Reading to Learn After Learning to Read

posted by Sangitha Krishnamurthi , July 21, 2019

Are your children understanding what they read? Special educator and mum, Sangitha Krishnamurthi, gives us some strategies to assist with comprehension and in taking our kids to the next level of reading.

Climbing into the trenches of teaching, I learned a lot. I love to read. Reading is such an integral part of everything that I never questioned/studied it. While I think that is ideal – that one reads and does related stuff automatically, what when some link doesn’t happen? And not necessarily because the child has learning issues. We have children whose native language might be the one spoken primarily at home, parents who aren’t as well versed in English as they’d like their children to be, when children who read really, really well can’t comprehend what it is they read. Without getting all caught up in the technical aspects of reading, here’s a list of what I would have liked to know as a parent.

Caveat: For most of this, there’s no way of making common rules/black and white assessments, et al. I think though that knowing this will give adults an idea of whether the child is on the required plane or completely floating in space!

Credits: Many books and many people who pointed me to these books and other resources. Too many to name them all but Daily 5 and Reading Cafe are two major sources of information.

1. Reading isn’t limited to books

Reading impacts everything you do in life. There’s a component of reading everywhere – often a teacher will say some stuff and write down something that is a different point or a different take on the same point. Often the fine print is in writing and we know that’s where the rub is most of the time. This myth that math and reading are unrelated is just that, a myth. The tricks in math come when language enters the picture, little words like ‘from’ and ‘than’ end up governing the direction of the calculations. So even if a family or child aren’t going to be engaged, immersed, passionate readers, they will have to be some kind of a reader to function in life. Reading isn’t optional. You need it to play games, directions, shop names….the tiny things we take for granted.

2. That a child can read words on a page isn’t what reading is only about.

That is decoding…not getting semantic but the process of reading starts with decoding a word. The next few parts are comprehension: the linking of the word to its meaning, figuring out the relevance, connecting it to something we have seen, heard or experienced before and beginning a mental picture of what this means in the whole sequence of what you’re reading. Reading is used in common usage as a word synonymous with decoding. Reading is way more.

3. Without comprehension, the level the child is reading at isn’t majorly relevant.

Decoding can be done in several ways – phonics, breaking up words and using syllables, etc. So, even very big and hard words can be read in ways approximating a decent pronunciation, most of the time. The crux of reading is in the making sense of what was read. I am talking general idea here to start with. Saying a 6-year-old read the first Harry Potter means they decoded and got the general idea (maybe), something different from what a reader at an older age (maybe even a very basic level reader at a higher age) would get out of it. This is why many readings of a book bring us many more meanings…the book hasn’t changed, we bring in our additional abilities and life experience.

There are your exceptional prodigies but for most of us, it is important to see if the comprehension follows along appropriately. As a parent, we need to ascertain this. Providing books and having kids read alone is not comprehension building for most children.

4. The activities that assist reading may not have much to do with reading!

Unless children have exposure to real places, experiences or conversations, reading alone may not be as meaningful. Children who are first generation English learners are good examples. We have children who hadn’t done so many things – played in a playground as equals, entitled just from being children, going to malls, eating in restaurants, going to plays or concerts. For these children, references to these concepts (even in children’s books) might need more. Maybe a book that describes the experience, maybe an adult who has a conversation on what it is and the expectations of a place like that…making sense of reading is linked to non-paper, real world experiences.

I don’t mean to say that everyone has to go to a mall to know it. Many of us read about snow without knowing what it was. However, we had other things that gave us these meanings, whether they were intentional or inferred over several references over many environments. If I hadn’t been taught to use a fork and knife at home, I wouldn’t have recognized it and known to use it in a restaurant. At times like this, just like a picture in a book would have helped me know about a fork, at another time, the experience would augment this learning through books.

The exposure provided to kids in both listening to the language around them (whether they understand the words or not) and in experiencing what on surface seems unrelated feeds into their comprehension skills.

5. Some skills need adults to intervene and discuss before they are honed.

There is no rule that a child has to master all skills related to reading by a certain age. Some of the skills related to reading and comprehension aren’t really age specific. For example, making inferences, reading between the lines – there are adults who haven’t mastered it and there are those who see more things in it than usual! While the latter is a skill alright, while everyone will and ideally should see different things, that everyone should be able to infer and get to higher order thinking skills isn’t a given. For children to start developing this, conversations and interaction with adults in this specific way help.

For example, discussing a movie on the way home with everyone’s inputs, talking about what the author /film maker/artist/musician was trying to convey as a message would help a person make inferences, read between the lines and get some feedback on whether they’re on the right track. There is no right or wrong answer – there are thoughts that are relevant and kind of on the right track and then there’s the ‘completely missed the ball park’ direction. For kids, some scaffolding might be required before they get to the right track.

6. There are some strategies we can use to help children comprehend better.

There are support systems as usual. These are some useful strategies.

7. Getting a child to read aloud to you once in a while helps.

[pullquote]Maybe building up slowly from reading street signs, getting the child to read (without realizing it is something ‘formal’ that puts him/her on the spot) could be a starting point [/pullquote].

If the child resists, there’s your answer right away – it is something he/she finds difficult and needs practice. Forcing is not the way out here. Maybe building up slowly from reading street signs, getting the child to read (without realizing it is something ‘formal’ that puts him/her on the spot) could be a starting point. Casual on surface, mindful and aware of the issue inside – for the parent. If getting the child to read isn’t the issue but the reading aloud itself doesn’t show mastery of tone, pauses in the right places, reading phrases (versus everything being word to word), accuracy and fluency, reading too fast and skipping words, reading so slow that it is tough to remember and make sense…..each of these specifics has strategies that can be used. We could model the same text at another time, use music to help build tone, give access to books on tape (read as a story, not made audio because the iPad can!), etc.

Now, words like strategies might seem like an ‘intervention’ in a formal, special ed kind of setting but it does not need to be that. A strategy sometimes just ends up being a technical word for common sense techniques like getting them to back up and re-read, getting them to connect to something familiar, asking them to track the page with a finger and read that the speed of the finger (if it is the parents’, the speed can be increased or decreased as required), etc – simple stuff that just needs the parent to know and spend some time working on.

8. Writing is directly linked to reading.

The way a child writes improves with exposure to reading. Whether we’re trying or not, we absorb writing styles, different ways sentences are structured, the use of words and variance in that within a paragraph, the way paragraphs are structured, a feel for whether a word looks right or not, whether the page looks well presented….you name it. We also absorb the logic, flow and organization of texts. This is the foundation on which good writing happens.

9. This concept of meta-cognition is important.

This basically means that self-awareness is internalized. That when I do something, I am aware that I am in the process of doing it. Mindful of the fact that I am rushing through it, that I haven’t got it and need to re-read, that I am in the process of committing a common mistake (whatever that is…assuming I am aware of that already). This skill is what gets us to rectify based on prior experience. In Tamil they say, ‘nalla mattuki oru shoodu’ – meaning literally that a ‘good’ cow needs only one burn. Figuratively, what they’re saying is learn from your mistake….I take it to mean don’t make the same mistake another time, make another original mistake! :-D

This sense of being aware of what we’re up to isn’t automatic. It can be taught by modeling, thinking out loud. When a question is asked, the thought process we go through could be thought out loud to model to a child how we get to where we get. Whether it is right or wrong or relevant or not isn’t the point here, it is the linking of the thought to the context, finding details to support the conclusion and the process of coming to this conclusion that is important.

The delivery of all this is possible with games, fun activities, engaged conversations and connecting time where the human connection makes it fun and learning just happens. The best way is that – when we’re learning and aren’t trying too hard!

And I thought reading and synthesis from reading was this automatic process! What do you think?

Earlier published here

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