  Then the students could write one sentence per paragraph describing the information in each paragraph.  If the reading selection is fiction, then the outline could state the type of writing, such as description, dialog, action, or whatever is appropriate.  Writing one sentence per paragraph might not work for fiction, but one sentence per scene or character might.  The point is for the students to prove to you that they comprehend what they have read.

You could ask students to choose five words from the passage that they don’t understand or that they think their classmates might not understand and use a classroom dictionary to look them up. Then students should write each word in sentences to show what the word means.

You could ask students to write one (or two or more) questions about the reading which require thoughtfulness to answer. Collect them, shuffle them, and then use them for class discussion or homework.

Notice that all of these assignments focus on the original reading selection and either extend or deepen students’ understanding of it.  Students need only paper and pen and possibly a dictionary to do the work.  If you have the extra assignments printed up to use as needed, you can pass the appropriate one out any time a student finishes early.  And most of the ideas work well in science and social studies classes as well as in ELA classes.

Of course you could always have early finishers take out books and read them.  If the books’ Lexile numbers fit the students’ reading levels, this works.  But it does not enrich the reading lesson, and it could cause resentment among the slower readers who might feel punished for their slower progress.

Work with kenesthetic learners’ strengths–their bodies

Most preschoolers and many school-aged children are kenesthetic learners, that is learners who learn best when they are physically active.

Should my child sit still when she learns to read?

Ask such a child what “humongous” means, and she will spread her arms as far as she can reach.  Ask a one-year-old what the dog in the picture is doing, and the child will get down on all fours and sniff.  Ask a child the difference between up and down, the child will stand on a chair and say, “up,” and then jump to the floor and say, “down.”

These children use as much of their bodies as possible not only to learn but to demonstrate that they have learned.

How do you know if a child is a kenesthetic learner?

Child sitting with legs outstretched, forming the letter L

  • The child loves sports—running, jumping, dancing, and tumbling.
  • The child seems more active than other children of the same age.
  • The child gestures while talking.
  • When the child sees a demonstration, the child wants to try it herself.
  • The child ends the day dirty—dirt under his fingernails, peanut butter in his hair, shoes scuffed—and he is oblivious.
  • When reading or writing, the child kneels on a chair, stands, sits on the desk, stands on the chair and leans over, and does all of these in the span of five minutes.
  • The child fidgets while learning—tapping her fingers, puffing up her cheeks, wriggling her shoulders—yet she pays attention.
  • The child loves Legos, puzzles, and toys that can be put together or taken apart.
  • The child has great hand-eye coordination, and can learn to control pencils, paint brushes, screw drivers and tools with ease.

dhild running with book in hands

How does such a learning style affect reading?  What can you do?

  • Since a kenesthetic learner often reads later than his peers, you might panic that he is lagging his classmates. It helps if you can accept that for this child, reading is a low interest activity.  You can reinforce what he is learning by connecting it to activities he loves.  “A is for arrow.  B is for basketball.  C is for coach.”
  • Because the child needs to move, let him swing his legs, stand, lie on the floor, or move a rubber ball from hand to hand as he listens to instruction.children moving letter tiles
  • Break up reading lessons into mini-lessons with in-between times when the child is free to move around. Use this time for the child to act out what he has learned.
  • Since the child likes to use his hands, teach using manipulatives such as letter tiles, pictures to sort by sound, parts of sentences cut into phrases, flashcards, and online work which includes using a mouse. Vary the writing instruments the child uses since the feel of some will attract the child to work.
  • Suggest that the child draw what he is learning. Have her fill in boxes and use arrows to show relationships.
  • Use repetitive physical activity to deepen learning. Throw a ball back and forth while spelling new words.  Take a walk while discussing subjects and predicates.  Move magnetized words into sentences on the refrigerator while shifting weight in a dancing rhythm.  Draw mind webs while reading to show comprehension.
  • Teach a hard concept after physical activity.

My middle grader needs to read Romeo and Juliet next fall. It is so HARD to understand. How can I help?

Reading Shakespeare is reading a foreign language to 21st Century English speaking people who struggle with 400 years of changes in pronunciation, meaning, and even the existence of many words.

Reading a children’s version of a classic can help establish the main ideas and character relationships.

Even so, educated English-speaking people are expected to know Shakespeare.  Words from his plays are quoted or alluded to more often than anything except the Bible in Western literature.  Shakespeare is to the English language what Lincoln is to American democracy.

So how can you help a student to read Shakespeare?

  • Buy your son his own copy of Romeo and Juliet so he can write in it. The No Fear Shakespeare series which prints the original Shakespearean version on the left and a modern paraphrasing on the right, is good.  So are other annotated versions.
  • Keep and annotate a list of characters which your son can use as a bookmark. Shakespeare populates his plays with many characters.  List Romeo and his friends, for example, and identify them (hot-tempered, funny, talks in puns, or mixes up words).
  • Read Shakespeare as you would read poetry, with pauses at punctuation, not at the ends of lines. Shakespeare wrote in verse.  Some of the lines end with a period or comma, and you should pause there.  But many lines end without punctuation and should be read without a pause until the next punctuation mark, usually in the next line.  Reading this way will help with understanding.
  • Rewrite the words in normal word order if they don’t make sense the way they are written. In English, we usually have a subject–verb-direct object word order.  But Shakespeare sometimes uses a direct object-verb-subject word order.  “Never was seen so black a day as this:” (Romeo and Juliet, IV, v) puts the verb before the subject.  The quote makes more sense if you read it as “No one has ever seen a day as black as this.”   If there is not room in the margin, rewrite on tiny post-it notes.
  • Supply missing words. Just as we leave out words today (Haven’t seen y’in a while), so did Shakespeare.  Since his original audiences left out or shortened the same words he did, there was no problem to understand what he meant then.  But now, 400 years later, you need to write in the missing words or parts of words. Shakespeare contracted words to keep the meter of the verses and because his generation used those contractions.
  • Identify pronoun antecedents. Identifying who or what the pronouns refer to helps with understanding.  If your son owns the copy of the play he is reading, he can draw arrows to show relationships.  Or you can highlight using matching markers.  Take, for example, this quote from Romeo and Juliet (the boldface is mine):

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art more fair than she:

“It” refers back to light.  “Who” refers to the moon.  “Thou” refers to Juliet.  Both “her” and “she” refer to the moon.  Drawing arrows helps.

  • Paraphrase confusing verses. The above quotation can be rewritten as, “But wait.  What is that light starting to come through the window from the east?  That light is Juliet, the sun.  Rise up, beautiful sun, and overshadow the envious moon which is already growing dim. The moon realizes that you, Juliet, are more beautiful than it is.”  Not as elegant as Shakespeare’s words, for sure, but the rewrite in modern English is easier to understand.
  • Figure out metaphors. Shakespeare used lots of them.  Encourage your son to write them in the margins of his book.
  • Identify allusions. Just as authors today refer to Shakespeare, Shakespeare referred to the Bible, to British history and to ancient Greek and Roman myths.  Again, annotate.
  • Untangle wordplay. Shakespeare delights in puns and words with double meanings, especially words whose secondary meanings are sexual.  Some children need help understanding the secondary meanings.  Write the meanings in the margins.
  • Use a dictionary to look up unfamiliar words. Even though almost all of Shakespeare’s words are still in use today, some are not, or their meanings have changed over the centuries.  In dictionaries, such meanings might be listed as archaic.  A long list of such words can be found at shakespearehigh.com
  • Reread some parts several times. Once your son has analyzed words, phrases and verses, another reading will make more sense.  And if he reads aloud, the play will make even more sense.
  • Watch a good film or stage play after you have analyzed the written play. Even then it might take some getting used to the British accents (if it is a BBC production) and to the unfamiliar word patterns.  But Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted out, not read on a page, and will come to life when acted.