Friday, February 22, 2008

Teaching Reading Comprehension on My Mind

One thing that has been on my mind since January is the topic of teaching reading comprehension to my children. What brought this topic to light was that I had volunteered my older son to help a college student by taking standardized tests about reading comprehension. In some areas of the ‘reading comprehension’ categories my son did not perform as well as I had thought he would.

Up to this point I have been following the teaching methodologies of Charlotte Mason regarding ‘testing’ reading comprehension. With that method the child gives oral narrations of what they heard read aloud or what they read to themselves. At about fourth grade if a family so chooses these narrations can become longer and can be done in writing instead of always using oral narration. In the earlier years as well other methods of narration can be used such as dramatizing or drawing pictures. My older son has been doing excellently with giving long, detailed oral narrations. When I prompt him to summarize more and to not be as wordy, he does. I thought he was on a great track.

I have always thought the basic reading comprehension exercises as are usually used in schools can be patronizing, boring and sometimes even pointless. For example after reading a more complex passage the student is asked “what color was the object”. In other words sometimes these exercises are shallow and ask for details that are, to me, less important than the more deep things such as did the child understand in general what was read?

Of course I want my child to be able to read and decode and to understand what is read. I also don’t just want literal understanding of clear facts or statements but I want my children to be able to ‘read between the lines’ or see inconsistencies. I want them to be able to show evidence for a statement. This is called ‘inferencing’.

I was surprised on one of my son’s tests that he scored not so wonderfully on the ‘inferencing’ section. This is what laypeople call “reading between the lines”. Some quick examples would be if the passage stated the man kicked a tire or if a girl was not making eye contact, what did that indicate to the reader? They should be able to know that kicking a tire means a person is mad or that not making eye contact might mean a person was shy (or something else based on whatever else the story may have told).

I do have some issues with the testing my son did, such as different tests yielded different results, so which do I believe? I had decided that at the very least I was faced with a situation to deal with. If I know my son scored below what I would have liked to have seen on a test now what do I do as the homeschooling mother? I could choose to ignore this and stand by my Charlotte Mason method and keep on with what we were doing (even if that didn’t specifically address inferencing skills). I could say, “standardized testing is not always accurate” or “my son had Lyme Disease and was fatigued during the testing” (a true fact). I could say, “My son was processing the death of his grandfather at the time of the testing” (which was true). But after saying those things a bit, I chose to analyze, think, research, and make new plans.

What I have been doing is pondering different ways to teach reading comprehension. I did already own a book which I had heard recommended by other homeschoolers called “Reading Detective”. My copy was for grades 5-6. I had it on hand already. I picked it up used and partially written in for $2 which is more than 90% off the full retail, last summer. I had not yet begun using it. I decided to start using it and see what unfolded. So I sat down with an eraser and white-out and erased the already-done lessons. And then we were ready to begin.

I began using Reading Detective A1 with my older son (age 10, grade 5) in January. Now this is where the real experience begins. It is one thing to try to judge or review a workbook without having used it but it is another thing altogether to use it and see what unfolds, that is a truer test of how good the book is or if it helps or hinders that unique child.

First I had to teach my son how to do multiple choice questions. I realized he was being lazy sometimes and just picking the first right answer not the ‘best answer’, which it seems is never at the top, by the way.

Some of the questions are open-ended which I really like because I see a big difference in the ability to pick the right answer from a list versus being able to come up with the whole answer himself. (I noted as well this same thing with the homeschoolers National Geographic Bee, all students in grades 4-8 had the same problem—they all did great on the multiple choice or true/false but all didn’t do as well with the open-ended questions.)

I discovered that my son doesn’t like writing in complete sentences (I remember being that way too when I was his age). However I am forcing him to learn to write in complete sentences. A good communicator needs to be able to write in complete sentences. Period.

One thing that this book has which I like very much is that they don’t just ask for an answer (which could be guessed at by the way), they then want the student to tell what sentence or paragraph number proved their answer was right. This additional level of analysis may seem silly or ‘busy work’ at first glance, but I now know it is a very good thing. This is because while an answer may be guessed at out of laziness, the other question cannot be guessed at without it being obvious. Also even if my son gets the first part of the answer correct, I have realized that he ‘knew’ the answer from the reading but is sometimes unable to specifically say why. This amazes and bothers me at the same time. How could it be that he could not pinpoint what sentence proves that the two missing objects were buried in the backyard by the dog? The ‘supporting sentence’ was in plain sight!

I have had to work with my older son on the skill of carefully reading and re-reading in order to pick the best proof that a certain sentence tells a certain thing, or infers a certain thing. In order to pick the correct answer he must sometimes weigh weaker sentences against stronger sentences and use his judgment to pick the best one. This is a good exercise.

Also I should add in that my working with my son in this manner builds character—in me. My patience is being tested here. Doing this work with my son is a trial. I actually have to take deep breaths to maintain my composure when things get frustrating. I have to hold my tongue from saying what I’d really like to say some days. I keep reminding myself of some of our family’s philosophies about being respectful to our children and how we choose to talk to each other. No, doing all of this work is not ‘fun’. It is necessary though, as I want my children to be good readers and to comprehend and think about what they are reading.

If my son were whipping through all of this with ease and getting them all right I would think doing these ‘reading comprehension’ workbook based lessons are “a waste of time”. However in his case he is actually struggling with some of this. I am again, shocked and disappointed and unhappy about this. Sometimes I recognize he is being lazy and just rushing through the work to get it done, while other times it is very clear to me that the correct answer is not so easily accessible to him and that he guessed. Other times he just admits that he can’t figure it out and asks for help before he feels defeated or frustrated with himself.

I feel a bit let down that something I didn’t do in our homeschooling led him to not develop this reading skill. I really am. Rather than beating myself up about this though I am forging ahead with a positive attitude. The boy is ten years old, he is still young. It is not too late to teach these reading comprehension skills. We are working through this program and the work is causing me to teach him certain things which I realize I’d never done, such as what a simile is and what a metaphor is. We are moving forward and toward a goal and that is a good thing.

I also make my son go over all the incorrect answers to fix them. Sometimes we do the work together, with me immediately telling him of an error and asking him to find a more detailed sentence then letting him do it over immediately. Other times I have him do the work all alone then I check it and he has to come back to fix anything he missed while I sit and supervise and guide him to discover the correct answer on his own. I explain why the wrong answer was not the best answer. I want him to learn from his mistakes not just to be a passive recipient of the answer that I give him so he can ‘get it over with’.

This working together through these exercises which some may dub as ‘busy work’ or ‘stupid lessons’ or ‘very school-ish work’ are serving a purpose. Because I am working so closely with my son I can see his areas of weakness as well as his strengths. As we go on through the book I am finding his skills at reading carefully and inferencing are already improving. Whatever remains needing work after this consumable workbook is finished I will find a way to address, whether it is with some other company’s reading comprehension books or whatever it takes.

I also want to commit to taking the time to read through a book I already own called “Critical Conditioning” by Kathryn Stout. I feel this book will help me develop the ability to use thinking skills with any reading material they may be reading. This is not a workbook and it is not a ‘reading comprehension’ student text.

The biggest lesson I have learned here is that when and if we have our homeschooled children tested we have to figure out what to do with those results. If the child is being tested on materials they’ve never learned don’t be surprised if they don’t get high scores. We hear that homeschoolers are smart and test well on standardized tests but if the child didn’t focus on learning a certain skill then we should not be surprised if they don’t test well in that area.

If a gap is noted in the student’s abilities after testing is done, then what will you do? I feel that when a gap is found and if the issue is agreed to be a worthwhile thing to remedy, that the child should be able to do or that they should know the only responsible thing to do is to address that gap by filling it. That is my opinion. That is what I am doing with my children.

After working with my older son for a few weeks, I decided perhaps these reading comprehension skills like these are better to learn earlier than fifth grade. So I went and bought a copy of Reading Detective Beginner which is for grades 3-4 (the easiest level they sell in this series). I then immediately began using that with my second grader last month as well. He began reading fluently at age four, and he is reading above grade level so he is able to do this work, it is not pushing him too hard or torturing him with work that is too far ‘above his level’, believe me.

I’ll add as well that I don’t think that all reading comprehension books are equal. It is true that some are stupid and a waste of time. However so far I do like these Reading Detective books. They are not perfect, but so far they are good. (As an example of not perfect some of the passages taken from long stories of close or more than 200 pages are so short that I am even having a hard time understanding the gist of what is happening, as more general knowledge of what the story is about would be more helpful to understanding the passage’s details.)

I hope that in the future the discussions of reading comprehension will occur more around books that my children are reading rather than being about reading short snippets of text and being grilled on the contents. If I were to use real books I would need to have a thorough understanding of each story that I am discussing with my children which can get hard. It is hard to pre-read every single book that two children are reading then to come up with my own discussion questions. I guess this is an example of why some homeschooling mothers use literature unit studies that are sold to the homeschool or school market as teacher’s guides.

A constant challenge with homeschooling is that when we homeschooling parents see an area that needs adaptation and improvement or changing we feel the need to address it right here and now. Most of us don’t feel good about continuing with whatever we are doing through June then making a change at the start of the next school year. (Remember in school if a child is not responding well to their curriculum they have no choice but to keep using it. Why must we do this with homeschooling when we don’t have to?)

I am confident that both of my children are on a good path here, even if we are no longer doing a more pure Charlotte Mason method of teaching reading comprehension right now. I need to do right by my children first and foremost rather than being loyal to a homeschooling method that I personally favor. If the method that was liked is not giving the expected result, well, it needs tweaking, I think.

This reading comprehension change in our homeschooling goals and method of teaching is one example of what I’ve been thinking about and changing since the beginning of January. This is a good example of the way a homeschooling mother spends her time and energy in addition to doing all the homeschooling lessons, parenting the kids, and doing everything else that needs doing in a household, in a family, and for her own self.

Books I Use

Critical Conditioning by Kathryn Stout
Design a Study home page (Stout’s website), for more info or to buy directly

Reading Detective Beginner (grades 3-4), consumable workbook

Reading Detective A1 (grades 5-6), consumable workbook

Reading Detective A1 (grades 5-6), CD-ROM format (use instead of the workbook if you so desire)

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler

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Esther said...

~~You said: I feel a bit let down that something I didn’t do in our homeschooling led him to not develop this reading skill.~~

The beauty of homeschooling is that we are able to catch these things and do something about them immediately, as you said elsewhere in your post. Try not to feel let down since it was you who made sure the tests were administered (for the purpose of catching these things!), and it is you taking the necessary steps to fill in that area that was deemed lacking. Way to go, Mom! :)

You might be surprised at how your kids take off in this area now that you are addressing it.

Fwiw, something fun we've used to help our kids flex their "reading between the lines" muscle is a book called, A Case of Red Herrings. ( )

Keep up the good work, Christine. :)

HomeGrown Life said...

What diligence and effort you are putting into this "tweaking". We too use the CM approach, but are in the very early years. I will certainly be thinking about this aspect of CM...

Angela Maiers said...

Great work on supporting reading comprehension. Another book you may find helpful for teaching and supporting reading comprehension is by Susan Zimmerman: 7 Keys to Comprehension. Great stuff!