Category Archives: literacy

How to find the main idea in nonfiction articles

Understanding the main idea of a piece of writing is probably the most important aspect of reading once children understand phonics.  Yet many children struggle to find the main idea.  How can we help them?

  • Ask the children to read the title and any subheadings. Ask the children what those words mean.  Ask the children to predict what the writing might be about.
  • Ask the children to look at any graphics such as photos, graphs, charts, maps, diagrams or other nontextual information. Ask the children what they have learned from those graphics.  Ask them to predict what the reading might be about.
  • In nonfiction, the main idea is often expressed at the end of the first paragraph. Ask the children if the last sentence of the first paragraph tells what the main idea is.
  • In nonfiction, many times the first paragraph or even two or three paragraphs are a hook. They might give hints about the topic of the writing, but they might not tell the main idea.  Ask the children if that is the case with what they are reading.
  • In nonfiction, topic sentences often start the body paragraphs of a reading. Ask the child to read the first sentences of the body paragraphs.  Are they topic sentences?  If so, what is the topic that they are giving details about?
  • In the last paragraph of nonfiction, the main idea is often repeated. Ask the children to read the last paragraph and to identify the main idea if it is there.
  • Reading the first important paragraph (not the hook) and the last paragraph, one right after another, can sometimes help children to discover the main idea. Do both paragraphs talk about the same thing?  If so, what is it?

Some children will understand immediately while others will need many, many lessons focused on the main idea.  If children need more examples, more tries at figuring it out, make sure they get those extra examples and time.  Figuring out the main idea will be on almost every reading test they ever take from first grade to the SATs.

But more importantly, it is a life skill which they will need.

Is my child on schedule to read?

The US Department of Education has put together a list of accomplishments* relating to talking and reading for children from birth to six years old.  This list shows the growth of typical children developing normally, but variations exist.  By seven years old, most children are reading.

From birth to age 3, most babies and toddlers become able to

  • Make sounds that imitate the tones and rhythms that adults use when talking.
  • Respond to gestures and facial expressions.
  • Begin to associate words they hear frequently with what the words mean.
  • Make cooing, babbling sounds in the crib, which gives way to enjoying rhyming and nonsense word games with a parent or caregiver.
  • Play along in games such as “peek-a-boo” and “pat-a-cake.”
  • Handle objects such as board books and alphabet blocks in their play.
  • Recognize certain books by their covers.
  • Pretend to read books.
  • Understand how books should be handled.
  • Share books with an adult as a routine part of life.
  • Name some objects in a book.
  • Talk about characters in books.
  • Look at pictures in books and realize they are symbols of real things.
  • Listen to stories.
  • Ask or demand that adults read or write with them.
  • Begin to pay attention to specific print such as the first letters of their names.
  • Scribble with a purpose (trying to write or draw something).
  • Produce some letter-like forms and scribbles that resemble, in some way, writing.

From ages 3-4, most preschoolers become able to

  • Enjoy listening to and talking about storybooks.
  • Understand that print carries a message.
  • Make attempts to read and write.
  • Identify familiar signs and labels.
  • Participate in rhyming games.
  • Identify some letters and make some letter-sound matches.
  • Use known letters (or their best attempt to write the letters) to represent written language especially for meaningful words like their names or phrases such as “I love you.”

At age 5, most kindergartners become able to

mother works with child reading story book

  • Sound as if they are reading when they pretend to read.
  • Enjoy being read to.
  • Retell simple stories.
  • Use descriptive language to explain or to ask questions.
  • Recognize letters and letter-sound matches.
  • Show familiarity with rhyming and beginning sounds.
  • Understand that print is read left-to-right and top-to-bottom.
  • Begin to match spoken words with written ones.
  • Begin to write letters of the alphabet and some words they use and hear often.
  • Begin to write stories with some readable parts.

At age 6, most first-graders can

Young child writing C-A-T.

  • Read and retell familiar stories.
  • Use a variety of ways to help with reading a story such as rereading, predicting what will happen, asking questions, or using visual cues or pictures.
  • Decide on their own to use reading and writing for different purposes;
  • Read some things aloud with ease.
  • Identify new words by using letter-sound matches, parts of words and their understanding of the rest of a story or printed item.
  • Identify an increasing number of words by sight.
  • Sound out and represent major sounds in a word when trying to spell.
  • Write about topics that mean a lot to them.
  • Try to use some punctuation marks and capitalization.

*Based on information from Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, a report of the National Research Council, by the Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children, 1998; and from the Joint Position Statement of the International Reading Association (IRA) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), 1998.

How to make reading anything easier

boy reading on the floorBefore you read:

  • Read the title and look at the photos, drawings, charts, and maps. Try to figure out what they mean without reading  the text.
  • Read the subheadings. Ask yourself, “What is this about?”  Try to predict the topic you will be reading about.
  • Read vocabulary words out loud, find out how to pronounce them (ask an adult) and ask or look up what they mean.  If there are vocabulary words in the margins, or if words are highlighted in the text, they are there because they are important and because you might not know them.

girl with ipad in bed

While you read:

  • Figure out the main idea. Usually in nonfiction it is named at the end of the first paragraph.  If you own the book, underline the main idea.  If not, start a mind web with the main idea in the middle.
  • Figure out what details are important. Add those to your mind web.  It’s easier to study a mind web than it is to study a whole lot of paragraphs.
  • Highlight or write down every word you don’t understand.
    • Look for clues in the nearby words.
    • Ask an adult to help you.
    • Or look up the words in a dictionaryWrite down what they mean, and read over the words and meanings until you know them.
  • If something is difficult or confusing, ask an adult to explain it.
  • Define important words on your mind web.
  • Summarize each paragraph into one or two sentences to be sure you understand it.  If you can write down what it means, you understand.

Talk to babies, even before they are born

Recently I visited my two-month-old grandson for a week.  As much as possible, I held him.  And when he was awake, I talked to him.

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I would look into his alert grey eyes and jabber on and on—about the inch of snow expected, about a book I had read, about what a terrible burper he was.  I used the same adult vocabulary I would use to talk to you but perhaps with more inflection and facial animation.

His eyes would follow me but mostly he would listen—listen to me describing the soft, touchable fabric of his onesie, or listen to my theories about why he slept so little.  I would ask him questions. “What do you want for lunch?  Milk or milk?  Do you want to look over my shoulder or look straight ahead?  How’s your diaper?”  He stared back attentively at first, but by the end of the week when I would talk to him, he would smile, quiver and say, “oo, oo,” the only sound he could make.

Now there is research which confirms that babies not only hear before birth but once they are born, they prefer to hear the language they have heard in utero.  Above all newborns prefer to hear the voice of their mothers, but next in priority they prefer to hear the voices of people who speak the same language as the mother, voices with the same rhythms.

We know that phonemes—the basic sound units of language—can be recognized by new babies in the weeks following birth.  Previously it was thought that babies couldn’t recognize slight differences in language sounds until the babies were several months old.  But now we know that babies’ sound perception and preference begins in the womb.

How can we help new babies to develop language skills?

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  • Pregnant women should talk to their babies before birth. They should provide opportunities for unborn children to hear language spoken.  This can mean babies’ overhearing conversations between mother and father; it can mean babies’ overhearing phone conversations or radio news; it can mean babies’ hearing the mother talk to herself.  Little ears are listening, so we should give them language to hear.
  • Newborn babies are far from “empty-headed.” Already they have heard hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of spoken language, and have developed a preference for the language of their mothers.  Once born, babies are refining their understanding of that language’s sounds as they listen to their caregivers’ speech.  We should provide opportunities for babies to hear speech—while mothers are feeding babies, while caregivers are changing babies’ diapers, while grandparents are holding babies.
  • Babies’ brains are functioning at an abstract level from their earliest days. They hear phonemes like the sound of “m” in “milk,” and then hear that same “m” sound in “mom,” and learn that the same sounds are used over and over with different results.  Years later, they will take this knowledge and apply it when they learn to read.

Did you know that according to a 1995 study*, the most important thing we can do while caring for a child is to talk to the child?  Or that the three-year-old children of well educated, professional parents hear three times as many words as the three-year-old children of poorly educated parents?

In fact if you listen to the vocabulary of a child, you can predict his success in life.  That’s how strong the correlation is between vocabulary and career success.

Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk to your children, including your babies.  If you have never chatted with an infant, swallow your pride and allow yourself to seem foolish.  It’s one of the best things you can do to ensure your child’s future success.

*Hart, B and Risley, T.  (1995).  Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children.  Baltimore:  Paul Brookes.

Reading tips from Scholastic

Scholastic, the publisher of so many children’s books, offers seven tips to increase reading opportunities for children on its website, http://www.scholastic.com/parents/resources/article/more-reading-resources/reading-tips-parents.  I have paraphrased them below.

  • Label everything in your home with masking tape or Post-it notes.  This is a great way for young children to learn vocabulary, including long words such as refrigerator and calculator.
  • Find a book that is “just right” for your child.  Have the child read the front cover, the back cover, and the first page of a book.  If the child can read all the words, the book might be okay or it might be too easy.  If the child can’t read five of the words, the book is probably too hard.
  • Teach the child how to read a street map of your neighborhood.  Reading diagrams, maps and graphs is an important skill in Common Core curriculum.  Have the child translate the diagram into word directions.  “Go down the front steps.  Turn left.  Walk to the end of the street.  Turn left onto Delaware Avenue and keep walking until you get to Lincoln Park.  Be careful crossing the street.”
  • Read greeting cards together.  Go to the grocery store or drug store’s birthday card section.  Read the cards together and vote which one is best.
  • Take pictures during an outing or vacation.  Later, ask the child to create captions for each photo and gather them into a photo album.  Or make a booklet of photos and words.
  • Read the Sunday comics with your child.  Cut out good ones to hang on the refrigerator.  Reread them.  [Inference can be learned from this activity, looking at facial expressions where words are not used.]
  • Help your child write a letter to his favorite author.  Most authors have a website which will accept emails.  Or you can find a mailing address on the publisher’s website.

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.

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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.