How to Help Children Understand What They Read

 

How to help children understand what they read

“You know you’ve read a good book when you turn the last page and feel a little as if you have lost a friend.” — Paul Sweeney

This is probably the top complaint I hear from parents and children, and arguably, understanding what you read is the most important part of reading.  Who would want to sit and stare at meaningless words for hours?  In order to grow to love reading and to get good at it, we have to understand what we read.  It can be a complex issue because it could be caused by a number of factors.  However, with just a little “detective work,” you can easily discover why your child is struggling and unlock the love of reading for them by helping them understand what they read.

Note: I will use the term “reading comprehension” in this article to explain the idea of understanding what one reads.

Young Children (before mid-year first grade)

When a child is very young and still developing the ability to “sound out words” to read, their focus is on figuring out what the word says.  This makes it very difficult to spend any mental energy on thinking about what the words mean.  This is totally normal for this age.  As a matter of fact, experts call this the “learning to read” stage, indicating that comprehension is not of utmost importance when they are reading words themselves at this point.  This is another reason it is so important for your child to have the opportunity to hear you read to him/her too.  At this age, listening comprehension is extremely important.  (This is the ability for someone to understand what is read to them.)

When you’re reading to your children, your instinct may be to ask them questions that can be answered by paying attention to the book.  For example, if the book says “Kitty went to school” your question may be “Where did Kitty go?”  Although these are questions you can ask to make sure your child is paying attention and listening, much more valuable questions are those in which your child has to think about the book and apply it to his/her own life.  Using the above example again, a quality question may be “How do you think Kitty felt when she went to school?”  These questions give your child the opportunity to think about how they felt when they first went to school, and apply that understanding to how Kitty may feel.  Practicing these types of questions will help build networks of reading comprehension in their sweet little brains that will pay off forever!

Mid-Elementary Children (end of first grade through third grade)

This is the age that students are transitioning from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”  Depending on the book they are reading, they may fall in one camp or the other.  Because reading skills are still rapidly developing at this age, it is very important to have children practice reading books they are interested in.  If they are reading a book of interest, they already have some background knowledge on the topic which will help them understand the book.  If they spend a heavy amount of time (at least 20 minutes daily) reading a book of interest, it will help them to develop pathways in their brains to understand other books that they read that may not be of interest.

When your child is reading a book on a topic that may be too complicated for them, take a second to talk about some of the words and concepts before reading.  This helps them to develop an understanding of the topic before trying to read it, which leads to better comprehension and memory of what has been read.  Again, a key at this age is to practice reading and having discussions about books.  As mentioned above, make sure that when you are reading with your child, you are asking questions that allow them to apply the book to their own lives or to something they have seen or heard before.  Another example is if you are reading a book in which a character wins a race, but you have recently seen a movie where the main character loses a race, you could say “How is this book different than the movie we saw?” and have a discussion about how the characters felt in each situation and how the different endings affected the story.

Upper Elementary (third-fifth grade)

This is the period of time in which reading comprehension really matures.  Students may be asked in school to read passages or textbooks and recall or study information for tests or class projects.  This is the age that I first introduce taking notes in the margins of reading for this purpose.  (If it is a book that you cannot write in, sticky notes are perfect.)  I tell students at this age that when they are reading something very carefully, they stop every 3-5 sentences, ask themselves “What was this part about?” and write a few words in the margin (or on a sticky note) and put it next to those sentences.  This is valuable for a few reasons.  1) when they have finished reading, they can review all of their notes and have a pretty well written summary of the text, which can help if they are asked to summarize the text.  2) If they need to locate something that happened in the story, they can look back through their notes instead of having to re-read the entire passage.  And most importantly 3) if they are unable to write a few words about what the sentences they read were about, they likely didn’t understand it, and this signals to them that they need to re-read.  The beauty of number 3 is that often, children grow up being very comfortable with reading words that they don’t understand, finishing the passage or story, and having no idea at all what they just read.  If we don’t correct this bad habit at this age, it will continue to be an issue all the way through college, and it will cause deeper and deeper problems with reading.  It is so important for children to recognize when they are confused during reading and practice fixing it. If you tell a child at this age that if they are not able to write a few words about the sentences that they read, they need to re-read it more slowly and make sense of it, or ask for help, they will learn to read more carefully and their overall understanding of what they read will improve.

Middle School/High School

In most cases, reading becomes much more functional and less of a hobby at the middle school and high school ages.  Students are asked to read in order to gain information, and when they read fiction it is for the purpose of analyzing it for deeper understanding.  The latter is where those conversations you had with your children when they are young about how their reading applies to themselves or something they have heard of or read before really help.  Whether they are reading fiction or non-fiction, for the purpose of analyzing or learning new information, it is very important that students are comfortable with taking notes as they read.  If you haven’t already, read the section above about writing in the margins or on sticky notes every few sentences.  As students get older and more skilled, they can expand this to taking notes every paragraph or at every section header.  Again, if they are unable to think of what to write, they need to stop and re-read it more slowly to make sense of it, or ask for help. Kids at this age do not naturally enjoy this note taking because it feels like more work, so you have to be the best salesman you can be to convince them that it’s actually less work in the long run, and more efficient.

College

Many times, students do not realize that they struggle with reading until they are in college.  I fell into this category my freshman year when I was given loads of reading assignments, and no matter how much time I spent reading, I wasn’t able to answer questions about it later.  Everything in high school had come so easily to me, I never had to put forth the effort to take the steps outlined above for note taking during reading.  I had to learn these systems and once I did, I became a much more efficient reader and better student. So again, the answer here is in the bold letters above.  And again, as a student becomes more comfortable with this process, they can begin to take notes on entire paragraphs or sections as they go.  I recommend this far above highlighting.  Students at this age are tempted to mindlessly highlight as they read because it makes them feel like they have some type of documentation of reading, but because highlighting simply brings out the words already written in the text, it doesn’t simplify it for the reader like taking notes on the reading does.

Important side note

The age groupings above are generalities. Unfortunately, I have known several college students who needed guidance in comprehension on the upper elementary level, and even some elementary students who were ready for instruction on the high school level.  I recommend reading the entire article to determine where your child fits best, even if it isn’t in their “age” category.  If you are a parent of a young child, I recommend reading the entire article with this in mind: Helping your children now by having book discussions and asking abstract questions will help them later on when they are trying to understand more complicated texts as older readers.  What you do now makes an impact on tomorrow!

I would love to know if any of you try these ideas! Please leave a comment if you accept this challenge and let me know how your child has grown as a result!

 

Happy Reading!

My Child Works Better With Someone Else

Working with your child in reading blog graphic

“When I say to a parent, “read to a child”, I don’t want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate. ” — Mem Fox

Have you ever had a conversation with a teacher who describes your child as quiet and obedient, and you think “are we talking about the same child?”  It seems to be a common theme when I talk to parents: our children act different at school or with a tutor than they do at home with us.  And usually, away from us is more positive.  So why should we, as parents, put forth the time and effort to learn how to successfully build our students’ reading skills when we know that they would likely listen better to someone else?  Although this is a fair question, there are three reasons that we have to consider putting our apprehensions aside to work with our own children, and three ways that we can do so peacefully.

Reason #1: Nobody knows your child like you do.  When I take on a new tutoring client, my first step is to send out a parent questionnaire.  I want to know as much as possible about the child, and the best source for this is the parent.  My second step is to ask if the child has a file of previous tutoring, report cards, teacher conference forms, etc. that I could look over.  As a tutor, I am gathering as much information as I can to make sure that after I assess the child, I can put together a comprehensive plan for him or her.  As the parent, you can skip this step because you inherently know far more than anyone else about your child.  You know what they respond well to and what pushes them to respond negatively.  You know what skills they had to work really hard on and what skills they learned quickly.  You know their interests, sense of humor, and emotions better than anyone.  And these elements are extremely vital in connecting with the child’s heart to develop the love of reading along with building the skills of reading.  You, as the parent, have a special connection to your child that nobody else has, and this connection can be used to make a very successful reading intervention opportunity.

Reason #2: Flexibility and long term consistency.  Although I suggest that when parents create a tutoring program for their child, they set a routine of specific days and times to work on reading, I also recognize that life is busy.  Summers are filled with vacations and visitors, the fall calendar may contain swim lessons and soccer practice, while the spring calendar is overloaded with t-ball and piano lessons.  Being your child’s teacher enables you to make a schedule that works for you.  If you decide to go on vacation for a week, you can take your tutoring on vacation with you instead of missing a week with a tutor.  In the same way, most tutors are hired for a short season, such as summer, or even one school year.  While the child may make great progress in that period of time, your child may regress when tutoring sessions are suspended, and if he or she starts with a new tutor, they may have to backtrack a little before getting started and making progress again.

Reason #3: Hiring a tutor and working with your own child in reading are not mutually exclusive.  You may decide that your child ultimately responds best to someone other than yourself, or that you already have a tutor who you trust with your child.  As a tutor myself, I believe in the benefits of hiring a tutor.  However, the most important priority is that you are working with your child in reading weather you also have a tutor working with him or her or not.  In my tutoring experience, children of parents who were willing to learn intervention methods and work with their child at home made the fastest, most sustainable progress.  The bottom line is, don’t rely solely on a tutor or teacher to be the only one working with your child in reading.  You should be the primary reading teacher, and the tutors and teachers supplement that.  (If you feel like you want this to be you but don’t know where to start or what to do, check out my e-courses and coaching options!  I would be happy to point you in the right direction and give you confidence to work with your child.)

Okay, so you know the three reasons why it is important for you to “push through” your child’s difficult attitude to work with him or her in reading… let’s talk about three ways that you can do so the most peacefully.

No Tears Reading at Home Method #1: Give your child options.  As adults, we wouldn’t be happy if someone gave us a specific book to read, took us away from whatever we enjoy doing at home, and made us sit down and read it.  Our children feel the same way.  We’ve discussed the power of allowing your child to choose their own books, and this is one of the reasons having a “treasure bag” is so important in convincing your child to read with you (and to enjoy it in the process!  If there is one specific book you want your child to read for some reason, give the child the choice of reading that first or another book first.  That way, they still have an option.  Having choices is a teacher trick to help engage students, and you can use it too!

No Tears Reading at Home Method #2: Find a special spot. When I was in elementary school, I found out that one of my friends had gotten to “camp out” under her dad’s desk one night and I thought that sounded like the coolest idea in the world.  Think like your child… where are some “cool spots” in your home that they may not typically spend time so that when they go to that place, they are automatically thinking about reading?  The living room couch may not be the best place because it may make them think about the television.  In the same way, the kitchen table may make them think more about eating.  Maybe you have a hammock in the back yard, or a porch swing, an overstuffed chair that he or she never sits in, or a cozy cubby under your desk.  Be creative because not only will that signal to your child’s brain that something new is happening, it will also engage them and make them more likely to want to participate.  If you can’t find anywhere in the house, consider the possibility of having a standing date with your child at Starbucks or somewhere similar where he or she can look around and see others reading as well.

No Tears Reading at Home Method #3: Turn it into a game.  As with most things, when something becomes fun, we want to do it more.  Keep in mind that books need to be read at every reading session, but you can also include a game in each session.  Make the game skill based for something your child is learning.  For example, when your child has the wiggles but you need to work on sight words, take a piece of chalk outside and have them write the sight words on your sidewalk while jumping from word to word, calling them out.

Your willingness to work with your child is the first step, which you’ve already taken by reading this post!  So pat yourself on the back for being an incredible parent, get yourself a little coffee or your drink of choice, and sit down to plan how you can use these tips to engage your child in some special reading time.  If you accept this challenge, leave me a note about it!  I can’t wait to hear!

 

Happy Reading!

 

Treasure Bags- Making Reading at Home FUN

Treasure bags Blog Graphic

“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.” — Walt Disney

We’ve talked about how important it is to model a love of reading for your children, and to show that reading is valued in your home.  One way to do this is through creating treasure bags with your child.

A treasure bag is simply a bag that your child can use to carry his or her “stack” of books. For a younger child who is reading picture books, you would want them to carry anywhere from seven to ten books in the treasure bag at all times. Children who are reading chapter books can have two to three in their bags, and they may also want to mix in a picture book or two as well.  These books can be exchanged from either your home or public library at a set interval of time (for example, every Monday.)  See below for an explanation of the importance of keeping the same books for a set period of time.

Colten Treasure Bag

Creating Your Treasure Bags

This is a cost-effective project that you can make as crafty or as simple as your personality desires!  I started with a blank canvas bag from Hobby Lobby, but you could use something as simple as a reusable shopping bag.  (You do want to make sure your bag is made of a material that can take a little wear and tear, as books can be heavy and your plan is to allow your child to tote these along with them.)  Have a special moment where you celebrate with your child that they are old enough now to get a treasure bag, and make one for yourself if you don’t already have one!

Two important elements on your treasure bag decorations are: 1- Your child’s name and 2- pictures or designs that they love.  For example, if your child loves basketball, let him or her draw pictures of basketballs on the book bag.

You can create a simple design with markers on the canvas bags, or you can get creative and iron or glue on objects.  Just make sure that anything you glue on is large enough that your child, or another child, cannot choke on them if they fall off.

Filling Your Treasure Bags

This is another opportunity to get excited with your child about reading! You may want to say something like “I am SO EXCITED that today we are going to get to fill your book bags with books for you to read all week from the library!”  Give your child a certain number of books to look for (again, I recommend 7-10 for a young child, 2-3 if your child is into chapter books) and allow them to “shop” for books that interest them.

Choosing Books

Allow your children to choose books they are interested in.  Give them the opportunity to explore multiple genres so they can discover what they enjoy reading.  Take them to the non-fiction and the fiction section.  Talk about what the differences are, and suggest they choose books from both parts of the library.  It is okay for children to choose 1-2 books that are too easy or too hard for them, but make sure they have 3-4 books that are on their “just right” level.  An easy way to discover what books are just right for them is to open the book, let them read a page or two, and if they stumble over more than five words, it may be too hard.  Again, that doesn’t mean they can’t choose this book, but make sure they choose a few that are also “just right.”  Teach your kids how to examine the appropriateness of the book by having conversations as you count the words they cannot immediately identify, so that after you have repeated this process for a few weeks, children should be able to determine what books are just right for them without your assistance.  This is a process I used in my first grade classroom, so students as young as six years old are able to do this if they are taught how.

Keeping Books

A child’s first instinct is to read through a book, put it away, and choose a new one.  The problem with this habit is that the child misses many opportunities offered by the book by only reading it once.  If your child has 7-10 picture books as we previously mentioned that they read repeatedly for a week, the benefits are:

  • Opportunities to familiarize themselves with sight words- becoming familiar with the text helps associate a spoken word to the written word, which grows your child’s sight word base
  • Opportunities to build fluency- The more familiar your child is with a text, the more he or she is able to read it at a normal talking speed, which is our goal for reading speed. Repeated readings build fluency.
  • Opportunities for deeper comprehension- Just as watching a movie more than once brings deeper reflection and understanding of the complexities, reading a book multiple times offers the same benefit.  One of our goals of comprehension is to make connections to other texts or to our own lives.  The first time a child reads a text they may be focused on decoding more than comprehending, and so the additional readings open up his or her thought capacities to make these deep connections and applications.

Loving Your Treasure Bags

Find at least 20 minutes a day for your children to spend reading his or her treasure bag.  Allow them to find a cozy place in the house where they love to read, and take the opportunity to model reading yourself during this time if possible.  Make this a special time… read together, sit together and read independently, sit in a hammock or on the porch swing, sit under a dark desk and read with a flashlight, or cuddle down in bed.

The Value of Treasure Bags

I’m going to venture to say that in my opinion, time spent in independent reading may be the most important variable in helping grow your children’s reading skills.  The treasure bag is a method for making it exciting for children, giving the opportunity to choose what they read, and for encouraging repeated reading of texts.  It may seem that this is trivial, but if you are serious about improving your children’s reading skills, I believe this is foundational.  If you choose to use this time to read along with your children, (especially on those books that they choose that are a little too hard for them to read independently) it is a great opportunity to teach decoding and comprehension skills as well.

If you decide to take this step towards building strong reading skills in your child, please send us a picture of your treasure bag or of your children reading from their bag.  We can’t wait to hear about the growth your child is going to make simply from this fun task.

Happy reading and treasure bag decorating!

Choosing What to Read with your Child

Choosing What to Read With Your Child blog graphic

I commonly hear parents ask “How do I know what books my children should read?”  Many are concerned about getting books on the appropriate “reading level.”  While the idea of reading levels should not be entirely dismissed, we also want to make sure that we are not overly concerned about choosing a book for a child based on an arbitrary grade level reference assigned to that book.

I grew up loving to read.  Baby Sitter’s Little Sister, Sweet Valley Twins, and Boxcar Children were as close to me as a sibling, and played almost as significant a role in my upbringing.  My parents did an incredible job of reading to me, modeling the love of reading, providing for my reading needs by taking me to the library once a week and entering me in summer reading contests.  If you would have asked me as a child what my hobbies were, I would have told you reading was number 1, right along with baking in the kitchen with my mom.

This was true until eighth grade when our school introduced a program which involved an assessment to determine each child’s reading level and required that we only get books with the colored dot that corresponded to our reading level.  Suddenly, the world of literacy shrunk down significantly to just a few shelves which may or may not have held books that interested me.  I quickly went from loving to hating reading.  It wasn’t until I became a first grade teacher that I discovered my love for literacy again.  Those colored dots extinguished something beautiful in my mind, and I am passionate about preventing that from happening to our children.

Children should choose books based on their interests.

Does your child love bugs?  Let her or him check out a non-fiction text with pictures and diagrams and facts!  How about solving mysteries?  Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys are still great series to share with children, as well as Cam Jansen and other more modern series.  The bottom line is, find something they love and give them a book about it.  They will naturally transfer their love to that book as well, which begins to instill a love of reading.

What if the book is too difficult for my child to read?

Even if a book is too difficult, children are more likely to work to decode words if the subject holds their interest.  If it’s a subject they are already familiar with, they already have a framework of understanding which aids in comprehension, even if the text is on a higher level than they would be able to comprehend on a different subject.

This is also an opportunity to create a reading memory with your child.  Read the book along with them, be ready to explain concepts that are confusing and help them decode words that they are unfamiliar with.

What if the book is too easy for my child to read?

The summer that I was pregnant, my friend Teress recommended that I read a series called The Selection, which seems to have been written for a teen girl audience.  Far older than their target age group, I found myself finishing one book in the series every day or two, staying up late reading by the light of my cell phone, and ordering each book successively on amazon until I ran out of the entire series.  I would tell my husband stories of the people in the books as if they were real, and receive supportive, but confused faces from him in return.  Were those books below my “reading level?”  Absolutely.  But did they grow my love of reading and improve my reading ability because of the time I spent in them?  Most definitely.

Let your child read the book they choose, even if it is too easy for him or her, because it will grow a love of reading, and there are intangible benefits that should not be underestimated.

I do recommend that children have a “stack” or special reading bag with books on multiple levels.

A final note.  In the reading world, we call it a “self-selected text” when a child is able to choose their own book to read.  This is powerful, regardless of your child’s age.  I spent five years working with adult struggling readers, and the most important element in my intervention was allowing them to choose a book that was interesting to them.  Everything I taught them about reading started within the confines of the book they chose.  Not only did they all make significant reading progress, they also grew to love reading and see the value of it.  Many times the books would have been too difficult for them to read alone, but they had me to play the parent role and walk them through the text to help them to be successful with it.  Had I assigned them a book on their “reading level,” it would have likely been a subject far too immature for their age, and I doubt they would have been motivated to continue working towards improving reading.

In conclusion, don’t be afraid to let your kids pick their own books!  Your challenge for today is to take your children to a local library and let them pick what they want!  Then snuggle down and create a reading memory.

 

Happy reading!