Raising a Reader, Naturally
                     Through Sensitivity, Guidance and Grace
 
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Chapter Nine
 
Advanced Reading Comprehension
     Baby Bats and Who Done It?
 
 
 
A Cautionary Tale
 
While much as been made of teaching children to read by concentrating almost
exclusively on phonics (teaching letter sounds or words in isolation) I believe this
approach is fraught with peril.
 
Word attack skills are, of course, very important. But from my own experience working with children in grades kindergarten through high school, I have found that too often, especially in the early grades, too little attention has been paid to the importance of comprehension skills, and as a result students tend to have little knowledge or understanding of what they are actually reading.
 
Too often I have encountered high school students who can “read” beautifully, who can pronounce nearly every word with perfection. However, they have no clue as to what they have actually read. Standardized reading test scores prove this all too often. The quandary over low test scores for 4th graders is well deserved.
 
By design, a fourth grade reading test is constructed to test a higher level of reading comprehension, or reading for meaning, than the earlier grades. But if comprehension is not taught, or nurtured, students too often think that barking out words is all there is to reading. At least as far at they know. Their test scores reflect this.
 
At every stage, reading is meaning. Words are simply avenues to reach a level of meaning – to convey a message, if you will. If you don’t get the message?  Well, essentially reading hasn’t taken place.
 
We know that teaching comprehension to a little partner in the early years is easy – when meaning is still personal. It’s when, regrettably, a teacher is forced to try to teach an entire classroom of students to read for meaning in a diverse and impersonal environment that the lesson falls apart.
 
Avoiding the Trap
 
Senior partners can avoid this trap by nurturing a little partner’s curiosity and imagination right from the beginning. All reading comprehension is personal – as we approach each page, each book, it all has meaning for us, the reader.
 
And for a little partner who is sitting next to a much loved and trusted senior partner, each story offers up a personal experience as the story grows. With two engaged partners, comprehension becomes a natural and satisfying experience – it is learning – and reading -- at its best.
 
So, when is it time for phonics? The luxury inherent in a reading partnership allows phonics to be taught naturally and informally, as the reading process progresses. Word skills soon become an integral part of reading for meaning.
 
Meaning comes first, thereafter aided and abetted by recognizing or sounding out the necessary words to get there. It is so much easier to learn words and word attack skills in context. Simply barking out the sounds of letters or words in isolation never really got anyone very far. Learning, or sharing, word skills is covered in Chapter 10.
 
A Little Partner Ready to Work
 
As a senior partner you should have no difficulty initiating some early comprehension skills. Over the last few months you have already had a great deal of practice with making poems and storybooks relevant whether you realized it or not.
 
After all it was you who supplied relevancy to board and soft cloth books by making the sheep say “baaaa,” and the chickens “cheep.” You read stories and poems with expression not only to make them interesting (for your little listener) but to assist your little listener in understanding, or making connections to the story.
 
And you activated and nurtured your child’s imagination appropriately. Still, you supplied all the information and sound effects. You did all the work. This time it’s your little partner’s turn. Now you ask the questions, raise the issues and it is up to the little “reader” holding the book to supply the answers.
 
Making a Story Relevant -- Begin with a Baby Bat
 
In the beginning a little coaxing helps. If a child is not familiar with a story’s subject or essential details about a character, a senior partner needs to take the time to explain or expand upon what is literally printed on the page. Since a child’s world and realm of experience is very limited, this could be a not infrequent occasion.
 
Fortunately for both partners, the authors who write children’s classics have a talent for creating characters, events and plots that are generally familiar to small children. But not always.
 
As an example, a small child will probably not be familiar with a bat (the mammal), the subject of the book Stellaluna by Junell Cannon.  If this is so, a senior partner can begin by directing the little partner’s attention to the illustrations in the book and discussing the qualities of a bat.
 
The fact that Junell Cannon wrote about a baby bat should be a big help, for this is something a child can relate to.  Then, with a little assistance, a little partner can “get into” the story by relating to Stellaluna’s dilemma.
 
Well Directed Questions: Who else has a Mommy?
 
Stellaluna is a story about a baby fruit bat that loses her mommy. You can begin by asking your little partner, “Who else has a mommy?” (You? Playmates? Daddy?) Coax a reply. Read on.
 
After a series of mishaps, Stellaluna moves in with a nest of baby birds that live much differently than her. Here Stellaluna eats grasshoppers and bugs even though she says they taste “awful.”
 
Ask your little partner, “What do you eat? Do you eat things that taste awful?” Nudge a response if necessary. You probably won’t have to. You only need to ask questions occasionally.
 
You don’t need to interrupt the story too often – besides you little partner would probably prefer to hear the story.
 
Well, Stellaluna’s problems don’t seem to end. To her new friends’ amazement, Stellaluna sleeps during the day while hanging upside down from the nest by her feet. You could ask your partner, “Do you think you could do that?”
 
Since the story is about friendship, you might want to engage your little partner with a question of two about his or her friends. “Who are your friends?”  Point out that despite their differences, the little fruit bat and the baby birds become friends.
 
Now ask your partner, “Are you and your friends (name them) the same or different?” You can discuss the similarities and differences if your little partner is so inclined. The point is that you want to help your little partner understand that the story is really about him or her, that Stellaluna has problems just like everyone else.
 
The story ends happily when mother bat and Stellaluna are reunited and her new friends, the baby birds, all conclude that even though they have differences they are still very much alike.
 
“Do you think Stellaluna and her mommy are happy? Are the little birds happy? If you were Stellaluna would you be happy?”
 
One? Two? Questions
 
You don’t have to ask all the questions at every reading. One or two will do. This will give the two of you plenty to talk about. With additional readings simply work in new and different questions as your partner shows more interest in the story.
 
The trick is to help your little partner become more involved in the story by relating to the characters and their dilemmas. How would he or she feel hanging upside down to sleep?  Would it be fun to have baby birds for friends? What about a baby bat?
 
Once your partner has a personal interest in the story the details become more significant, more relevant. Learning how to make a story or information relevant is key to raising a reader who can successfully comprehend what he or she will soon read alone.
 
Someday, little partners will grow to ask the questions of themselves while reading, not just an enjoyable and illustrated children’s story about a baby bat, but maybe James Joyce’s Ulysess (what would it take to make these characters happy?) or a European history assignment (what does this battle remind me of?).
 
As words on a page or concepts and ideas become personally relevant, even difficult material is much easier to understand, to remember, and at joyless times – even enjoyable.
 
Who Done It?
 
Now that you have entered the question and answer business, it is time to raise that all important question to your now very active and mostly engaged reading partner: “What do you think will happen next?”
 
Ask this question breathlessly before you let your little partner turn the page. A shrug of small shoulders may be the only response at this young age, but the idea is to encourage a little partner to anticipate the outcome of a story, based upon the information presented in the story, or the sequence of events. It also helps a little “reader” to carry the story along in his or her mind or imagination.
 
Anticipation is a hallmark of a well-engaged reader. We all know what it is like when we have been deeply involved in reading a mystery and are nearing the point of resolution. Who done it? We turn the page only to learn the knife has been traced to the wrong hands. And it turns out that it is the least likely suspect who actually committed the crime. We are stunned. We anticipated something else.
 
Throughout the story we expertly sought the right motives, circumstances and character flaws and had all but convicted the “villain.” We guessed. We were wrong. But we still employed all the right reading skills to make the story interesting and keep us turning the pages.
 
A little reading partner has to learn to do this, to anticipate what comes next.
 
So ask your small, unknowing partner to guess what he or she thinks is going to happen. Then read, or turn the page, to see if the guess is right. Stumped, a small partner might, of course, create another (their own) story. That’s okay.
 
Continue to encourage your little partner to think about what will take place next, to anticipate actions and events based upon what the little listener discovers about the characters or story as it unfolds.
 
What Does the Bear See?
 
One much loved book in particular, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr., is an excellent choice to practice anticipation – at least for the first reading. After that, every little listener will score a perfect ten when asked to anticipate what each character sees.
 
But even after the ninety-ninth reading (I think this was my own personal score), Brown Bear, Brown Bear will always remain a great way to guess, or like Jack, my little partner, “remember” what comes next.
 
Who Wants to Sleep with a Gorilla?
 
Another technique to help children learn to anticipate as they listen to or read a story is to use illustrations or cues that prompt them to create their own story. For a two to three-year-old, however, there is still some ways to go in exercising this skill, but try “reading” together a nearly wordless picture narrative like Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann.
 
The Good Night, Gorilla, illustrations alone provide about all the narrative hook anyone can handle. “What is the gorilla doing?” “Where are all the animals going?” “Why?” “Do you think they really want to sleep with a gorilla?” It is all a delight.
 
Just watch a three-year-olds eyes shine as his or her personal involvement in the story reaches its ultimate conclusion.
 
Anticipation Plus
 
If we can’t anticipate the outcome of a story, chances are we won’t bother or care to finish the book. Not that it’s always important. Some authors simply let us down.
 
But once you get a little partner’s imagination going and raise his or her interest in the outcome of a story, chances are your little partner will grow to finish many books over a lifetime – and each one with greater understanding than the books and stories they read before.
 
Anticipation is the key to fluent reading. Good readers always anticipate reading the next sentence, the page, the next chapter because they want to find out more, whether it is information, details, emotions or simply how it all ends.
 
Properly nourished, anticipation is a skill your little partner will learn to rely upon every time he or she reads, now and well into the future.
 
Important Connections
 
Essentially, little partners glean meaning from a story just like we do by making connections to what is relevant or important to them, anticipating what will come next, and generally being engaged in the story.
 
For instance, we readily make connections to what we read because we rarely, if ever, choose to read something that is not relevant to our own life or does not have meaning for us in some way. We scan the newspapers for headlines or topics that we already know something about. These are the articles we chose to read.
 
We read novels where genre and/or subject matter is largely familiar to us -- anticipating only a new twist or two. Thus we are always making “connections” to subject matter that has meaning for us, either before or as we read. In general, we prefer to increase our knowledge slowly and comfortably.
 
Oh, That Unfamiliar Material!
 
Sometimes, in a new situation, a new job or returning to school, we don’t have this luxury. Then we find ourselves in a situation similar to a young child. We have to learn a lot of new information right now. If this involves reading unfamiliar material, it becomes even more challenging.
 
You might recall your first experience with a brand new subject such as computer programming, traveling the internet, or algebra, or even Greek philosophy. You probably remember the pain or frustration you suffered trying to connect something (new information) to practically nothing.
 
And so it is with a little partner. Learning to make connections to a new story or new ideas involves a stretch. A small child does not have the luxury of building a base of knowledge at a leisurely pace. Children have a lot to learn right now.
 
Senior partners can be a huge help when a little partner is faced with making new connections in order to understand what a story is all about. For making new and important connections is really what we mean when we talk about reading comprehension.
 
By assisting your little partner, by “filling in the blanks,” by directing an emerging reader to what is relevant and important in a story, you are helping your partner build a critical foundation, especially as you start to begin the process of directing your little partner’s attention to the letters and words on the page.
 
Mystery Letters
 
Still comprehension comes first: knowledge of letters, letter sounds and words will follow. Without meaning, the mechanics of print are a mystery. They are just meaningless squiggles on the page. This is why children who have not had the advantage of an active reading partner find it so difficult and tedious to learn the alphabet and the letter sounds. 
 
In contrast children who have had extensive reading (or listening) experience, find it easier to associate the words on the page with the story itself. Even though they might not be able to identify individual letters and words right now, it won’t be long before they will insist on learning them, particularly if you point out words and letters as you read the story. Helping a little partner recognize and identify letters and words is the subject of the next chapter.
 
Comprehension ABC's
 
You can help your child develop important comprehension skills by:
 
  • Explaining important but unknown elements of a story
  • Asking questions relating to the characters, action and setting
  • Helping a little partner anticipate what comes next in a story
  • Teaching a little partner to visualize the actions, characters and even factual information.
  • Encouraging, but tempering, imagination
 
Children who have had the advantage of becoming engaged in a story:
 
  • Have a greater interest in reading because it is personally meaningful to them.
  • Are more inclined to want to make connections between the print on a page and the story itself. They find a greater purpose and interest in learning about letters, letter sounds and words.
  • Become highly motivated early readers
 
Suggested Titles
 
Books that children can relate to (with a little help):
 
  • Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban
  • Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed by Eileen Christelow
  • How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? By Jane Yolen
  • Owen by Kevin Henkes
  • Stellaluna by Janell Cannon
 
Books that will help children learn to anticipate:
 
  • Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? By Bill Martin, Jr.
  • Good Night Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann
  • If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle