Category Archives: critical thinking

This Kid Can’t Read

Before you can help students to read, you need to know why they can’t read. An umbrella statement like, “This kid can’t read” is too broad to be helpful. You need to be more specific in identifying the problem. For example,

• Does she know how to read maps, charts, graphs and political cartoons?

• Can she decode CVC, CVCe and other one-syllable words?

• Can she segment and pronounce two-, three-, and four-syllable words?

• Does she struggle so much with decoding English sounds that she cannot take in meaning?

• Is her English vocabulary limited?

• Does she recognize prefixes, suffixes and root words?

• Does she apply punctuation when she reads?

• Does she read in a monotone without inflection or expression?

• Does she monitor her understanding as she reads, rereading whenever she realizes she doesn’t understand?

• Does she know how to use context clues?

• Can she predict what will happen next as she reads?

• Does she make inferences?

• Can she identify the main idea in a reading passage?

• Can she summarize a passage, paraphrasing?

• Can she distinguish between important details and less important details?

• Can she detect author bias?

• Does she know how to think deeply?

• Does she believe she can read?

Reading problems can be divided into dozens of smaller, specific problems. And those smaller problems can be tackled—and usually solved—by a skilled teacher using appropriate strategies.

Prereading questions help struggling readers

Parents and teachers can help poor readers develop the skills of good readers by asking questions about the reading passage before students begin to read.

First, the adult should read and understand the passage and the places where a student is likely to encounter comprehension problems.

Second, the adult should propose questions about the themes of the passage. Ask the students to read the title. What does is probably mean? If there are graphics, ask what they tell abut the passage.  Encourage students to notice and comment on these clues.

For example, suppose some struggling second graders will be reading Junie B. Jones and the Stupid, Smelly Bus. Some questions might be

• Is it normal for some kids to feel a little bit scared when they do something alone for the first time, like taking a school bus?
• Did that ever happen to you or someone you know?
• When some kids are scared, do they want to hide? Do you?
• Can a kid break school rules without knowing he or she is doing something wrong?

Good questions are those without clear-cut “yes” or “no” answers. Good questions make children think. Good questions develop discussion on the themes about which the children will be reading.

Finally, after students read the selection, return to the questions. Ask students if their thinking has changed. For some it might not have changed, but others will gain insights.

For this activity, fewer questions leading to deeper discussion is better than many questions with shallow discussion. If a question can readily be answered with a “yes” or “no,” follow up immediately by asking for an example.

Another way of using the questioning technique is to print a half-dozen questions on a handout. Next to each question have two columns, one labeled “before reading” and the other “after reading.” Under each heading students can write “yes” or “no.” This method forces students who might not want to engage in oral discussion to commit to an answer. Their written answers can serve as the start of a discussion.

It is the “why” behind the “yes or “no” which prepares students for gaining deeper meaning from the passage.

When is it most useful to discuss a reading passage with poor readers?

Is it most useful before reading? During reading? Or after reading?

During reading.

From my experience, engaging students while they are reading makes the greatest positive impact. It helps students pull greater meaning from the text they are reading, and it models the kinds of thinking good readers do.

What kinds of questions help?

• What does that mean? “That” could refer to a vocabulary word, a sentence or a concept.
• What is confusing or hard to understand? Often a teacher can tell that something the student has read confuses him, but the student doesn’t say so. Even if the student says, “I don’t know,” the teacher likely has ideas about what is difficult to understand. Identifying the problem—an idiom, a metaphor, a reference to another part of the text—and explaining it can be vital to the student’s understanding.
• Who is she? What is her relationship to ___? Sometimes poor readers fail to recognize relationships among characters or the role of a particular character in the text. Or they may fail to recognize that Jean Louise and Scout are the same person.
• What will happen next? Predicting shows students know enough of a story to say what is possible. Not being able to predict might indicate students are not following the plot or a character’s emotional response to a situation.

Modeling by an adult is important for struggling students. “Hmm. I wonder what Nate the Great will do next?”  Or “What is a spinning wheel anyway? I’ve never seen one. Have you?” Or “A red letter day? What in the world is a red letter day?”

Struggling readers need to see that asking questions while they are reading is not a sign that they are dumb; it is a sign they are intelligent. They need to know that good readers ask lots of questions as they read, and if they don’t know the answers, they find out—stopping in the middle of their reading to ask an adult, a dictionary or the internet.

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.

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.

Vocabulary comes in three tiers

Educated people use a three-tiered vocabulary, according to research* done thirty years ago.

  • Tier 1 words include basic words, the working vocabulary The X factor in type facesof little children. Children do not need to be taught these words; they learn them from interacting with their caretakers and other children.  In kindergarten, some of these words are called sight words.  Usually these words do not have multiple meanings.  Such words include “no,” “dad” and “dog.”

  • Tier 2 words include words we use frequently as adults but which little children do not use. These “adult” words can be used in many contexts.  They are harder for children to learn since they have multiple meanings.  Tier 2 words add detail to our speech and writing and are necessary to learn in order to understand what we read.  ”Obvious,” “complex” and “verify” are examples.
  • Tier 3 words are used infrequently, but are necessary to speak and to read about particular areas of study. In an English class, such words might include “predicate,” “narrator” and “sonnet.”  In a medical journal such words or phrases might include “prefrontal cortex,” “neuroplasticity” and “synapses.”  These are often “idea” words used as scaffolding to build further knowledge.

The Common Core State Standards are asking teachers to teach and use Tier 3 words more.  Instead of saying the “action word,” teachers say the “verb.”  Instead of asking for the “total,” teachers ask for the “sum.”

What this means is that students, beginning in primary grades, are being taught Tier 3 vocabulary words.  Children are expected to know what “analyze” and “cite” mean, and they are expected to use those words, not euphemisms, in explaining their thinking or behavior.  And when words like those appear on state-wide, end-of-year exams, children are expected to know what they mean and know how to respond accordingly.

You, as parents, can reinforce Tier 3 vocabulary by using appropriate academic vocabulary with your children.  Harry Potter is the protagonist of his stories.  Three and two are factors of six.  Anne Frank’s diary is a primary source.  Arthropods have an exoskeleton.

Children need to master certain Tier 3 words in order to understand directions from teachers and directions on tests.  We will talk more about these words in future blogs.

*Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L.  (2002).  Bringing words to life.  New York:  Guilford.

How to encourage multiple perspectives on a reading topic

When students take Advanced Placement (AP) courses, they must read and analyze several documents on a given topic.  Those documents come from various sources, such as diaries, government publications, laws, news reports, emails and speeches.  The documents approach the topic from various perspectives, such as a private citizens, columnists, people with a grudge, historians and mental health experts.

EPSON MFP image

From all these documents students are asked to understand a complicated issue and to make sense of it.

Can we work with young readers, even beginning readers, to encourage a similar wider, multifaceted understanding of a topic?  Can we help children to identify important ideas and then help them to compare and contrast those ideas through various reading sources?  Can we help our earliest readers to become critical thinkers?

Yes.  One way is by choosing several books or other reading sources which approach a topic from different perspectives or genres.  First, decide on a question you would like the student to explore, such as, What was it like to take the Oregon Trail? or Why do polar bears need ice?  To have the greatest impact, the topic should be one the student is studying or a seasonal or timely topic.  Together the sources should give a wider and more profound understanding than any one source alone can give.

Here are some examples for primary grade students.

graceforpres

The question might be, Can a girl be President?  Show the student a copy of The Constitution and explain what it is.  Then have reproduced the appropriate lines from Article II defining the President’s qualifications.  Discuss what they mean.  Then have the student read Grace for President by Kelly S. DiPucchio, about a little girl who decides to run for president at her school.  Discuss how hard it is to become President.  Finally, your child could read a biography of Hillary Clinton, such as Hillary Rodham Clinton:  Some Girls Are Born to Lead by Michelle Markel or Who is Hillary Clinton? by Heather Alexander.  Discuss whether Mrs. Clinton has the qualifications needed, and what other strengths might be needed to be a President.

If the question is What’s an idiom? your student could start with In a Pickle: And Other Funny Idioms by Marvin Terban. This book explains what an idiom is and then illustrates well-known idioms with funny drawings.  Next, your child could read Raining Cats and Dogs: A Collection of Irresistible Idioms and Illustrations to Tickle the Funny Bones of Young People by Will Moses.  This book illustrates common idioms, but goes one step further:  it explains how the idioms came to be.  My Teacher is an Idiom by Jamie Gilson shows what happens in a fictional second grade when a new student from France misunderstands English idioms, and when the English-speaking kids misunderstand French idioms.  The reader learns that all cultures have idioms, but sometimes they do not translate into another language.

If the question is What is the water cycle? you could explore Water is Water:  A Book about the Water Cycle by Miranda Paul.  With poetry and evocative art, readers follow two children as they pass through the water cycle as water goes from rain outside to steam in the tea pot to evaporation into clouds.  In The Drop in my Drink: The Story of Water on Our Planet by Meredith Hooper, readers travel back to a young planet Earth to find out where water came from and to learn about erosion and how all living things depend on water.  National Geographic Readers: Water by Melissa Stewart shows more about the water cycle through beautiful photography and easy reading words.