Several weeks ago, I sat in my car outside my daughter’s school waiting for her to finish rehearsals for her school’s spring theatre production.
As teenagers began to emerge in all directions from the building, I caught a glimpse of her heading towards our car carrying on the biggest conversation… with herself.
When she opened the car door to stash her duffle and back pack, I couldn’t resist asking, “Who are you doing all that talking to?”
She shrugged, “Myself.”
She froze, duffle mid-air and looked me full in the face, “Mom. Seriously. If you don’t talk it over, how are you ever going to figure anything out?”
* * *
For many of us, it’s true. Talking things over does help us sort through all sorts of problems. This is particularly true when it comes to improving reading comprehension. Often times, we think of reading as a solitary endeavor. If we are a reader, we might imagine a big comfortable chair somewhere quiet and cozy where we can curl up and enjoy a good book undisturbed. In reality, however, rewarding reading is not always quietly accomplished alone. Reading can and should be a natural launching pad for thought-provoking conversation that increases understanding and helps us construct meaning.
Frequently, homeschool and non-homeschool parents alike, ask me how they can improve or assess their children’s reading comprehension. One of the common concerns is that students can successfully read the words, but afterwards students have little to no recall. Below are 2 strategies I use to incorporate purposeful conversation into my one-on-one tutoring sessions to help my students improve their reading comprehension skills as well as regularly assess a student’s reading comprehension without the constant use of quizzes or written checkups.
Why Does Conversation Work?
To understand how purposeful conversation works to improve reading comprehension, it is necessary to take a closer look at the reading process. Reading is actually composed of two cognitive activities:
A) Decoding– the ability to translate group of letters into the words we speak
B) Language Comprehension– the ability to connect real meaning to words, both explicit and implicit
For the most part, the skills are both inter-related and inter-dependent. It is hard to even think of one without the other. Likewise, reading is most successful when both of these skills are working simultaneously. The student decodes letters groups into words and converts groups of words into a meaningful message. When either of these skills is wanting, reading becomes laborious and unrewarding.
In the case of those students who can decode (successfully read the words), but struggle to remember or understand what they’ve read, the problem is the words the students read don’t create any relevant meaning to them. Therefore, it is our job to model the mental process that attaches meaning to what we read (language comprehension). Used purposefully, conversation can be a successful tool to externally model the internal process of language comprehension and allow the student to experience connections between what is written and both its explicit and implicit meanings.
Conversation itself is often an act of discovery as learning and revelation take place through the course of exchanging ideas with someone else. It’s exactly what happens when we as adults need to “bounce an idea” off of our co-worker, friend, or spouse. As we talk through what is on our minds, we reflect on the problem at hand, begin to make connections between ideas as we articulate our thoughts and opinions. We also benefit from hearing the ideas of those we’ve consulted. Often, their feedback generates new ideas and even more connections for us. It is a way of experiencing our problem externally instead of just in our heads.
These are the same reasons that book clubs are so successful! Their success comes from conversations and discussions that turn an abstract act like reading into a tangible experience where readers can participate with and share the ideas they encounter. Conversation purposefully utilized during the reading process can help readers become more engaged by requiring them to regularly reflect , search out meaning, make connections, and articulate their understanding or questions about the text.
How To Use Conversation- 2 Methods
It is important to understand that in order to help your student, your role in the conversation will first be to:
- model the following strategies,
- then guide as the student uses the strategies, and
- in the final stage of learning, participate in equal conversation based on the strategies.
1) The Think-Aloud
The Think-Aloud is a simple comprehension strategy based on constructing and reconstructing meaning through building and sharing verbal pictures of what has been read.
This strategy should be employed when reading aloud together with regular stops. I find it is used most naturally when coming across pivotal passages or passages of high interest. These can be descriptions of characters or setting, the telling of significant events or conversations. It is important that you are not just blandly restating what is already written as you model the Think-Aloud, but also include implied or inferred information. Try to vividly and dynamically portray what you actually imagine as you see a certain scene or character. Let your interest be evident and contagious. Allow the student to participate, and don’t be in a hurry.
Can’t you just see…?
How do you see…?
It is important to use the word “see” instead of “think” for many tangible learners as “think” may not seem as concrete an action. Helping students visualize, or “see” using their mind’s eye, a movie of sorts of what they are reading gives them the ability to clarify and organize what they are reading. It grounds the abstract in the tangible.
The Think-Aloud also decreases the tendency to rush ahead without really understanding what has been read. It requires the student to stop and reflect on what they’ve just read in order to verbally recreate a scene or excerpt. It also develops the ability to summarize by having students restate ideas they’ve read from their own perspective, using their own words.
Making predictions is one of those methods that is overused yet not fully utilized at the same time. Simply it is a strategy that readers use to anticipate what comes next or happens to a character in a story based on clues, or hints, as well as what has already happened in a story . However, successful prediction making is so much more than “What do you think happens next?” Predictions should allow students to draw conclusions and interpretations from a story by connecting their existing knowledge of not just the story, but also with what they know about life through their own experiences.
Students do not lack knowledge in a general sense, but most don’t realize that they have it and therefore can’t apply it when needed. Prediction strategies used properly should help students realize their own abilities and draw out relevant background knowledge. Students should compare what they know about how the world works and how people behave with what they are encountering in their reading.
As a result, prediction discussions can be had about theme, types of characters, setting, even structure or genre. Conversations should activate existing knowledge to generate expectations about what the student and you believe will be encountered in the story.
It is also important to stop and discuss if your predictions hold true as the story progresses. Predictions increase interest and story recall but only if the predictions are specifically compared to the text and verified. This follow through is important! Otherwise, making the predictions will just seem like a useless exercise that has no real bearing on reading a text successfully.
It has been proven that making predictions before you begin reading based on the title, cover art, genre, and even the table of contents, followed by regular stops while reading to predict and verify results in better comprehension compared to “read-only” encounters with a text. It requires that students tangibly anchor new ideas by connecting what they already know about life, people, places, emotions with what they are reading. New information is more easily understood when we tie it to something we already know.
For many students, reading is best accomplished as a social activity, something done together with frequent pauses that allow them to clarify basic material, draw interpretations, make connections, and even generate new ideas. The more a student can become involved with a piece of reading, the more it will have relevant meaning and remain in her memory. Creating an environment rich in high quality conversation is a tangible way to engage both young and older students. Approaching reading in this manner takes time but is well worth the effort for both you and your child/student!
5 Tips For Making The Most of These Strategies:
1- Pay close attention to the level and demands of the texts you choose as you and your student work to improve her reading comprehension to prevent overloading the student. When first learning a comprehension strategy, avoid making heavy demands in other areas, such as vocabulary. When a student becomes versed in a strategy, then he will be ready to use in all kinds of texts.
2- Choose texts well-suited to the strategy you would like to implement. For instance, it is easier to employ predictions with a something the students have not read before, a text or story that is sequence-oriented, and one that offers clues or hints as to what might happen next to a character. This requires some research and pre-reading, but can be done. Don’t forget to use the knowledge of those around you. Ask for recommendations of books other students have enjoyed, etc.
3- Another place to begin is by choosing subject matter that is of special interest to your reader. If he enjoys baseball, there are plenty of baseball stories, fact books, etc. A student is always more engaged when interested or when she already has a broad knowledge base to which to relate the story or information. Less familiar subject matter can be introduced later as the student grows in her abilities to create context and make connections on her own.
4- Watch how you phrase your questions when engaging in comprehension strategies. Try your best to create natural conversation instead of something that sounds like a quiz.
5- Having a student invest in a strategy by sharing information orally can increase motivation. But the level of motivation a student brings to a strategy has a direct impact on how or to what extent a student will actually use the strategy and reap all the of the potential rewards.
image credits (in order): Abhi Sharma, Ginny, Horia Varlan, Mueller Martin, Jo Naylor