Sometimes as teachers, our attempts to help students find deeper meanings in literature may have unintended consequences.
This afternoon I’m weeding through some of my books and came across one by a favorite children’s author, Jean Little — Hey World, Here I Am! On page 28 I came across a poem, “After English Class.” It’s written in the first person in the voice of Kate Bloomfield, who describes how she used to like the Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” She liked the sound of the words and their rhythm, and the imagery. She could see the snow and hear the jingling bells. I think that’s what Robert Frost would have wanted.
The next lines explain how the teacher ruined the poem for her:
But today, the teacher told us what everything stood for.
The woods, the horse, the miles to go, the sleep—
They all have ‘hidden meanings.’
It’s grown so complicated now that,
Next time I drive by,
I don’t think I’ll bother to stop.
Sometimes as teachers, our attempts to help students find deeper meanings in literature may have unintended consequences. Just as a student of biology may prefer a living whole frog to the dead one they have just dissected, the students who read a poem may just want to enjoy it and respond to it with their own imaginations. Does the dissection the teacher provides keep students from gleaning meanings they might have discovered on their own?
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New research shows how important explaining things to mom is in a child’s education. Problem solutions explained to mom help young children retain what they have learned and be able to transfer that learning to new situations. Having to explain helps develop critical thinking skills.
I’ve written a lot about the need to read aloud to young children often and in past posts we’ve given a lot of hints on how to to that, especially in When You Read Aloud, Ham it Up. I haven’t said as much about the other technique we used to see how much the children understood. That method was to ask the children to explain something to us or to put something they had read into their own words.
Now in the article referenced above, a study suggests that explaining something to Mom (and I think the same would be true of Dad) is the best way to fix the problem solving method a child uses in his brain so that the information will transfer to a different situation. The study used four and five-year-old children and gave them some classification problems to solve. Some were instructed to just solve the problems and repeat the solutions. Others were asked to solve the problems and explain to themselves how they did it (while recording), and the third group was asked to explain to their moms how they solved the problems. (The article will give you several pages of details on this experiment and the data generated.)
The results showed that those who explained the solution to themselves or their moms did much better at retaining the information than those that just repeated the solution. But those who explained to their moms did better than the other two groups at transferring what they had learned to solving different problems.
Explaining a solution forces a child to think critically about his method. Explaining to a parent is even more helpful. I would imagine that this would also extend to explaining to a teacher or tutor, but it illustrated once again how important verbal interaction with significant adults is in student learning. It’s not just important to get an answer correct, but also to know the process of getting that correct answer. Remembering that process is much easier if the student has explained it to an adult.
If we are trying to improve a child’s reading comprehension, we need to start with oral comprehension, and we should begin this when the child is still just learning to use language. This means parents need to be involved. They are their children’s first teachers, and they lay the foundation for all future learning.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? If a child can’t comprehend spoken language, he’s not likely to understand what he reads, either. We all learn to use spoken language before we learn to read. Almost any parent or teacher has those moments when they are quite sure a child has not understood a word they said, though they also might believe the children did not want to understand and didn’t really listen.
It still follows, though, that if we are trying to improve a child’s reading comprehension, we need to start with oral comprehension, and we should begin this when the child is still just learning to use language. This means parents need to be involved. They are their children’s first teachers, and they lay the foundation for all future learning. One of the first things they teach children is how to talk.
I know few parents who have taken an educational methods course in teaching children to talk. They are able, instead, to zero in on the child’s own desire to interact with them. If the parents talk, the child will want to talk. If the child wants something, he has to learn the words that will communicate his needs. He also begins to learn what the parent expects of him, and even the meaning of the word “No!” The parents will teach the names of the objects and living beings in the children’s world and some basic concepts such as over, under, through, run, push, and all the rest. By the time the child reaches kindergarten, he’s supposed to have that basic grasp of language. He will, if the parents have spent enough time interacting with him.
However, many parents are too busy and too tired at the end of a day to meet all the child’s interaction needs. Many children live with a single parent who also works outside the home. At the end of a day, the temptation is to put the child in front of the television or a video game rather than interacting with him. Thus the child has no need to to actively use his brain to understand, but can sit passively and absorb or, in the case of the video game, develop hand/eye coordination, but not improve communication skills.
What’s the solution? Reading enjoyable stories to the child for twenty minutes each night, maybe just before bed, can be a big help. The parent can go to the public library once every couple of weeks and check out books that look not only appropriate for the child’s age and interests, but that also look like they would be fun for the parent to read. Keep these books so the child has access to them at certain times of the day, and then let him pick one of them for you to read to him. There are some good suggestions in this previous post: Choosing the Best Children’s Books, Part 1. Another previous post, When You Read Aloud, Ham it Up, might also inspire you — especially if’s there’s a bit of the actor or actress in you.
We found that our own children looked forward to story time, and when we read stories to them during summer vacation, they would often round up their friends to join in. As we discussed the stories, it was easy to talk about the meanings of words they might not know, ask what they thought might happen next, ask why they thought a character behaved as he did, and so on.
Let’s take some examples from a story you may remember from your own childhood : The Little Red Hen.
As you sit with the book in your lap and your child next to you, begin the story. The process of making bread as it’s described here may be entirely new for your child, so you can talk about what the hen is doing and why. Here are some questions that would be perfectly natural:
What is the hen doing with the wheat? Why?
What other jobs does the hen need to do to make the bread?
What does the hen ask the other animals to do?
Do they want to help her do any of the jobs?
Why do you think they don’t want to help her?
When the bread is ready to eat, do they want to help her eat it?
Does she let them? Should she have shared? Why or why not?
These questions will not only help you make sure the child is understanding the facts in the story — what’s happening, but also will let you know what the child is thinking about the story line itself. Does the child think the hen should have shared? Did the child think it wasn’t fair for the hen not to share? Does he see the point that the animals didn’t want to help with the work, but thought they were entitled to the result of the work whether they had helped or not? This involves higher thinking skills than just knowing what happened.
Almost any folk tale lends itself to a good discussion as you read it aloud. If you have a discussion like this several times a week when you read a story together, your child will naturally learn the comprehension skills they will later try to teach in school : main idea, figurative language, context clues, reading for detail, inference, cause and effect, drawing conclusions, fact or opinion, logic and reasoning, and predicting outcomes. If he can figure out the main idea orally, it will be easier to find it in a passage he reads in school, because he will know what a main idea is. He has learned that the main idea in The Little Red Hen is that those who do not want to help with the work should not expect to share in the results of the work. To see if they can apply this to other situations, you might ask them for examples of this same main idea in what they observe from life. (If a child won’t share his toys with others, should he expect the others to share their toys with him?) You get the idea. Now, if you apply it, your child will be well on his way to improving reading comprehension later on.