children’s books

How can I help my child with reading comprehension?

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008 | Reading | 1 Comment

**This article originally appeared on qwowi.com**

As a professor specializing in reading, I am frequently asked this question by worried parents.  I’m not surprised, considering how complex and confusing comprehension can be.  Although there are no “quick-fix recipes” to solve the complexities of comprehension, I can offer some relatively simple strategies.  When applied consistently and patiently, these strategies will help comprehension dramatically.  The key is to make comprehension explicit with strategy use.  Since comprehension is in our heads, and is therefore invisible and intangible, as adults, we need to make our strategy use as hands-on, concrete, and explicit as possible.

How many times have you read an entire paragraph, or even a whole page, and you have no idea what you just read? 

It happens all of the time, to the best of us!  Even really accomplished readers suffer from this same problem at times.  That is because our eyes can float over words, and our brains automatically decode the words, yet we are not truly reading because we are not making any meaning from the words.  In order to say we have sincerely read something, we have to have derived meaning from, it. Otherwise, the glossy-eyed “reading” is simply referred to as decoding, and not reading. In other words, when we read, it has to make sense, otherwise we’re not really reading. 

Comprehension is NOT natural for many people.

Many children are decoders, not readers.  Children must know that text is supposed to make sense. Similarly, lots of children, unfortunately, simply don’t know how to comprehend, merely because no one has ever showed them how to make meaning from a text.  The connections come easer and quicker for some than others.  Most adults cannot point to a specific time when they learned to comprehend.  It is something we just… did.  The problem is that some youngsters need and deserve explicit instruction in how to comprehend.  When this happens, they can grow up loving to read, and seeing the value in reading!  Not surprisingly, folks who have severe difficulties comprehending hate to read.  It’s a safe bet to assume they would love to read if they had explicit comprehension instruction.

Comprehension is an active, inner conversation

Unlike passive activities such as playing video games or watching TV, reading is an active process in our brains.  Strategic readers address their thinking in an inner conversation that helps them make sense of what they read.  Help to foster these inner (and outer) conversations with your children by discussing their texts with them. 

Readers take the written word and construct meaning based on their own thoughts, knowledge, and experiences.  Help your child to make explicit, personal connections to the text they are reading. 

Provide structure for your child to think when they read.  Children must develop an awareness of their own thinking, so that they can monitor themselves while they read.

Cognitive Capacity

In my other recent article for Query Cat entitled “How can we help struggling readers?” I shared some of the following pointers for children who are having trouble reading.  In our brains, we have what is called a Cognitive Capacity.  I sometimes jokingly refer to this concept as my “cup runneth over!”  In simple terms, when any of us feel frustrated with something, our brain power stops. There is only so much we can focus on at a given time, and the rest understandably turns to mush.  Unfortunately, we have all had what I refer to as a “meltdown,” when the stress of something just gets to be too much.  Typically, and sadly, this is exactly what happens to a reader’s Cognitive Capacity when he/she is trying to comprehend something that is just too difficult.  The child is trying so hard to decode a word– letter by painful letter– that he/she loses track, and can’t make heads or tails of the entire thing. 

I know this may seem overly simplistic, but…

Your children need books that they can actually read!  When considering your child’s reading comprehension difficulties, the difficulty level of the text may be more than 90% of the battle.  When a book is too hard, your child is using up all of his/her brain power on decoding the words, that he/she simply cannot make any sense of it. On the other hand, when your child reads books that are comfortable, he/she can have the inner conversations and attempt to make sense of the text in an enjoyable and much less agonizing way. 

8 Magical Strategies

When you regularly and thoughtfully work with your child on the following strategies, you will notice an impressive difference in not just the child’s comprehension, but probably in several other aspects of the child’s life as well.  When you teach a child to comprehend, you are also teaching a child to empathize, to infer, and to become a more tolerant, understanding person who can think outside of the box.  That is precisely why so many children struggle with comprehension—developmentally, it is difficult for children to get beyond literal, concrete understandings.  As the child becomes older, especially around 3rd grade and up, it is essential that your child gradually become more aware of others’ feelings and perspectives.  That will help him/her to understand various perspectives in texts, and in life. 

Practice these strategies patiently, one at a time, with some favorite books at home, which also happen to be at a comfortable reading level for your child.  Remember, the more explicit you make the strategies, the better your child will comprehend.  Gradually, your child will begin to implement these strategies independently, but please check in with your child consistently to see how he/she is progressing.

1.  Make connections

The first of the strategies also happens to be one of my personal favorites, because it’s fun and straightforward.  Simply encourage your child to make personal connections to the content of the book he/she is reading.  You could even jot the connections on sticky notes in colorful magic markers and stick them in the book, or make a cute chart of the connections. 

There are three different kinds of connections we tend to make while reading: text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world

Text-to-self connections are easiest.  We merely relate concepts in the book to aspects of our own lives.  For example, “I love the lake in this book.  It reminds me of our summer vacations when we always visited that lake in New York.”

Text-to-text connections are also fun and easy.  Obviously, you just relate the book you’re currently reading to another book you’ve read.  Perhaps the characters in this book remind of the characters in a book you read last week.  Also, don’t feel constricted by the text-to-text label.  I always encourage my students to think of movies and TV shows to which they can relate their books, too!

Text-to-world connections are trickier.  With these connections, you want to relate what you’ve just read to a larger, worldly phenomenon, and not just something specific to your own life.  This is hard for children, for obvious reasons.  Children have little experience beyond their personal existence.  They have yet to truly understand the world.  Likewise, developmentally, it’s challenging for many children to imagine that other people even have different perspectives than the ones to which they are accustomed.  This is where the hard work comes in for both parents and teachers.  Encourage your child to think outside the box.  Show them in compelling ways that other people may think and behave differently.  This will develop over time, so be patient!  There more explicit you are with making text-to-world connections, they better your child will become at it.

2.  Infer

Making inferences is similar to the text-to-world connection strategy.  In order for children to adequately understand, they must be able to make inferences, yet this is a difficult concept even for some adults to grasp!  Gradually work with children on drawing conclusions based on what information they know.  Likewise, show them how to make educated guesses, and to look for hints to back up their reasoning.  You could make lists and pictures together to help this strategy along.  As always, model inferring for your child in an explicit way, so that he/she can see how you derive conclusions. Do you openly empathize with others?  Do you articulate how another may have a different perspective than you?  All of these explicitly modeled behaviors will help your child with the all-too important task of inferring. 

3. Predictions

An uncomplicated strategy to foster comprehension is to simply ask your child to make frequent predictions.  Most parents and teachers make the mistake of only asking children to make predictions at the beginning of a book.  Instead, ask children to make predictions at the onset of a book, as well as at strategic points throughout the book.  This stimulates their thinking in a number of ways.  At the end of the book, discuss with children whether or not they liked the ending.  Would they have ended it differently?  If so, how? 

4.  Visualize

One of the best parts of reading is to picture the story or the content in one’s head. Ask children to describe how they picture the characters and the setting in the story. If it’s non-fiction, ask them to draw their own pictures of the content.  Another fun activity is to compare and contrast visualizations between book and movie versions of various stories.

5.  Questions

Asking children questions is the simplest and most old-fashioned way to ensure they have understood material.  Don’t just ask questions at the end of a given passage.  I would suggest stopping at strategic points to see how they are doing throughout a passage.  Furthermore, the quality of the questions themselves can also determine the quality of understanding.  Most people only ask explicit, concrete questions that only pertain to memory.  For example, “what color shirt was he wearing?”  Instead, I encourage people to ask implicit questions, which are open-ended, and to which there is not necessarily a right or wrong answer, but by which you can still determine how well the child understood.  For example, rather than asking what color shirt the character wore, in its place ask “Why was it important that the character wore a blue shirt?”  This causes the child to think in a deeper manner, without having to memorize the color of the shirt, yet you still yield rich insights pertaining to how well the child is comprehending.

6. Determine importance

When you were in high school or college, did you ever have a textbook that turned a fluorescent color because you couldn’t figure out which passages were important, so you just used a highlighter to highlight the entire text?!  This is a common scenario to which most of us can relate.  Sometimes, whether it is a text, or some other aspect of life, we have a hard time determining what is important.  It often has to do with the difficulty level of the content, and how familiar we are with it.  When a subject is overwhelming, confusing, and foreign, it is much harder to determine what is important, than when we are dealing with familiar territory, which is at a comfortable difficulty level for us. 

Practice determining importance with your child.  Explicitly model how you determine what is important.  Show your child how you might look in topic sentences, or at bullet points, titles, or headings to make more sense of a passage.  Practice highlighting a passage together.  Once children know how to extract important information, they can study better, focus better, and provide adequate retellings and/or summaries.

7.  Synthesize

Once children can determine importance, they can begin to synthesize.  The easiest way I can think of to explain synthesis to my students is to use a weaving metaphor.  When we synthesize, we have to take information from different sources, and weave it all together for ourselves.  This is no easy task!  Imagine a weaver who has to select the best spools of thread, based on her knowledge of thread.  Then, she must weave the threads together into one coherent, beautiful piece.  That is precisely what successful readers do when they comprehend.  They weave the information, or synthesize it.  I would suggest putting important facts from a book onto long strips of paper, which could represent threads.  Then, think through how you would weave those important facts together, and you could even physically manipulate the papers until you have your own quilt.  This activity helps a lot when children have to write research papers, or other written responses to text.

8.  Fix-Up Strategies

Last but not least, simply equip your child to have fix-up strategies at his/her fingertips upon which he/she can rely when information breaks down.  When you are reading, won’t you stop and re-read something when you know it’s no longer making sense?  Well, lots of children won’t do that.  They won’t stop!  They just keep going!  Together with your child, brainstorm and make a list of fix-up strategies.  The list could be as simple as “stop, go back, re-read, use a highlighter, predict, ask questions, etc.”  It doesn’t have to be anything fancy.  The two keys are that your child first recognizes when his/her comprehension breaks down, and second, knows a few things he/she can do to help mend that comprehension. 

Having explicit strategies at our fingertips is the secret to success when it comes to comprehension!

For more information, I would highly recommend the book Strategies that Work by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis.  It is the best book on the market about comprehension, and it is the source of much of the information I condensed for you into this brief article.�

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What should be on the baby’s bookshelf?

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008 | Reading | 1 Comment

** This article originally appeared on QueryCat.com. **

Although I am not a mother, I am a proud aunt and a literacy specialist, so I am frequently asked my all-time favorite question—what should be in the baby’s library?  Whether you are a parent, friend, or family member to the new bundle of joy, I encourage people to purchase books as gifts for baby.  Books are items to be cherished over time, and are much more meaningful than onesies and rattles.  Certainly, I understand there are necessities when welcoming a new child home, which are not to be overlooked.  Yet, there is no denying the lasting power of a book, especially when it is coupled with a plush toy, or even more crucial items such as the needed clothing, furniture, and diapers.  Think beyond baby showers, too.  Don’t forget any of the upcoming festivities and holidays, which are all perfect occasions for bringing books as gifts, such as birthdays, baptisms, Thanksgiving, etc.  Books are relatively inexpensive, and create enduring memories. 

Nowadays, both common sense and research tell us that reading to children regularly, from a very young age, and exposing them to books on a frequent basis, all have far-reaching effects on children’s overall well-being, but especially pertaining to their success in school.  I encourage people to read to children at any age, even from the womb, and as early as their first months of life.  In fact, there is absolutely no reason to stop reading together, even as the child grows older.  Evidence shows that older children, teens, and even adults love to hear books read aloud.

Obviously, you could read the Yellow Pages in a compelling way and the baby will listen attentively, although I do think some books are better than others!  While I have never considered myself a “book snob,” and I can easily be found rummaging through sale bins and yard sales scavenging for cheap books, some books are definitely of better quality than others.  There is no denying that some books are deservedly classics, so if you are going to make the investment, I would suggest some of the following titles.   

Board books… with a little extra

Before baby starts grabbing and placing items in his/her mouth, clearly any book is okay and safe to read.  However, before too long, little hands will be gripping pages and drool is inevitable.  That is why I would recommend board books.  Fine quality board books are made entirely of sturdy cardboard, with smooth, rounded edges.  In most cases, they are safe for infants and toddlers to handle, although please proceed with caution and keep an eye on the children.  Most board books are made with care and consideration of tots, however I have unfortunately seen plenty of board books that have been produced irresponsibly, with flimsy pull-out flaps and rough edges, which I would certainly not recommend.  Nearly all book stores and libraries have areas devoted entirely to board books in the children’s sections.  Peruse thoughtfully. 

When I purchase board books for babies, I often select the following.  These books are not only classics (or of considerable quality), but also sometimes come in gift sets with a little additional gift, such as a plush toy.

1.  My first choice is a classic most of us will recognize, Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown.  Most readers love its rhythmic, repetitive prose.  This gift set comes with baby socks that are embellished with “cow jumping over the moon.”

2.  Second, who can forget the over-eating caterpillar in Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar?  This delightful set comes with a plush toy of the starving culprit.  Carle has a whimsical, unique style; he is one of my absolute favorite author/illustrators, so I think any of his books are perfect.

3.  Third, there is no denying the popularity of Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney, which is an endearing story reminding us that there is no contest when it comes to how much a parent and child love one another.  Since it’s the perfect bedtime story, cuddle up at bedtime with the accompanying plush rabbit in this gift set.

4.  Fourth, the lyrical language and playful quality of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen is always a crowd pleaser.  It could be fun to act this one out with the supplementary plush bear in this gift set.

5.  Fifth, is an exceptionally written and illustrated tale of maternal love in Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, which also comes with a plush owl toy. This book will easily follow children into their pre-school and early reading days.

6.  Sixth, is another classic tale most will remember—naughty Peter Rabbit, who wanders into Mr. McGregor’s garden, despite his mother’s warnings.  The exquisite text and illustrations by Beatrix Potter, all accompanied by this plush toy version of Peter, are the ideal gift.

7.  Seventh, another recognizable, timeless text is Pat the Bunny by  Dorothy Kunhardt.  You may remember that this book is already tactile in nature, yet it still comes in a gift set with a plush bunny for additional play.

8. Last, for bedtime, I would recommend snuggling up with either Time for Bed by Mem Fox, or Tell Me Something Happy Before I go to Sleep by Joyce Dunbar.  Both come with book-themed night lights in these gift sets.

Cloth Books

Another often over-looked option to the more popular board books are cloth books.  Cloth books are simply not as prevalent as board books, but they are nonetheless a great option, since they’re soft, cuddly, and washable.  As with anything else, I would be careful of choking and suffocation with these items, but cloth books provide an excellent tactile experience for infants and toddlers.

If you decide to go the cloth book route while shopping, I would suggest a popular book such as P. D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother?  This fun, playful, repetitive text captivates young children.  When I was a full-time babysitter and child day care provider in my college years, I had this book memorized!

Book Sets

On a special occasion, such as a milestone birthday, or a religious service such as a baptism/christening, please consider a slightly pricier option for book gifting, such as the following book sets.  As the impractical friend and fabulous aunt, I have been known to show up to baby showers with heavy armfuls of book sets, instead of with blankets and pacifiers.  Book sets tend to be slightly more expensive, so please shop with care, and follow the suggestions of others and your own instincts to ensure you are purchasing classic books and books of significant quality.  Perhaps most importantly, see these book sets as important, meaningful investments.  Book sets are items that families will cherish for years, and are far more poignant than lots of other gifts.  Children will grow into these books, and will treasure them for decades.  Remember, by buying the books as a set, you are purchasing several books in one keepsake box, often by the same author.

Here are some suggestions:

1.  Years ago, when my older cousin and his wife had their first child, I showed up at the baptism with the World of Peter Rabbit Box Set by Beatrix Potter.  While it’s certainly easier to throw some cash in a greeting card, I am confident this classic box set created unparalleled memories.

2.  One of my frequent purchases for baby showers is Jan Brett’s Little Library Box Set.  Since the set comes with three of Brett’s most famous books, in board book format, it’s an excellent price, and Brett’s artwork is superb with its delicate details.  This one never disappoints!

3.  Even if my other suggestions have not been familiar, here is one everybody will recognize.  Consider the Pooh Library original 4-volume set.  With the beloved, wisdom-filled text of A.A. Milne and Ernest H. Shepard’s unmatched, elegant illustrations, you’ll be the hit of the party with this gift!

4.  Trust me—I used to teach 1st grade, and my next suggestion will not only tantalize an infant or toddler with its rhythmic language, but will also be a new reader’s best friend.  The Brown Bear & Friends Board Book Gift Set is perfect for children of many ages and stages.  You can’t go wrong with any of Bill Martin and Eric Carle’s classic texts.

5.  One way to create lasting memories with the children in your life is to read nearly any text by Maurice Sendak.  There are too many to name, but I would suggest the Nutshell Library (Caldecott Collection) Box Set by Maurice Sendak, which includes four memorable books that will entertain children for years.

6.  My final suggestion is the only recommendation that may be gender-specific to girls, although there is absolutely no reason a little boy cannot enjoy the Madeline’s House Book Set by Ludwig Bemelmans.  Children adore the exciting adventures of Madeline and her friends from the girls’ school in Paris.

In conclusion…

The next time you (or one of your friends) organize a baby shower, instead of the typical wishing wells and silly games common to showers, consider having a book-themed shower, and have a box devoted just to book gifts. 

Furthermore, I would just like to re-emphasize that I am as frugal as the next person, and I am far from being a “book snob.”  As a child, I adored the simple, formulaic books my mother would purchase me from grocery stores, and I still own all of the inexpensive Little Golden Books that loved ones gave me over the years.  Also, don’t forget the library, where the books are borrowed for free!  Owning the books is certainly not imperative!

Obviously, there are far more classic picture books than I could ever name in one, simple article. I will write future articles about additional picture books to follow children into their growing years.  Last but not least, I never even mentioned the array of playful, fun counting books and alphabet books that are currently on the market.  In short, have fun when browsing in the children’s book section, and select titles that resonate with you.  Just remember that a book is a far more powerful gift than a toy the child will quickly forget.  When you buy a book, you create a sincere memory.

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What are some simple things we can do at home to make reading more fun for children?

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008 | Reading | No Comments

** This article originally appeared on QueryCat.com **

Let’s face it—whether we like it or not, it is all too common for children to be more enthralled with a television show or a video game than to be enchanted with a book.  Admittedly, even though I hold a Ph.D. in Reading, and I am a University professor, I can often be found spending hours in front of the TV, rather than with books.  Still, my heart breaks a little every time I hear a child proclaim that he/she hates to read, or that reading isn’t fun.  In this article, I will share simple, affordable tips for making reading a fun activity to do at home.  In our efforts, we want to create authentic experiences surrounding reading so that children will actually want to read, and so that through reading, children will make strong, personal connections.

Here are some straightforward tips to help us get started:

  • One of the reasons many of us prefer television over reading is because the two activities utilize and stimulate different areas of the brain.  Not surprisingly, watching television tends to be a more passive activity.
  • If your child claims that he/she hates to read, it is often not true.  Frequently, a child who is struggling with reading realizes what a fun and important activity it is, but the child’s embarrassment over his/her difficulties with reading cause him/her to declare reading as a boring or distasteful activity.  If your child describes reading as a tedious or intolerable activity, the answer could be as simple as finding books he/she can actually read with comfort and enjoyment.
  • Last but not least, reading is fun!  Show your child that it is!  Do you read at home?  If not, you may have just uncovered why your child does not think reading is fun.  You are the most powerful force in your child’s life.  You need to model meaningful reading everyday, just as you would model healthy eating and exercising.  Just as you would make nutritious foods and exercise an important aspect of your day, make reading a genuine part of your everyday life.  After all—life is what we make of it.  Just as a personal fitness trainer would advise you to select exercises you actually enjoy and that you can do painlessly, I am merely suggesting the same with reading.

In my other recently featured article on QueryCat entitled, “How do we foster a love of reading in our children?” I wrote:

“Carve out special time in the day and/or week, whether it’s at bedtime, or Sunday afternoons, when you can create ‘warm fuzzy’ memories together that are associated with reading.  By ‘warm fuzzy’ I mean a multi-sensory experience, which doesn’t have to be fancy.  The fact is that the reading will be more memorable and enjoyable if you bring your child’s senses alive along with the experience, whether it’s enjoying a mug of hot chocolate along with the book, or reading beneath a make-shift tent made from chairs and a blanket.  Be creative!”

By inventing fun activities surrounding reading that you can do regularly, you will establish a firm foundation of reading in your child’s life, which can yield joy you may have previously thought was unimaginable.  In another article I recently wrote for QueryCat entitled, “How can we help struggling readers?” I said, “I challenge you to think of creative ways to make reading more fun in your households, so that it just becomes another healthy aspect of your lifestyles.  Reading is just another activity we hope children will do independently, and successfully.” 

I am a woman who practices what she preaches!  So, in my own efforts to come up with creative ways to bring reading alive at home, I pondered inexpensive and simple ways to bring favorite books alive in passionate, memorable ways for elementary-aged children. 

A couple of years ago, Southern New Hampshire University thought of an ingenious way to merge the efforts of their students who were majoring in Education, with students who were majoring in Culinary Arts.  Future teachers and future chefs seemed like an unlikely pair, yet the results were unmistakably, deliciously creative… all the while making reading fun.  College-aged students collaborated with elementary-aged students to make book-themed cookies.  They all savored cookies while delighting in reading the books upon which the cookies were based.

Whether it is making artwork, cookies, or make-shift forts… couple great books with great, simple projects.  Make reading a lively, multi-sensory experience each week in your home.

Here are some suggestions, which are based upon the recommendations I provided to the University students for their Cookies & Books Party:

1.  I immediately thought of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes.  It would be great fun to make cookies shaped like the main character—a mouse, or of her purse, of course!

2.  Kevin Henkes is one of my favorite author/illustrators, so I also thought of his book Kitten’s First Full Moon, which won the Caldecott Medal in 2005.  It is a favorite among elementary-aged students.  Children could make moon or kitten- shaped cookies!
3.  You might want to throw in a classic book or two, such as Where the Wild Things Are.  You can’t go wrong with this Maurice Sendak classic tale of Max, visiting the wild creatures.  Imagine the monster-shaped cookies!
4.  Along the line of classic children’s picture books, you might consider a title or two by other all-time favorite author/illustrators, such as Eric Carle or Tomie dePaola.  Carle’s Very Busy Spider or Very Hungry Caterpillar would inspire gorgeous web-shaped or butterfly-shaped cookies.  Tomie dePaola also has many classics, such as The Art Lesson, which may inspire palette or paint brush themed cookies.

5.  Getting back to more modern literature for children, I would recommend a relatively new title, Traction Man is Here by Mini Grey.  It is a British book that won awards all over the world.  I have it has required reading in my current university-level children’s literature class, and my adult students adore the book.  There are so many ideas for cookies from that book, too.  Traction Man is a modern day super hero, so children could make cookies shaped like his cape, etc.

6.  Last, on a more serious, academic note, I might recommend a more educational title such as Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson.  This book has exquisite illustrations of quilts, and how quilts have historically played a role in the lives of African Americans, especially with roots to the Underground Railroad.  Children could make gorgeous, colorful cookies shaped and designed like quilts.

Of course, these are merely ideas to help spark your own creations.  I am confident that you and your children can come up with even better ideas!  Please don’t feel restricted to cookies, either.  Painting, clay, sidewalk chalk, or even non-baked items in the kitchen would all be intriguing ways to make reading a sincere blast on a regular basis in your home.  I would even recommend a trip to the library for books, quickly followed by a brief excursion to a dollar store for inexpensive items and inspirations to go along with your reading adventures.

After exploring reading in these invigorating ways, on a regular basis in your home, I would be shocked to hear that your child still says reading is boring or that he/she hates it.  Who knows—you and your children may just even be pulled away from the television long enough to enjoy a chapter book or two together!

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