Monthly Archives: December 2010

Struggling to Read with Comprehension


There are two kinds of people who decide to enter the teaching profession: those who were good at the game of school and those who weren’t.  Those who weren’t nurse a hope that one day they might make a difference to someone else who isn’t good at the game.

I was mainly the latter although I was pegged as someone who Could Do Better if only I worked/did my homework/ was motivated/ wasn’t so lazy.  I was very good at reading so as a teacher and even though I knew better, I never really got the concept that a child could read words with some fluency and yet haven’t a clue what they had just read.  Never, that is, until I started studying Chinese in September.

I am a motivated student, prepared to work hard.  Most days I spend between three-quarters of an hour and an hour and a half studying, using every tool that comes to hand in addition to doing the assigned homework.  I wasn’t able to start the course until a couple of weeks into it and it was another four weeks before the textbook and workbook were available.  I used Internet sites and my notes to study for the first couple of quizzes.  My wrists and thumbs hurt from writing characters in pencil on paper and on the pad on my computer.  I remember why written work was such hell for me in school.

My average is probably an A- or B+ in spite of those difficulties and I would be proud of myself except that I rarely understand the professor when she speaks to us in Chinese. I stumble over the simplest replies. I read sentences with the halting lack of expression of a very early reader and worst of all even if I had recognised every character with ease, I still wouldn’t have a clue what I had read.

In short I am that reader I didn’t understand: the one who can read the words without understanding the sentence.  I am beginning to understand how they can get by for so long and even do well in school!

For a start, textbooks and readers today are packed with full colour pictures, diagrams, maps, charts and other supplementary information about the topic at hand.  The non-reader can garner a lot of information from the visual aids on the page.  In fact, students are encouraged to do just that as part of their reading strategies; the illustrations provide a legitimate means of giving readers information about the topic and a chance to anticipate where the text is going.  The non-reader will rely heavily on the information, not just use it a supplement to the reading material.

Secondly, students are often tipped off by the phrasing of a question as to what answer is expected.   “Do you think Goldilocks should have gone into the cottage?” is a fairly clear indication that the questioner thinks not.  It is not easy to create a question to elicit answers that will indicate how well a student understood the story; that is an art in itself.  I have often spent time before class jotting down ideas for effective questions or rephrasing the ones I had.

These readers in difficulty are unlikely to volunteer answers unless they are sure their answer is correct.  While you don’t want to embarrass them, you do want to know how good their comprehension is and you do want to engage them in discussion.  A teacher who intermittently chooses volunteers and those sitting on their hands to answer will prepare all the students for being called on when they aren’t sure.  This will be especially true if the pattern is random so students will not be able to predict who is next. Following up an error with tactful questions to the student or the class as a whole can be the beginning of using mistakes as a learning experience.  Comments more widely directed such as “that’s a different way of looking at it.  How would you support this argument?” can help the class as a whole consider less conventional ideas instead of embarrassing the student who didn’t understand the work.

“Interesting thought, Jenny.  Can you tell us what made you think of that?” will work once the student is confident enough to think on her feet.  This gives her a chance to refer to the text (struggling readers don’t miss everything) or bring in other experiences or texts, strategies encouraged in all readers.

If the struggling reader avoids participating in discussions of stories and other texts, she has many ways of faking it on paper.  Many adults have told me that they just listened to class discussions and used the information as a basis for answering questions.  If the teacher uses multiple choice or fill in the blank type exercises, then the work has just got easier.  Usually a child who is paying attention can figure out which choices or words are the best candidates for right answer.  Then he makes a guess.  If there are, as usual, four choices and the student guesses wildly, he has a 25% chance of getting the answer right.  If he correctly narrows the answer down to three or two choices and then guesses, he improves his odds to 33% or 50%.  If he actually figures out a right answer or two, he may pass.

This all assumes he does not cheat or receive a little help from his friends.  It also assumes that he does not employ bafflegab in writing answers.  This is the fine art of confusing the reader with such convoluted language or grammar and oversized words that it is unclear what the writer intended to say.  A good dose of if-it-doesn’t-make-sense-then-the-answer-is-automatically-wrong usually cures it.  However most teachers do give the student the benefit of the doubt a time or two before lowering the boom.

In other words, the struggling reader can often do a good job of faking it, especially if he is reasonably bright.  When he declines to read in front of the class or stumbles on his words he will allow the world to assume that he is just shy.  He will announce that he hates reading and then no one will know for sure unless they explore in depth.

Why won’t the teacher be concerned?  If the child is generally well behaved, is scraping through in reading and passing in the other parts of Language Arts and the other subjects, that’s good enough.  Many teachers have the attitude that reading is not part of other subjects so don’t support weak students with new vocabulary or more sophisticated grammar in subjects like history or science.  They may believe that they need to accommodate the child in learning the material, not in means of learning the material.  What they forget is that reading and writing are fundamental to academic success.              The language and thought of each subject needs to be learned along with the subject matter itself.

In addition, the teacher will have a handful of students who are working below grade level and others who have been identified as needing support.  The teacher will have her hands full doing the paperwork for those students and planning for them as well as the normal workload for her class.  A brief interview with the parents of the struggling reader and a suggestion that they read with her at home may be all she has time for.  She could suggest educational and psychological testing but she knows that the child will be low on the list and children with more serious needs will regularly be popped in ahead of their student.  In the end the child would be placed in a regular classroom with support, where she is now.

A child whose timed reading comprehension is in the 7th percentile will not get help, in fact, no one will suggest testing if she has a C average (high level 2).  Most teachers will not even suspect that she is anything more than lazy or dislikes reading

So what are the struggling reader and I to do?  I know what I will do.  Classes have finished and I have my final exam on Saturday, December 18 from 7 p. m. to 10:00 p. m.  I am going to start by spending a chunk of my studying time listening to a pod cast teaching oral Chinese and practising saying the sentences I hear.  I will still spend time every day practising writing characters and listening to sounds and writing the characters, pinyin and tones I am hearing.  With luck and hard work, by the 18th I will be able to read a simple sentence of Chinese characters and understand the meaning at the same time.  If it gives me insights into how to help the struggling reader, I will let you know.

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