Oral Comprehension Lays the Foundation for Reading Comprehension

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.

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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.

Little Red Hen by Paul Galdone
Little Red Hen by Paul Galdone

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.

Sight Words or Phonics?

What’s the best approach to teaching children to read — sight words or phonics? Let’s take a look at Dr. Fry’s approach.

I just read a blog that discussed some of the virtues of rote memorization and it reminded me of the old question about whether children should learn to read by learning sight words or by learning phonics. Sight words are memorized and often learned by drilling on them. The late Dr. Edward Fry produced a lot of materials that help children learn sight words, but he also wrote materials on teaching phonics and spelling.

He recognized that some of our most often used words in English don’t follow the rules of phonics. He is widely recognized for his list of 1000 Instant Words which are intended for children to recognize by sight after a series of exercises, drills, games, flashcards, and other memorization aids. Some of these words, such as in, on, he, be and fish, also obey phonics rules and can be sounded out, but when a child is first learning to read, it’s discouraging to have to stop and sound out every word and lose track of the meaning. It’s very satisfying to be able to read a complete sentence or story without having to stop often and sound out words. Think what it would do to our adult reading speed and comprehension to have to sound out every word we read? By learning the most common words by sight, a child or illiterate adult can have the satisfaction of really reading, not just decoding words. She will understand “A doll is a toy.” if she reads it at a normal speed instead of struggling over every word.

On the other hand, as a child continues on the path of learning to read, it would be burdensome to have to memorize every single word he will ever need to read. Dr. Fry recognizes that understanding the sounds attached to letters is also necessary for a child to become an and independent and proficient reader. He brings these two approaches together seamlessly in his Spelling Book Grades 1-6: Words Most Needed Plus Phonics.

Let’s look at the first lesson for first grade. Only ten sight (or instant) words are introduced: the, of, and, a, to, boy, girl, man, woman, baby. Though the teacher is given teaching suggestions, this is not a workbook. The student pages may be reproduced for student use, but the teacher decides how to best teach the words.

Under the list of words is a list of phrases using the words so that the students can practice seeing and reading the words in context. Samples of the phrases are man and woman and to the boy and girl. Students could practice reading these aloud and the phrases could also be used for dictation exercises, since this book also teaches spelling.

The last parts of the lessons involve age-appropriate word study. In the first grade lesson we used as an example above, students learn about how the phonogram an is used in man, rancan, and pan. Then they learn in the phonics section below about the short vowel a. The included notes to the teacher in these sections spell out the rules and explanations, but I seriously doubt that the first graders will have to memorize, “The Closed Syllable Rule states that when the syllable ends in a consonant, the single letter vowel is short.” (Examples are taken from Lesson 1 of the book linked to above. ) At this stage of the game, the student may not know or care about syllables, open or closed.

That's me, with my book at the age of three.
That's me, with my book at the age of three.

When I learned to read I taught myself in much this fashion. First I memorized a very simple picture book my mother read to me over and over and then I read it back to her. She knew I’d memorized it, but I knew which word was which, so I had learned some sight words that I could recognize in other contexts. My mother would tell me about the sounds that the letters made until I was asking her for the ones I didn’t know yet. I started asking my dad about the letters I saw in the headlines of his newspaper. I was only three, but I could read. By the time I hit first grade, I was sitting in the class library section reading whatever I wanted while the teacher taught reading to all the rest of the class except another student who shared my first and middle name, who could also read.

My mother was a wise woman who realized that although I was reading above grade level, I had holes in my phonics understanding, so she sent me to a private school for a semester to learn phonics in a systematic way. (This was in the late 1940’s, when the “look, say” teaching method was in vogue.) After my phonics instruction, I flew in my reading skills. I think I would have thrived with Dr. Fy’s approach, since I would have learned the sight words in and out of context, as well as the relationships of the sounds to the words I learned every week. Seeing those relationships brings this method of teaching beyond rote memorization to understanding. I think Justin Snider, the author of the blog that inspired this one, could live with this approach. Maybe he will stop by and let us know.

When should we start formal instruction of math and grammar ?

It’s such a shame that so many children in the early grades only learn to hate school because they are pushed into tasks they are not developmentally ready for too soon. When children are ready, they will be able to learn grammar and reading and formal math quickly, without endless repetition from first grade on.

I have just finished reading a blog by Harvey Bluedorn, Research on the Teaching of Math, that confirms something I have always believed – we waste the first few years of a child’s school years teaching subjects they are not yet mentally prepared to learn. The result is that we instill a dislike for school that kills a child’s natural desire to learn, for the student comes to relate education and school to increased frustration. Instead, we could be building on a child’s natural curiosity and predisposition to love learning by laying a foundation of experiences that will increase vocabulary and model language usage. Then when the brain is ready, children will learn in a couple of years what they were learning to hate because of endless repletion of the same content for several years in the early grades – grammar and formal mathematics.

Bluedorn quotes Raymond and Dorthy Moore from School Can Wait, p. 228:

. . If we expect reading and arithmetic based on understanding rather than on rote learning, delay of formal training in these areas appears wise – although informal education through warm parental responses is desirable. Some scholars and clinicians conclude that formal education should wait until ages ten to fourteen . . . . Strong clinical and research evidence indicates that early exposure to the so-called stimulation of school often destroys childhood motivation for learning. By grade three or four many children become stranded on a motivational plateau, never recovering their early excitement for learning. Most primary teachers agree.

In Endangered Minds, Why Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It, by Jane M. Healy, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1990, Healy says on p.289 :

Abstract rule systems for grammar and usage should be taught when most students are in high school. Then, if previously prepared, they may even enjoy the challenges of this kind of abstract, logical reasoning. Only, however, if the circuits are not already too cluttered up by bungled rule-teaching.

One ninth-grade student who came to me last year for help with grammar was hopelessly confused about the simplest parts of speech. Although she was intelligent and could, at her current age, have mastered this material in a week, she had been a victim of meaningless “grammar” drills since second grade. As Michelle and I struggled on the simple difference between adjectives and adverbs, I often wished I could take a neurological vacuum cleaner and just suck out all those mixed-up synapses that kept getting in our way. It took us six months . . . But finally one day the light dawned. “This is easy!” she exclaimed. It is, when brains are primed for the learning and the student has a reason to use it with real literary models.

She continues on p.290:

Immersing children in good language from books and tapes, modeling patterns for their own speech and writing, and letting them enjoy their proficiency in using words to manipulate ideas are valid ways to embed “grammar” in growing brains . . . . No amount of worksheets or rule learning will ever make up for deficits resulting from lack of experience with the structure of real, meaningful sentences.

It is folly to ignore the importance of oral storytelling, oral history, and public speaking in a world that will communicate increasingly without the mediation of print. These skills build language competence in grammar, memory, attention, and visualization, among many other abilities.

Now the experts seem to believe that if we start teaching children to read and write sooner, they are getting an early start in learning and that this is a good thing. But wouldn’t it be better to use a child’s natural desire to understand his world by taking him outside and learning the names of the various trees, flowers, animals, birds, insects, and other creatures that he sees? Then the teacher could also tell stories that the sights suggest, perhaps in answer to the questions children ask: What makes a flower? Why do leaves change color? Why do leaves fall off the trees? Why is the sky blue? What is a cloud made of? Where does snow come from? This is a great time to build vocabulary and do hands-on science demonstrations or experiments that will lay the foundation for more formal science instruction later.

The best way to help children become successful in language skills later on is to model good language for them now. Read wonderful stories that model standard English or offer opportunities to explain English that’s a bit different and why it’s different, and what the words we use say about us. Discuss the stories with the children to lay a foundation for reading comprehension skills later. Help them find main ideas, see the sequence of events, and predict outcomes. See if they can guess what new words might mean from their context. Take a book like Rosie’s Walk (Pat Hutchins) or Pancakes for Breakfast (Tomi de Paola) and let children use the pictures to tell the story orally. Let them tell their own stories, with or without prompts.

 In their early years, children have an innate sense of wonder that makes them open to learning all they can. We can lay the foundation for many subjects before teaching them to read and write by helping them explore the world around them, reading to them, talking to them, and answering their questions. We can also introduce many skills needed for critical thinking and reading comprehension orally as we converse with children and let them tell us stories. It’s such a shame that so many children in the early grades only learn to hate school because they are pushed into tasks they are not developmentally ready for too soon. When children are ready, they will be able to learn grammar and reading and formal math quickly, without endless repetition from first grade on.

Is What Children Read Important, or Is It Enough That They Are Reading?

If you have exposed your children to genuine book treasures, they will soon learn that all that glitters is not gold. They will learn to discern for themselves what’s most worth reading. It doesn’t have to be a case of children reading bad books or reading nothing — not if you start developing a healthy book appetite in your children early enough.

Today in the WSJ I read the following by Ann Patchett: I am a firm believer in the fact that it isn’t so much what you read that counts, it’s that you read….I’m all for reading bad books because I consider them to be a gateway drug. People who read bad books now may or may not read better books in the future. People who read nothing now will read nothing in the future.

Should we apply that to children? Many teachers seem to think so. The general opinion seems to be that it doesn’t matter what a child reads, as long as he or she reads.  I agree only if parents and teachers have been striving since a children’s earliest years to  expose children to good literature through regular reading aloud. What and how a parent  chooses to read aloud  to a child greatly influences that  child’s own later choices.

Is What Children Read Important, or Is It Enough That They Are Reading?

I was fortunate in that my mother read to me often in response to my begging, and, of course, the begging was due to my earlier experiences of hearing the stories she chose for me. I also had two elderly ladies, both teachers with no children of their own, who were like adopted grandparents to me. They loved to buy me picture books. I still have some of them, and their choices helped develop my reading tastes.  By the time I was three years old, I had taught myself to read with a little help from my parents. I was dying to read stories without having to wait for someone to have some extra time to read to me. When someone finally gave me a very easy book with very large print and just a few words, I soon had it memorized because I’d heard it so often. Then I could go back on my own and study the words. I guess I was learning sight words without knowing it. Pretty soon I really could read the words and know which was which.

Somehow I also learned about letters. I would ask my dad about the ones in the headlines he was reading in the newspaper, and he always took the time to answer my questions. Someone probably also told me that the letters made sounds. The words I learned in the first book, I See a Kitty, which I can still recite over sixty years later, were like the Rosetta Stone to me. I could recognize them in other books being read to me, and then, after hearing the stories, I could go through the books on my own, looking for the familiar words and remembering some of the new ones through the context and illustration hints. This was how my reading vocabulary grew.

I See a Kitty didn’t have much plot.  Had it been my first book to hear I might have lost interest. But I had also heard Belinda and Father Christmas, Amanda (see my review of this here),  Marshmallow, by Clare Newberry, and many other books I’ve lost track of now.  So when I See a Kitty arrived, I already knew that learning to read was worthwhile, and I seemed to know that particular book was the key to my learning to read. From then on I read anything I could get my hands on, but the adults in my life made sure I could only get my hands on books that would feed my imagination, expose me to good art, and model the appropriate use of the English language. These books used complete sentences.  They helped me to reach for the sky instead of plunging me into verbal garbage.

In the late 1940’s when this was happening, there were not so many picture books available to children as today. We had the Little Golden Books. So I cut my teeth on The Taxi that Hurried; The Poky Little Puppy; The Saggy, Baggy Elephant; The Tawny, Scrawny Lion, and all the others.  Some of my favorites have titles I can’t remember, but all of these books introduced exciting new sounds and words — descriptive words  such as baggy, tawny, poky, scrawny, twinkly, drowsily, bashfully, lopsided– and an assortment of verbs to add to my conversations: yawn, stretch, tiptoe, prance, gobble and many more.  I was introduced to manners by Mr. Do and Mr. Don’t, who were created by Virginia Parkinson and Lowell Grant, a claytoonist in 1943.

By the time I was six I was an avid reader. On the Christmas of that year my Cousin Edna and Auntie Lucile gave me six Thornton Burgess books and I had devoured them in a week. I learned that toads can sing and  have beautiful eyes. I learned why the other animals respected Jimmy Skunk and didn’t mess with him. I also  learned about nature and human nature by meeting Sammy Jay, Chatterer the Red Squirrel, Old Mr. Toad, Reddy Fox, and the other inhabitants of the Green Forest and the Green Meadows.  The adults in my life learned that the way to my heart was to give me more and more books in the series.  And as I read each new book, my reading fluency improved.

After that, I met Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Maida, and the other popular series available at the time. They were not great literature, but neither were they pure fluff. They, too, helped develop fluency.  My favorite of these series was Maida, and my favorite in that series was Maida’s Little School — perhaps my first introduction to home schooling.

I have lost track of where my hungry mind went next. I remember the Bible-themed biographical fiction of Gladys Malvern. I unfortunately did not meet C.S. Lewis or Tolkien until I was a college student working in my local library.

Today parents and teachers are faced with an overwhelming variety of books when choosing reading material to read aloud or have around the house.  Some of it is excellent, some so-so, and some are uncreative combinations of words with wonderful pictures. Just as parents go through their children’s Halloween candy, they should also approach the varied books on the library and bookstore shelves.  Ditch what looks dangerous and issue the rest of children’s choices with moderation. You don’t have to read everything a child chooses. A little fluff won’t hurt your child anymore than an occasional candy bar or soft drink. But first children need to develop a taste for the milk, meat, and veggies of the book world — the books that will feed their imaginations, model the variety to be had in the words and phrases  of the English language, and introduce the kind of characters you’d like to have  play with your children.

When a child reads, he is entertaining the characters of a book, and if those characters are rude and disrespectful to others, that behavior will begin to seem “cool.” Real children can be engaging without constant disruptive or rude behavior. I’m not suggesting that only children too good to be true are suitable protagonists. Nick in Frindle and Dave and Lynsey in No Talking — both by Andrew Clements — are leaders of their peers, but they are also thoughtful and able to relate respectfully to adults.  Imperfect children also visit Narnia, but we can see they do have a sense of right and wrong. Compare them to Ivy and Bean, who seem totally self-centered and think nothing of lying, talking back, and being downright mean to siblings. Which of these children do you hope your child will most be like?

Ivy and Bean are popular with today’s children and on the reading lists in many classrooms. Your children will probably meet them if their friends do. But you don’t have to be the one to introduce them.  Read them something more worthwhile that’s a bit above their reading — but not interest — level. Read them the Chronicles of Narnia, Homer Price, Soup, Little Britches, Anne of Green Gables, whatever is age appropriate. Do read enough current children’s literature and interesting books for all ages to be able to make your own list of what you don’t want your children to miss, and you’ll probably discover there’s hardly enough time to get through those.  Explain there are many kinds of treasure, and books are one kind. Explain that you want to share the book treasure you have found that they might not find on their own, just as you introduced foods that have become their favorites they didn’t know about before.

In the early years, when you are still able, you can help your child cultivate a taste for the best books by choosing only the best to read aloud, at least most of the time. When you go to the library, choose books together. Your time is limited, so make it quality time. Take a book you really enjoy and read it with expression, using  many voices, to your child as you cuddle up on the sofa together. Talk about the pictures and discuss the characters as you would friends. Did they make wise decisions? What do you think they will do next? Do you think they might do something differently if they could go back in time? Whom do you like most? Why?  Did you dislike a character? Why? Which storybook character would you most like to meet in real life? Pretty soon, these discussions will come naturally as your child also asks you questions.

Your child will go through phases of reading what’s popular with his or her friends. Be sure and read some of these yourself for the purposes of conversation, because you do want to meet your child’s book friends who influence him. But continue to share your book treasure even after your child can read for himself. Share your thoughts on your individual reading with each other as another way of understanding each other. Then you will have a common frame of reference when you need to find outside examples of ways to solve problems or getting along with people. If you have exposed your children to genuine book treasures, they will soon learn that all that glitters is not gold. They will learn to discern for themselves what’s most worth reading. It doesn’t have to be a case of children reading bad books  or reading nothing — not if you start developing a healthy book appetite in your children early enough.

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