Reading Comprehension

Two weeks ago I took a little vacation and visited with my daughter, who is studying in Edinburgh.  In pursuit of seeing more of Scotland, we stayed for a night in a lovely, ancient B and B, really more of a hotel, near Ft. William. From the massive windows and through persistent rain, our view was of snow-covered mountains, drifting clouds and the blue-gray mist that marks locations where the land hits the sea.  This was a little hotel that had no one at the desk until they were called with a satin bell ringer.  After storing our bags, we wandered into the library, now referred to as “the Library at Craig Mohr”.

This room was graced with three couches and a multitude of chairs, a fireplace with wood burning and two walls of books. Wall sconces shed just a little light and the seats of the leather chairs were concave from years of body weight. I must add that this charming place also had a full whiskey bar tucked in another corner, locked tightly in a cage during daylight hours, adding to the charm of the place.  But the real story has to do with my observations of the library during the next 24 hours. This room was a Sanctuary to the Written Word.  Everyone who entered the room paused and then wandered to the books, found one or two and chose the perfect place to snuggle in, and opened the doors to another world.  A pleasant hello or an exchange of history, “where are you from” and usually “oh I have been to The States,” followed by a return to the books. The adventure into other worlds included the history of climbing in the Highlands, stories of English naval conquests, mysteries set in castles, and gardening books filled with botanical wonders. This room enticed you to these adventures, perfectly designed to choose and read without rush or distraction, to reflect and to share.

For many months now I have been pondering the issue of students and reading comprehension.  I am discovering studies about how American students are losing comprehension skills at an alarming rate. I see many Childpeace students who read well but do not understand the context of what they are reading.  The Library at Craig Mohr offered me a reminder that it is hard to find, outside of public libraries, reading sanctuaries like the magical places in the Scottish countryside.  In fact, one source on this topic suggested that the foundation for reading comprehension is the student’s awareness that reading is like having a conversation.  The effects of heavy “screen time,” use of electronic reading tools, and the shift to truncated communication (like texting and tweeting) on the development of passionate and engaged readers are being seen by educators and employers.  I don’t envision the construction of a reading sanctuary in every home like the library at Craig Mohr, but I know we can focus attention on increasing the time we read to our children and to model and encourage face time with a book.  We can have dinner table discussions about what we are reading and give time for our children to share their thoughts and explain their actions.   

This work is family work as well as schoolwork and even better, it is portable work.  When you travel this summer you can find a special reading sanctuary (or library) and hopefully spend a few precious moments touching a book and hearing the voice inside.  Here are a few tips from the experts about how we can make opening a book a pathway to adventure, understanding, and the expansion of our life experiences.

  1. Monitoring Comprehension: Students who are good at monitoring their comprehension know when they understand what they read and when they do not. Your reader needs to:
    1. Be aware of what they do understand
    2. Identify what they do not understand
    3. Use strategies to resolve problems in their comprehension
  2. Metacognition can be defined as "thinking about thinking." Good readers use metacognitive strategies to think about and have control over their reading. During reading, they might monitor their understanding, adjusting their reading speed to fit the difficulty of the text. After reading, they check their understanding of what they read. A simple example: "I don't get what the author means when she says, 'Arriving in America was a milestone in my grandmother's life.'"
  3. Help students read and understand textbooks and picture books. Ask what the child sees in the picture or graph to understand how they approach the material. Use comparisons of different pictures to help the student see differences in context: Ask about the relationships within the pictures or photos. What does the student see? Ask the student to go back and tell the chronology of events—discuss what happened first and what happened next. Discuss how different characters reacted to an event.
  4. Help the student ask questions—questions require students to use what they already know, with what they have learned from reading the text. Students must understand the text and relate it to their prior knowledge before answering the question. You can guide the child to ask the right questions by modeling with your questions.
  5. Know the parts of story structure: characters, setting, events, problem, resolution. Who did what, when, where, why? Talk about these structure parts and have the student “think out loud” about the answers to these questions.
  6. Have fun—when the skills of knowing how to think about and talk about what you read are set, the fun begins.
I hope you all have a chance to find something akin to The Library at Craig Mohr this summer. The time will become family history and the discussions will help you see into the unique and special vision your child has on their world.

Sue Pritzker, Head of School
Childpeace Montessori School