Many times I’ve had teachers say “Oh Jordan reads perfectly, but he doesn’t understand a darn thing he has read! I’m so frustrated. What should I do?” What they mean is that Jordan’s fluency and decoding skills are fine, but YET he still doesn’t comprehend what he has read. This is not an uncommon problem with dyslexic and non dyslexic readers. They simply are not processing what they are reading.
The main reason why many students are lost in the web of words is that they are not reading for a PURPOSE. As a matter of fact, they don’t understand why they are sitting there, why they are learning about rocks, and why it isn’t time for lunch. Teaching students to learn concepts and read material without a strong purpose behind it lacks authenticity, and so students respond by zoning out. Dyslexic students really zone out and pray for the torture to end.
When teaching dyslexic students and struggling readers, I provide ways in which they can read for a reason. This helps them center their energies with a specific focus instead of trying to commit to memory every piece of information. They are now on a mission–but the mission is POSSIBLE.
All fiction has a formula, though subtle. (I’m not talking about formula fiction found in specific genres). The formula is that usually there is a problem and the problem needs to be fixed or changed to bring equilibrium back to the story. In more sophisticated writing there can be multiple problems (or plots or story lines) of varying importance.
One strategy I use is to have students read the cover and the first two pages of a book and make a PREDICTION of what the problem is going to be in the story. I teach them that every story has a problem–and it needs to be solved. In literary terms, the exposition and rising action lay out the probem. The climax is when the problem is solved. Notice how I avoid the stale, “Ok boys and girls what do you think this book is going to be about.” DUH–they can usually figure this out by the title and pictures (if there are any)–even my dyslexic students can do this. I then write their ideas down.
Then I ask them to predict how that problem is going to be solved. I write these ideas down. Their goal is to see if they can accurately predict the problem and solution (by accessing prior knowledge, gathering info from the excerpt they have read, and encouraging higher order thinking skills). It becomes a mystery game! And now they have a PURPOSE for reading and the text is no longer a pile of words thrown together.
Now I let the reading begin, whether it’s partner reading, crisscross reading, or silent reading. With short fiction it’s easy to accomplish this task. So when my students finish reading, we review their answers, and I give them points (not tied into a grade, but serving as a visual high five) for how accurate they were with predicting. But we’re not done with the task. They have to PROVE to me why they are right and find the page or pages for evidence. If they are wrong, they also have to show me why. I’m asking them to clarify what they have read.
Now imagine a dyslexic student doing this. This is no easy task for a struggling reader, but I can assure you several things:
- The students and I work on this skill a lot. It is not achieved in one hour or one day. Also this is how people read in the real world–to gather information and use it.
- My dyslexic students become very good at this focused activity to build comprehension, and their comprehension skills tend to exceed some of their non dyslexic peers by creating a simple streamlined task for them to complete.
- They often transfer this to other classes and subject areas.
Once again, it’s very important to establish a PURPOSE for reading nonfiction as well. Nonfiction can be more problematic because of the vocabulary words and new concepts. It has an advantage in many cases too. Boys love nonfiction, and students by far love learning about amazing, weird, and surprising aspects of our environment. It’s all good!
Of course I use good reading strategies like introducing troublesome words first so that students can at least make it through the text, but it’s also important not to help them too much. Students need to struggle sometimes with new words to test and practice good decoding strategies–but, that is another post!
Once again I ask students to read the cover and first two pages in order to PREDICT what they are GOING TO LEARN. Notice the change in focus. I explain to them that nonfiction books are informational–they give us new information about ideas and there is no main character or problem to be solved. It’s just cool information to learn about.
So after priming the pump I ask them PREDICT what they are going to learn about in the book. Sometimes I have them do this verbally and other times I have them write their ideas on the board. When they have exhausted all their ideas, they begin to read for a PURPOSE–students are particularly motivated if they had a few primo ideas on the board. You know they are reading with their predictions in mind, but also want to rack up points for being the ones to find the other information as well. Once again, this is a search and find game with a PURPOSE.
After they are done reading, we go through the list and say, “Well did we learn about that?” If yes, where did you find it? And if we didn’t, how do you know for sure? Where could you figure out if the material was there and you missed it? (Table of contents, indexes). Pages are usually flying at this point. And once again, they are learning to clarify what they know.
When we’ve explored the topic, I usually say, “Hey, was there anything that you WANTED to learn, but it wasn’t in in the book?” Ahh so now they are thinking beyond the text. Of course this brings on more excitement and I tell them how I’m going to find some books for them to read to find those answers to their questions. Once again–they have another PURPOSE for reading. I also have used You Tube videos too and to learn more about the topic. Don’t be afraid to use all forms of literacy!
And a lot of times after we have compiled a list of what they have learned I’ll say–“I think you make this into a paragraph! How could you start this?” This builds writing skills and helps them synthesize what they have learned into a coherently, logical paragraph. Each detail builds on one another.
This is just one easy way to build comprehension skills in students no matter what their skill level. This can easily be adapted for any reading material at any grade level. By the way, I was working with 3rd and 4th grade struggling and dyslexic readers. I was so proud of them after they mastered these skills because I felt it built their confidence in understanding WHAT and WHY they were reading and they could transfer the skills to other settings.
Don’t get me wrong–they struggled with decoding, had problems with phonics and phonemic awareness too–but I was able to find texts for them to succeed at and challenge them too. These were dyslexic students, but with patience and diligence they learned.