Category Archives: reading comprehension

How much do you know about teaching reading to little kids?

  1. Which should be taught first—blends at the beginnings of words (flag, stop) or blends at the ends of words (hand, fist)?

  1. Is it important for pre-K or kindergarten students to know their ABC’s in order?

 

  1. Which are the hardest vowel sounds for a child to distinguish?          A and E      E and I      I and O      O and U

 

  1. Do children who can name many items  read better?

family reading together

  1. Is the best way to teach reading to have the child memorize words so that every word becomes a sight word?

 

  1. Are all kids developmentally ready to learn to read by kindergarten?

 

  1. What two letters is a child most likely to mix up?

 

  1. If a child ignores punctuation, is that child likely to have reading comprehension problems?

young child attempting to touch his ear with opposite hand

  1. Is following your child’s teacher’s advice on how to teach reading a good idea?

 

  1. How many letter sounds does your child need to be able to hear and pronounce?

 

 

Answers

 

  1. Blends at the beginnings of words are easier for children to learn. So are single consonants at the beginnings of words.  End of word sounds are harder to hear.

  1. No, the order of ABC’s is not important until a child is old enough to sort words into alphabetical order—a second or third grade skill.

 

  1. E and I are the hardest. That is why it is better to teach CVC words with A, O, and U vowels first, and to spend more time teaching E and I words after the A, O, and U words are mastered.

 

  1. Yes. Research shows that the two best predictors of reading achievement are an awareness of letter sounds and an ability to rapidly name objects.

young girl with pencil in mouth

  1. No. The best way to teach reading is to use a systematic phonetic approach.  Eventually, the words we read repeatedly become sight words, but we need to know how to decipher new words, and to do that we need to understand the rules of phonics.

 

  1. No. Usually by age 7 most kids are ready to learn how to read, but even then there are outliers.

 

  1. Lower case b and d are the most mixed up. Some kids recognize the difference immediately, and others take years to discriminate between those two letters.

  1. Yes. Ignoring punctuation means ignoring meaning.

 

  1. It depends where you child’s teacher was educated. In 2016 the National Council on Teacher Quality reviewed the syllabi of teacher training programs in the US and found that 39% of the schools teach what the research proves.

 

  1. In most places in the US, 42 sounds comprise our spoken language. However, regional dialects can increase or decrease that number of sounds slightly.

 

How’d you do on this quiz?  Read comicphonics regularly to know how to teach your child reading based on what the research shows.

 

Behavioral signs that your student might be having trouble reading, writing

Students are really good at hiding or masking reading and writing problems.  If your student shows any of these signs, take another look at his or her cognitive skills.

Slurring over long words.  Some kids stop phonics instruction before they get to dividing words into syllables or deconstructing prefixes and suffixes.  When they see a long word, they say a word which begins the same way and slur the rest, hoping you won’t hear.  If you ask them to repeat the slurred word, they can’t read it.

Speaking softly.  Kids think, “If my teacher can’t hear it, then she can’t tell me it’s wrong.”  So they read or speak to you in a whisper.  Confident readers or speakers speak as loudly as you do.

Rarely asking questions.  If a student reads but doesn’t understand what he’s reading, it’s hard for him to ask a question.  But students who do understand often want more information.  Beware of silent students.

Talking off-topic.  Some students who are socially adept will precede a lesson with small talk, or interrupt to ask about your family or haircut.  They are stalling because they find the work hard.

Going last.  If a student routinely wants to go last, it can be because she is hoping against hope that there won’t be time for her complete lesson.  These students are reluctant because they are unprepared or don’t understand what is being taught.

Needing to use the rest room during the lesson.  Good students rarely need to be excused for part of the lesson, but poor students routinely do.  They say they need to use the rest room or to get a drink of water, taking more time than seems reasonable.

Checking the time.  Some students check their watches or phones every few minutes.  That’s not because they want the lesson to last.  They know to the second when the lesson should end and remind you when that time comes.

Coming to a lesson without workbooks, texts or homework.  “Oh, let me get it,” they will say, cheerfully, heading to their bedroom or locker and wasting three or four minutes.

What can you, the parent or teacher do?  We’ll discuss that in our next blog.

Identify the main idea with a colored pencil

I find colored pencils or highlighters are so useful when teaching writing.  But they can be just as useful when teaching reading, especially if the same colors are used consistently.

Suppose you are teaching students to identify the main idea in a reading passage, and that the students are reading from a source which they can mark.  First, have students read a passage.  Then help them discover the main idea.  Instruct them to underline or highlight the main idea with a particular color, such as red.  Later, whenever you are working on main idea, ask students to identify it with a red underline.

Sometimes a whole sentence is a main idea, but sometimes the main idea is not identified so neatly.  Sometimes a phrase can be underlined.  Or sometimes the student needs to write the main idea over the title using red ink if it is implied but not stated directly.

Many times all or part of the main idea is repeated in paragraph after paragraph.  Students need to know that the main idea is often repeated, and they need to identify examples of it by underlining those repeats with their red pencils.

What if you are teaching supporting details?  A different color—say orange—could be used to underline supporting details.  If the main idea in a Cinderella story is that Cinderella wants to go to the ball, then all the details helping her get there should be underlined in orange—the fairy godmother, the pumpkin carriage, the mice footmen, the ball gown and of course the glass slippers.  Even the clock striking is an important detail.

Almost every reading test asks for the main idea.  Students need practice, lots of practice in all kinds of reading materials, to identify the main ideas and the details which support the main ideas.

If you are consistent with your color choices, students will get used to seeing their reading through the colors they apply.  And if you are checking to see if students are identifying correctly, all you need to do is look for the color red or orange or whatever color scheme you decide on.  Walking around a classroom, you can easily tell if the students identify correctly, or if they are fooled.

You might be thinking, but students can’t mark textbooks.  True.  But so many schools today use workbooks in many subjects for each student.  Even if the purpose of a particular passage has nothing to do with finding a main idea—a science or math passage, for example—you can still use it to identify main ideas.

 

Use cloze activities to test reading comprehension

If you are trying to assess whether your student, especially your English Language Learner, can understand what she is reading, use cloze activities.

Cloze activities are written passages with words left out.  Students need to supply the missing words.  Sometimes random words are omitted—such as every seventh word—and a blank space replaces a missing word.  Sometimes a particular part of speech is omitted.  Sometimes words that are important for the structure of a sentence,  like prepositions, are omitted.

Let’s take a paragraph and show several cloze variations which yield particular information about a student’s reading comprehension.

This morning, I woke up early and slipped downstairs to play with the new puppy.  Max was in a cage, so I opened it, and let him out.  Quickly I took him to the back of the yard where he knew what to do.  I threw a ball which he liked and a rubber bone which he didn’t like.  Then we came inside and I fixed him a simple breakfast.

Now suppose we leave out every eighth word of the above paragraph.  Here is the result.

This morning, I woke up early and _______ downstairs to play with the new puppy.  ________ was in a cage, so I opened ________, and let him out.  Quickly I took _______ to the back of the yard where ________ knew what to do.  I threw a ________ which he liked and a rubber bone _______ he didn’t like.  Then we came inside ________ I fixed him a simple breakfast.

Depending on the word choices the student makes, you can learn if the student understands the meaning of the paragraph.  You can ask her to justify her choice by explaining which context clues she used.

Now suppose we try a different cloze paragraph, this time leaving out all pronouns.

This morning, _______ woke up early and slipped downstairs to play with the new puppy.  Max was in a cage, so _______ opened _______, and let _______ out.  Quickly _______ took _______ to the back of the yard where _______ knew what to do.  _______ threw a ball which _______ liked and a rubber bone which _______ didn’t like.  Then _______ came inside and _______ fixed him a simple breakfast.

From this exercise, you can learn whether the student knows both subject and object pronouns and when to use them.

Now suppose you are testing appropriate use of articles.  You can remove all articles, and in addition, put spaces before all nouns or adjective-noun groups to see if the student knows whether articles are needed and if so, which articles are needed.

This morning, I woke up early and slipped downstairs to play with _______ new puppy.  _______ Max was in _______ cage, so I opened it, and let him out.  Quickly I took him to _______back of _______ yard where he knew what to do.  I threw _______ ball which he liked and _______ rubber bone which he didn’t like.  Then we came inside and I fixed him _______ simple breakfast.

If a student is studying vocabulary, a word bank can be supplied and from those words the student chooses words to fill in the blanks.

Before you use a cloze activity, know what you are testing for and then create or find a cloze activity which will yield that kind of information.

Breaking the habit of looking for word-for-word answers

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.

Parental expectations for ELL can be too high

How long should it take for an English Language Learner (a student learning English as a second language) to read at grade level?

Longer than many parents want.

I am working with an ELL fifth grader from another country.  I tested her by having her read a list of basic English words, all of which she said she knew.  Then I had her read passages at a second, third and fourth grade level, and answer questions.

What I noticed is that she could score 100% on the second and third grade questions, providing the questions were multiple choice.  If she had to write a definition, she could copy what the passage said, but she could not paraphrase the words.  If she had to write sentences in her own words, she couldn’t do it.  If she could say the sentences aloud rather than write them, she couldn’t do it.

This is typical.  Multiple choice responses are easiest since the answer is provided; you just have to identify it.  Putting ideas into your own words is harder because you must rely on vocabulary which might not be in the passage and you must create sentences, a task which calls on so many skills—vocabulary, grammar, syntax, subject-verb agreement, pronoun case, articles—the list goes on and on.  A person can learn to read English without learning to speak or to write, but in the US students are tested verbally and in writing, and of course both skills are needed for 21st century success.

Another factor to consider when judging how long learning to read will take is whether English is spoken at home.  For this student, it is not.  She cannot ask a parent what a word means.  She cannot hear proper pronunciation.  She is on her own.

Still another factor is the student’s motivation to learn English.  My student is motivated.  She focuses for the full hour we are together and completes her homework.

The mother of this student hoped that her daughter would learn to read quickly enough to be ready for fifth grade state exams in three months.  I told the mother that is unlikely, watching sadness fill her eyes.

Could it happen?  Yes, for an extremely intelligent and motivated learner living in an enriched English environment.  But is it likely?  No.  Becoming fluent in a language takes time, more time than many parents want.

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.