Category Archives: reading comprehension

Teaching vocabulary

If kids get low grades on reading comprehension, number one on my checklist is vocabulary. If kids don’t understand the words they read, how can they possibly understand the sentences containing those words?

But how to solve this problem?

CVC means consonant-vowel-consonant, and refers to one syllable, short vowel words beginning with a consonant.

For ELL students lacking basic English words, I make flash cards: a picture on one side and the word or words used to identify that picture on the other side. A picture of a child pitching a baseball might use the words “pitch.” “toss,” or “throw.”

I start with pictures of CVC words: “cat,” hat”, and “bat,” for example. Picturing nouns is easy. Picturing verbs like “sat” and “win” is harder, and often I need to demonstrate the actions.

With my students I use the Explode the Code phonics series, so I picture vocabulary words in the order in which the student encounters the words in the series. To these I add a few sight (Dolch) words so that we can make sentences, such as “A cat is not a dog.”

What I have discovered is that students can identify the pictures with just a bit of study, but they cannot use the words in sentences. When they see the word “pitch” they can move their arms in  pitching motions, but they cannot make a sentence using the word “pitch.”

Even for students learning advanced vocabulary words, like in the Wordly Wise series, this is true. They can define a word using a synonym but they have trouble using the word in a meaningful sentence.  (For many students using this series in school, their teachers do not assign the part of the lesson in which students write the new words in sentences, a big mistake.)

When I review already learned vocabulary words, I ask for synonyms, but also for usage. “It is a cat” works for beginning ELL learners. But “It is a catapult” does not work for older ELL students or for English-speaking students.

Another method to increase ELL learners’ vocabulary is to use picture word books meant for preschoolers. Because I want to use the vocabulary my students study to teach them reading, I prefer to begin with CVC words even though a word like “pizza” might be more frequently heard.

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.

Teaching inferences

If students’ vocabulary is good but comprehension lags, the problem could be inferences.

Inferences are connections between what is said in the text and what we know to be true based on our experiences.

Good students delight in bringing their own world view to their reading, enriching the reading experience. But struggling readers don’t know they are supposed to do this. They think everything must be right there on the page. If asked to answer a question based on inference, they might say, “It doesn’t say,” or “The answer isn’t here.”

How can you teach inferences? According to Kylene Beers*, using the “It says—I Say—And So” chart helps.

Suppose, for example, the students read “The Three Little Pigs.” You ask, “Why can’t the wolf blow down the house made of brick?”

It says: The third little pig made his house out of brick.

I say: Brick is strong and heavy. And it is stuck together with cement.

And so: The brick is too strong to be blown down by the wolf.”

For the “It Says—I Say” strategy to work, this strategy must be used regularly, with modeling by the teacher or by students. A good place to start is with fairy tales or other well-known stories. Later, move on to grade level texts.

*When Kids Can’t Read; What Teachers Can Do. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004

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.

Kids need to know the facts

When I go to students’ homes to tutor them in reading and writing, I bring a pocket-sized  atlas.  That is because inevitably a geographical place is named in a reading passage, and when I ask the students if they know where “Scandinavia” or “New Zealand” is, they don’t know.

It’s not just knowledge of geography which students lack.   It’s when the American Revolution happened, or what news event happened in Egypt this past week or why it’s correct to say the sun is a relatively close star.

Kids just don’t know.

But this lack of knowledge has serious effects on their reading comprehension scores.  I was working on a reading passage with a middle schooler recently, and one of the questions was why Charles Darwin was mentioned but not identified in a passage about the Galapagos Islands.  The student shrugged.  “Who is Charles Darwin?” I asked.  The student shrugged again.  How could he answer the question if he didn’t know who Darwin is?

This problem becomes more acute when the student is from another country and from another first language (or if his parents are).  Years ago I taught two brothers, third and second graders, who were English language learners.  They were reading a passage about Halloween.  They had no idea what “Halloween” meant,  nor jack-o-lanterns nor trick-or-treating.  How could they answer the questions about Halloween in the reading passage?  I took them trick-or-treating on the next Halloween, but their parents were mystified why people would give their children candy.

Even if kids know the code of reading—the sounds of our language and how putting letters together forms words—they cannot score well on comprehension if they don’t know what the facts in the passage are, and what unstated facts are expected to be known as general background knowledge.

I was working with Georgia students using a passage from a New York State test.  The passage concerned winter, snow and sledding.  “I’ve never seen snow,” said my student.  I put the passage away.

If you have young children, read them not just fairy tales and nursery rhymes, but nonfiction—facts.  If you have middle schoolers or older, talk to them about current events, and if they don’t know where something is happening, point to the location on a map.  Use dinners or car rides to offer information.

Ignorance is no advantage in reading or in life.

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.