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Questions About Reading Comprehension

Question of the Day! Questions About Reading Comprehension

I have received the following questions many times over my 50 years while teaching gifted children: 

“Why does my child do so well on math testing and perform so poorly on math word problems?” 

“Why does my son read at a fourth grade reading level, but performs terribly on his second grade standardized reading comprehension testing?” 

“Why can my child’s reading speed be 85 wpm, but his oral comprehension is horrible?” 

“Why does my child do so well on math testing and perform so poorly on math word problems?” 

This question is so timely. Today I was going over math word problems with a home schooled second and third grader. Each of them made the same mistake. The problem stated, 

“Gorad counted the pets in his neighborhood. He counted 23 cats, 74 dogs, 2 birds,                and 1 guinea pig. How many pets did he count?”

Each of their answers were wrong, so I asked them to read the problem aloud. As they read it aloud, they realized, in an aha moment, that they had forgotten to add the 1 guinea pig. It wasn’t until they read it aloud that they even saw the last item, because it was on the next line of the page. This is a very common mistake, because we do not read accurately when reading silently.

The rules  for reading word problems never fail students:

1. Read the questions three times aloud or in your head three times focusing on each word. Use your finger to make sure you are reading every word. The first read is to get familiar with the  problem.

The second read is to identify the question being asked. (Many students answer a question that is not asked because they jump to conclusions. It’s their brain’s desire to keep active, so this actively can be too slow, but necessary for the brain to focus on what’s important.)

The third read is to collect and highlight the data and the key operation words needed to answer the question. Ei The words “together,” “total,” “combined” indicate the addition operation. The words “put into equal groups,” and “divided equally: are division words. “Equal groups of’ indicates multiplication and “left” is a subtraction operation word.

Using the highlighted data, perform the operations indicated by the words in the problem.

Reread the question and check to see if all data is used and the operation performed matches the words used in the question.

Place the answer in a sentence form. Using the question as a guide, take the key words and begin your sentence with those words to guarantee the correct question is answered. In the example above, the students’ answers were “Gerod counted 100 pets in his neighborhood.”

One parent posted a question about an answer missed on his math test. The parent was asking others on the Facebook page for reasons it could be wrong. It turned out this student wrote an expression instead of an equation. This is where many students make mistakes on standardized tests. They often jump to conclusions about the question. The question said, “Write an expression for the calculation of 34 minus 5 times the difference of 11 and 6.” Had the student highlighted the word ‘expression’he would have had a better chance of getting it correct. He wrote and equation. That was not what the question asked him to give. It’s important for students to approach their teachers to find out why they have items marked incorrectly. This allows the teacher to discover how the students are taking in information. The first recommendation from this teacher could have been, “You need to highlight the key terms used in the question.” 

“Why does my son read at a fourth grade reading level, but performs terribly on his second grade standardized reading comprehension testing?” 

I remember a second grade student who loved reading the Harry Potter books. He would devour them. He could read most the words, but when asked about the story line he would miss it. As he was reading, he was creating his own story about what the thought was happening in the book. He missed every comprehension question, but that did not stop his enjoyment of the book.

My own granddaughter was at grade level at the time when she was in second grade. She was not equipped to read this series, but all the older children in the carpool were talking about the book, so she insisted on getting it. She is much older now and has reread the series. Her comment was, “Wow, this book is much different than when I read it in second grade.” She was reading words but not the story. This is very common. I wouldn’t stop them from the enjoyment of reading, but I would also work on passages that require they learn how to read for comprehension purposes. 

Reading for pleasure and reading for comprehension are two different skills. To perform well on tests students need to focus on questions asked, not what they assume is the answer. 

The following story will provide an example of what I mean:

I had spent a month working with children to answer questions with a complete sentence using the exact words in the questions to keep them focused on the question. I issued an assignment that required students to use the topic and concluding sentences and support them with at least three-four supporting details. One student approached me,  because I had marked her answer incorrect. I trained students to ask for clarification so they knew why they did not get the points on a test. This third grader stated, “I think you graded my paper wrong. I wrote a great topic sentence, offered you five supporting details, I varied my sentence starts, and I concluded the paragraph with a solid concluding sentence.” 

I reassured her that she followed the pattern of a paragraph to the “T,” however, she did not answer the question asked. Like many bright students, she read the question too fast, did not use the words in the question to create a topic sentence, which resulted in her missing the crucks of the question. I asked her to go outside and read the question aloud three times, emphasizing the words differently each time. This forced her to read each word. It slowed her reading so she could hear what the question meant. Proficient silent readers don’t read each word. They scan and read phrases, which when answering test questions can result in not truly understanding the questions asked. In her case, like for other proficient and bright readers this is exactly what happened. 

When she returned from reading the question aloud, she said, “I didn’t answer the question asked.” I gave her the opportunity to write another paragraph that would answer the question. 

To help students become better readers for testing purposes, especially for students who can devour a book in two days, I ask that they do the following before answering any question:

  1. Relax and have confidence that even if you don’t think you know the answer right away, it will come by following the rest of the steps.
  2. Read it aloud or in their mind at least three times. Ask the teacher if you can leave the room to read the question aloud. 
  3. As they read, identify words that must be understood in order to answer the question. May times students will guess what new vocabulary words are used in the question resulting is missing the question. It is perfectly okay to ask the meaning of words unless they are words that are being tested. 
  4. Ask the teacher for the meaning of the word, so the question makes sense.
  5. Highlight the key words. These are the words that tell your pencil what to do. For instance in the question: “Name the three small items the Kwakiutl made from cedar.” Three tells how many, small indicates size, Kwakiutl indicates who, and cedar tells what from. 
  6. Once the key terms are highlighted, the beginning of the answer can begin by using the words. I.e. Name the three small items the Kwakiutl made from cedar.
  7. Now write the sentence: The three small items the Kwakiutl made from cedar were masks, hooks, and bags. 
  8. Check your answer to be sure you have answered each part of the question.
  9. If the question still is blocking the student, have them skip it and come back to it. Sometimes the answers to one question can be found in another. The brain also needs time to find the answers. It has so much information to weed through because it is always taking in information that could be a future answer without us even realizing it. I have often been known to say, “I don’t know where that answer came from, but it sounds good.” My brain is continually filtering out information at a conscious level, so I can focus, but it is also allowing a lot of information into my brain at the subconscious level. When I relax, the brain goes searching. It wants to find answers and won’t stop until we tell it to with negative self-talk. 
  10. If they have moved into the stress response, all answers will be blocked until the student has allowed the blood to return to the brain. During stressed moments, the blood flows to the legs. Skipping a question and coming back to it while saying, “I know this answer, I’ll come back to it,” will reduce the stress and allow the blood to flow freely and that provides fuel for the body to continue the search for the answer. Worrying about getting the problem wrong will actually result in what they are worried about. Worry stops flow. 

“My child’s reading speed is 85 wpm, so why does he have horrible oral oral comprehension?” 

This is a very common question. Focus on speed will impact some children’s comprehension.  Children who love to read do not read every word, but in fact read in phrases. When they are asked to read orally and also remember what they read, it is very challenging for them. They have to slow their reading speed down so far that their brain gets bored and starts day dreaming. I have read books aloud to children and not been able to recall any of the details of what I just read unless I have stopped after a paragraph and asked them questions. I personally can read a whole chapter and not recall anything I have read. The material wasn’t interesting enough for me to focus on the words, so my brain went somewhere else that was more stimulating and my daydream is what captured my attention. 

When children are aware that this can happen to them, they will take the advice of stopping to think about what they read before moving onto the next paragraph. Taking time to reflect will improve comprehension. Their comprehension will improve when they reflect often. With deep material I will reflect after each sentence. When reading a book, it’s important to reflect before turning the page. The brain consolidates what was read on a page so it is ready to take in new information when the page is turned. 

Asking oneself questions about what they will be reading before they begin is a great way to improve reading comprehension. They can scan the headings, subheadings, pictures, read the questions at the end of the chapter, and study cartoons before delving into the material. There were many times in college when I was unsure about answers to questions. Highlighting the key terms in the question helped me recall the page where the information could be found, and in my mind, I could visualize what was on the page. This allowed me to answer the question. I was once asked to tell the name of a poem and the poet with just one line from the poem. The book had over a 1000 pages, so I couldn’t remember the details, but for some reason I could remember it was on page 329 of the book. I got credit for the answer. I hadn’t tried to remember it, I simply relaxed and the number popped in my head.

To improve reading comprehension excellent readers need to change their focus from speed to reading for accuracy. 

Please comment on this blog post. Was it helpful? Do you have further questions? I’m here to help. My goal is to be of service to others now that I am retired. 

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