Teaching reading comprehension

"Whenever we read anything, the brain is actively putting the words into known sensory images so we may understand them. Notice that when you can't get an image of something you have read, it is difficult to determine the meaning." from Smart Moves: Why Learning is not All in Your Head by Carla Hannaford (p. 36)

I thought I had already written about teaching reading comprehension to H., but when I tried searching for it, I couldn't find it. It is the activity I came up with after one too many sessions like the one I wrote about in the this post (Pronoun Hell and other adventures along the path to comprehension). I wish I could say I completely made this up myself, but it's what I came up with after some long discussions of the comprehension problem with another wise, homeschooling mother. Much of the credit should really go to her. I'll describe what I did, and then tell you what my newest thinking is and why I wrote out that paragraph from the book I'm currently reading at the top of the post.

In discussions with my friend, we decided that H. needed some more concrete ways of attaching meaning to words. So, with the help of my trusty laminator, I made cards that names some things that she could read, words such as: girl, cake, and cat. I also made some other words... verbs so the cats and girls could do something, adjectives so we could make them pink or big or small, and then all those pesky articles and pronouns that so mystify her. The first time we used the cards, I had her draw a picture of a cat. We then used the cards to create a sentence about the cat. (Making the sentences always takes a while and needs quite a bit of coaching.) Once we had made sentences from our pictures, we then turned it around and made the sentences first and then drew a picture from the sentence.

This is a more personal variation of what I had already done with the story sequencing cards that I own. For these, I would have her order the cards, then dictate sentences about each card, which I would write. Then I would take one of these sentences and we would look at it and read it without the card in front of her, and she would then draw a picture of what the sentence said. Usually we could only get through one card a day. At the end, we then took all the sentences that she had written/dictated, and we ordered the sentences just as we had ordered the story cards.

I have alternated between these two activities and doing just straight reading for nearly a year now. Her comprehension is improving as she reads, but the idea of picturing what she is reading in her head is not something that she does automatically. When we are reading a story, I still have to stop and ask her about each sentence to be sure she has an idea of what she has read. It is slow going, though we have seen improvement.

And now we come to my flash of insight when I read that first bit I wrote out to you today. Previous to that bit, there was a discussion of how when we think about a word, the neurons that have any experience with that word all fire together. It's as if when we think of the word 'dog', our brain is flooded with all of our experiential memories of all dogs. The more dog experiences we have, the more meaning the word 'dog' has for us. I knew this, and have even experienced it in my teaching. Remember the whole marble episode from a couple of months ago? H. could read the word 'marble', but since she had little to no personal experience with marbles, the word meant nothing to her and she could not use it, even to do something as simple as counting. It took extended time playing with the marbles I had sitting on a shelf for her to understand and make use of the word marble.

I think I have been on the right track with my reading comprehension work, but I think I also haven't gone far enough. Everything I've done so far has been drawn, two-dimensional, flat. There is nothing a person can pick-up and manipulate and play with. What if I were to create three-dimensional representations of the nouns in our game? What if you could play with the items, move them around, and have their corresponding words move with them? What if lack of reading comprehension is truly a lack of imaginative play, narrated by the child?

Interesting questions, huh? So now I am on a hunt for wooden blanks of various animals and things to paint and to make into a reading manipulative toy. Wooden doll blanks are easy to find... anything else... not so much. Anyone have any leads? I suppose I could also use small plastic animals, but for some reason my gut is telling me that less-representational figures will work better.

Maybe I'm reinventing the wheel here, and someone else has already covered this territory. If so, I'd love to be pointed in the direction of where to read about it. Otherwise, I will continue to make-up experiment with different educational techniques.


Shaun said…
Obviously, 3D representations of nouns are easy. A doll is a 3D representation of "doll."

But what about verbs, adjectives, etc.?

I wonder if you might represent certain verbs as physical "paths." You might have one path for "walk" and another for "run" and another for "jump." So, for a sentence like, "The doll walks to the house," the child could manipulate the doll in a walking motion along the "walk" path to the house. And for "The doll jumps ..." the child would manipulate the doll in a jumping motion along the "jump" path.

Adjectives could either be presented by differentiating between two available objects ("The blue doll" vs. "The green doll") or maybe dressing up the doll in different outfits.
Carla said…
I just re-read your link to the "Pronoun Hell" post and I have to say that I laughed out loud while also cringing. It was very well written and I could feel your pain, even though I've never tried to teach reading comprehension.

I was also struck by how God gives us different strengths and weaknesses. I'm pretty sure I would be running, screaming, arms-flapping long before you. That said, when I learn other techniques or have a better understanding of the real struggle underneath it all, I have more patience and grace in doing what is not my natural strength.

I pray every day that God will reveal the truth to me - not just my perception of a situation.
I just ordered wooden blanks of rooster for the coming lunar new year from Amazon. You might check there. Or, I have a friend with a woodcutting business who has done custom China cutouts for us in the past. Her site is: https://www.facebook.com/Cutsbylaser

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