Comprehension

family reading a book     

I took a college class on reading that was terrific. The reason it was so good was because the book used as our class text was written in very simple terms.  I think parents often think the only way kids learn to read is that they are sent to school and teachers there teach them to read.  That is only partly true. The real truth is that YOU are your child's first and most consistent teacher.  Things you do with your children from birth on up to this very moment have a huge impact on their ability and ease of learning to read.  Over the years, I have tried to convey to parents that anyone can teach a child to read, if they put time and commitment into it.  This book lays it out in very easy to read terms and is actually written for parents.   I highly recommend you purchase, or check out from a library the book entitled 
7 Keys to Comprehension by Susan Zimmermann and Chryse Hutchins.

The following ideas are summarized from the last chapter in the book entitled "Visible and Invisible Reading Ingredients".

"Reading is like making chocolate chip cookies. You don't need just flour or butter or eggs or sugar or vanilla extract or chocolate chips.  You need them all, combined together. . ." For many parents 'sounding out' is what they remember being taught in school and is the most frequent strategy used to help their children read.  Sounding out is important.  We call that phonics, but it is only one ingredient’ in reading.  "”.....(phonics is something in reading) you can't manage without, but by itself it accomplishes little."  This concept is also called decoding, which again is important, but does not bring meaning to the reading.

There are six important parts to reading.  Some parts are visible and you can see, but many important skills good readers need are actually invisible, but nonetheless important.

1)  Letter/Sound Knowledge (Phonics).  "One of the best ways to help a child learn letter/sound connections is to give them lots of opportunities to write what they hear."  Children love to have a 'journal'.  Anytime you go visit a friend, see a movie or play at the park, come home and have your child write in their journal about their day.  Making shopping lists is another fun way to involve writing in your child's day.  Let your child make spelling errors.  Just pick one sound you see they do not know and work with that sound. "Oh, I see you spelled bath, baf.  Listen again, watch my tongue.....see how it sticks out?  That means there is a TH at the end of the word.  What other words have the 'th' sound at the end?  math, path . . ." Just take a minute, then that's it.   Don't try to drill the TH sound; they will experience it again.

2)  Word knowledge - This is what you are most likely familiar with - sight words.  Sight words are some of the most commonly used words in reading text.  Lists are often sent home in first grade that teachers ask you to practice memorizing with your child.  They are words such as: and, they, with, if, and on.  There are actually about 220 words, that when memorized by sight, help readers move more quickly through reading.  Not only does your child need to be able to read them on a note card, they also need to be able to quickly read them in a story. The way this happens is to have your child read OFTEN!!  The more they see the words, the quicker they will be stored in long-term memory.  For typical readers it takes about 50 times of seeing a word for it to become memorized. For struggling readers its about 300 times of seeing a word.  Its important to note, not 300 times just flashed on a card, but 300 times in a variety of settings.  That is why its important to help your child see words in their everyday life.  Read the cereal box at breakfast, point out signs as you are running errands, when you are going over math homework, point out the direction words and find the sight words you are practicing. Don't be discouraged that 300 times is just too many, it will happen much faster for your child if you are practicing reading at home as well as knowing your child practices at school. Together we'll reach 300 much faster than if they only see words at school.

3) Language Structure - "the way words are put together to form phrases or sentences."  Punctuation and grammar are part of syntax. Children learn which words make sense together.  They learn from speaking what words sound right.  This skill is mostly learned by listening to other people speak.  For example your child knows if someone says "I goed to grandma's", that doesn't sound right and isn't the way we talk.  A person should say "I went to grandma's."  This skill is learned through lots of communication, so talk, talk, talk, to your children. When driving to the dentist or Wal-Mart, turn off the radio and talk about what you see out the window.  Turn off that X-box or cartoons and talk with your child for 30 minutes about what he did at school that day, or what you did at work, or what's coming up for your family on the weekend.  Its not important WHAT you talk about, just that you DO talk.  This is a solid way your child learns about language, by using it and hearing it!

4) Word Meanings - this is a stumbling block for many struggling readers.  They put so much effort into 'sounding out' words; they often forget or don't have enough brain space to remember to 'think' while they are reading.  Words have many meanings, and if the reader isn't actively trying to figure out the meaning of what they read, they don't understand at the end of the story what it was even about.  These are some examples from the book:  'the bandage was wound around the wound', 'the farm used to produce produce', 'I did not object to the object.'   The meaning of words depends on how they are used in sentences.  The way children learn about word meanings is by talking a lot with other people and by reading and experiencing words in stories. 

5) Background Knowledge - This concept is where you are most influential in your child's reading.  Background knowledge simply means your child's experiences in life bring meaning to stories he or she reads.  If your child has gone to the zoo, when reading a story about a zoo, the language will just naturally fall out of their mouths because they can relate to the story.  They have experienced 'cages', 'snow cones', 'the tram' plus all the animal names. For a child who has never gone to the zoo, they will be sounding out each word to try to read.  If your child HAS gone to a zoo before, those words will just naturally make sense to them and they will be able to read the words easier by sight because they can put meaning to the story.  So......the way you can help, is to give your child a variety of experiences in their life. Take them to Hillsdale Lake and just sit and watch the boats come in and dock, listen to people around you who are fishing, swimming, playing on jet skies.  This does not cost you any money, but would put a valuable life experience, language and meaning into your child's brain for future reference if he ever read a book about going to the lake. Other ideas are going to the park, watch kids play basketball, watch a parade, go to a museum, watch a neighbor knit a sweater, anything where you take your child with you and TALK , TALK, TALK, about what you are seeing and hearing.  ***A key way you can help your child when you are reading at home is to talk about the book BEFORE you read it.  Look at the cover and ask your child to think about what they already know about the topic. For example, you might have a book about riding a bike.  Talk with your child about what they already know or have experienced.  The words that come up in your conversation, will very likely be words written in the book. If you take a few minutes to bring up those key words, when your child reads them in the story, they are in their recent memory and will naturally be easier to read.  Another easy way to build background knowledge is to visit the library often and get a variety of books.  Choose different topics each time such as volcanoes, animals, make-believe stories, the rain forest, trains, etc.  There is no right or wrong here, just pick a variety of books to build a wide range of experiences and background knowledge.

6) Knowledge of the Audience/purpose - Help your child be aware of why they are reading or give them a question and encourage them to read to find out the answer.  The correct response from you would NOT be, you are reading this book because your teacher said so.  :-)  Skim through their book before they begin to read and pose a question to your child such as "I wonder why that little boy looks sad, lets read and find out", "Why do you think the dog is alone?" or "By looking at the cover of this book it makes me want to know where this story is taking place".  There are no right or wrong things to say to your child, just share with them what you are thinking about the book and wondering. 

If you made it to the end of this you are now my hero!  I know it was long, but I have often been asked by parents what they could do at home to help their kids be better readers..  The above 6 issues, are it.   Parents often say to me, well you went to college; I just don't know how to teach my kids to read.   There really isn't a 'magic' formula to teaching a child to read.  The secret is that they experience all 6 of the above concepts OFTEN and in a variety of settings.  It’s all free too!!  It just takes commitment of your time and effort for your child to become a successful reader.

Here is a great quote from the book:

"We want your child to become not just a school reader but a lifetime reader who understands that reading is a free pass to entertainment, adventure and a rich, productive life.  If a child thinks reading is about skill sheets, workbooks, vocabulary lists, and test scores, he will never love to read.  But if he sees YOU as a reader, as someone to share the reading journey with him, he will be ready to leap into this exciting, mind-expanding world."

Thanks so much for taking the time to read this; your child has an awesome, caring parent!!

Daneen Hollern                                                   

Special Educator, WCES                      

hollern@usd230.org