reading comprehension

Reading for Meaning

By the time we reach middle and high school, what we learn is increasingly built on what we’ve learned before, reliant on the scaffolding of connections our brains have been constructing for us since we were crawling across colorful living-room carpets. But these connections, clusters of experience and information that help us make sense of the world, are still developing all the time — and the more that students can consciously access these categories of information and experience as they absorb new knowledge and master new tasks, the more confident and creative they will become. One of Smarten Up’s core messages to students is that learning itself is a learnable process: that the skill of being a student can be developed through a set of reflective habits and creative practices. 

Let’s consider the best habits for reading, a skill whose importance in the life of a student is hard to overstate. All of the work that students have done in elementary school to master the technical building blocks of reading fluency pays off as reading becomes a critical skill across disciplines, from biology to history, and from foreign languages to English literature. By this time, the decoding process has become more automatic, and students can put a larger share of their brainpower toward constructing meaning, analyzing connections, and processing information. While many of us remember ‘learning to read’ as young children, it is at this stage in our academic careers that we learn to read critically and deeply

There are concrete steps that will improve students’ ability to go past knowledge into understanding — this active reading checklist is a good place to start, with habits for before, during, and after reading. This is also where reflecting on the way we read different types of texts can be useful.  There is a clear difference between reading and writing poetry, and reading biographies of historical figures. Students should be able to approach each task with a strategy that fits its specific needs, while also recognizing the connections between distinct tasks and subject areas so that they’re not reinventing the wheel every time they approach a reading or writing assignment. One starting place is to ask: How does this content relate to what I already know? Or: how does this assignment resemble other tasks I’ve tackled in the past?

When students consider these questions, they activate prior knowledge that will shape how they understand the new content. Students should also consider, as they read, other connections they can activate to enrich the perspective they’re bringing to the text, and make the information stickier in their memory. Consider text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections. How does Hamlet’s relationship with his uncle compare to the bonds in your own extended family? Hopefully, not too closely! Can you think of any links to the often melodramatic history of royal households in medieval Europe, or the family politics in your favorite television series? What songs would you put on a moody Hamlet playlist? Ultimately, the takeaway is simple: the more that we bring with us to the reading process, the more we get out of it.

Learning to Read

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As children learn to read, the world around them takes on a whole new dimension; signs become meaningful, directions become more clear, and stories and books offer an entirely new world of fantasy, adventure, and discovery. While your child will certainly receive great instruction in school, there are tons of fun and simple ways to reinforce those lessons at home and on the go. Below you will find an overview of how great reading skills develop, and our favorite tools for supporting literacy growth.

The first building block of reading is phonemic awareness, which is a child's ability to hear and identify the sounds in spoken words.  This is a skill that can easily be developed on-the-go as you shuffle your child around the city by challenging her to think of rhyming words, or by playing I Spy with beginning or ending sounds (I spy with my little eye something that begins with a /d/ sound). 

Once your child is able to hear these individual phonemes (which is just a fancy word for sounds), she can begin to learn learn the letters that go with each one. This predictable sound-symbol association is called phonics. While this word is often synonymous with dull and repetitive exercises, it doesn't have to be. With hands-on games such as Alphabet Go Fish and Alphabet Bingo, you can spend quality time with your child and help her learn letter names and sounds. Digital resources also offer the opportunity for engaging independent practice, and the best of them allow you to monitor your child's progress as well. Some of our favorite phonics apps include Learn with Homer, Phonics Island, and Letter School, which also targets handwriting skills.

After these foundations have been laid, it will be time for your child to work on developing her fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension skills. The first is a question of practice makes perfect. The more your child reads, the better she will be able to quickly identify words; and the more your child hears a fluent reader model how to read with expression (pausing at punctuation, showing excitement at exclamation marks, etc.) the better she will learn to do this herself. The last two building blocks of literacy will develop as a result of talking with your child about books. It is important to not only ask about who, where and what is involved in a chapter or story, but to also think about bigger picture concepts and connections that can be made. What motivates a character? What are some of the problems or challenges she faced? How did she overcome them? How was the book similar or different to your child's real-life experiences? 

Most importantly, though, reading should be fun. The more you, as a parent, are able to express and share excitement and enthusiasm for stories and books, the more likely your child is to embrace the exciting possibilities of written language!