Monday, June 18, 2012

Comprehension Question


From time to time, I get letters from teachers in the field, requesting some advice. I don't always know how to reply to such queries, but here are some recent attempts:

Question 1: 
For students who struggle with comprehension, and do not seem to grow in ability to think abstractly despite HUGE amounts of scaffolding, knowledge building, etc. what course of action could you recommend?  I had a 4th grade student who could not get past text written on a 2nd grade level, despite the fact that he could decode  and read with fluency on a lower 4th grade level.  I worked with him 1-1 several times a week.  We set background, acted out information, discussed vocabulary, etc….it just seemed beyond his grasp.

Reply:
This is a knotty one... and one I'm not entirely sure how to answer. It is certainly possible that the student is just low in IQ generally and consequently struggles with abstract thinking. I would certainly have to know more about what this child could or could not do (sometimes teachers tell me a student is fluent, but when we test him we find out that the fluency lags, too). Let's assume in this case that the student is smart enough to do this work and that the reading basics are in place and there is sufficient scaffolding, background knowledge, etc. I'm puzzled, but would suggest the following.

I would try to engage this child in intensive questioning (initially the teacher asks the questions, but over time, you can shift the responsibility to the child):

Sentence 1: There are two groups of planets in our solar system.
Questions: How many groups of planets are in our solar system? What is a planet? What is a solar system?
Sentence 2: The planets closest to the Sun--Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars--have a solid surface made of a mix of rocks, dirt, and minerals.
Questions: Which planets are closest to the Sun? What do Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars have in common? What is a solid surface? What is a solid surface made up of? If these are one of the two groups of planets in our solar system, then what is the second group?
etc.

Essentially you engage the student in thinking as thoroughly and deeply about the ideas in text as possible. You don't allow him/her to treat the text like it is just a source of word recognition practice? you don't allow them to get tripped up by any idea that might be confusing or that they might skip over? By engaging them in thorough thinking about the ideas (and their interconnections) you can identify any and every problem as it comes up (the student didn't know what a solar system was, so you had to explain it; the student forgot about the two groups of planets when he was reading the second sentence, so you steered him back to it before going to sentence 3). Over time, students get better with this and they can take over the intensive questioning themselves--until they don't need it.


Question 2:   
In creating a framework for ELA blocks in school districts, what are the essentials?  

Reply: 
The ELA framework that I use requires regular instruction in four components of literacy:
1. Word knowledge (knowledge of how to decode/spell words and parts of words, and knowledge of word meanings).
2. Oral reading fluency 
3. Reading comprehension/Learning from text
4. Writing

I would argue for 2-3 hours per day of reading and writing time, and each of the these components gets a quarter of that time. (You can also slice this into 5 and add oral language). These components are included because instruction in each has been found to improve overall reading achievement.





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