Monday 7 July 2014

What can we do to help children understand what they are asked to read?

A 'check' which tests whether children can say words out loud 'correctly' is not a test which can test whether children understand what they are asked to say. We don't know whether the children who say the words out loud 'incorrectly' understand what they are asked to say. In both cases, they may - or they may not. 

What's more, the test itself is not based on what we understand as being 'language'. It's a series of words and nonsense-words. Language is not a list. It's sequences of words linked together by grammar. If we are interested in children understanding what they are asked to say or to read to themselves, then clearly other stuff has to go on, other than whatever it is goes on in phonics lessons. 

So what can we do to help children understand what they are asked to read?

This is a list of suggestions - please feel free to use this however you like, add, adapt, change as you wish. It is free to circulate in whatever form you like.

1. Arrange children in pairs or small groups to talk about something they are reading or have read - without intervention from adults.

2.  Take children to a library and encourage them to borrow anything that they want. Keep doing it.

3. Arrange for times when children can look at a book, or books, quietly on their own for a while.

4. Encourage children to collect printed matter so that they can browse it, sort it and re-sort it: e.g. comics, annuals, cheap second hand books, series, magazines etc.

5. If children ever ask you a question about something in a newspaper, on TV, in a book, on the internet, try any of the following: say a) that you're not really sure,  b) how can we find out? c) where can we find out? d) read the 'answer' together, e) discuss what the child or you find. 

6. In picture books, there are many illustrations and parts of the illustrations that are not expressed or described in the words of the book. Get into a conversation with the children about what that person or creature might be thinking or saying. If there's time, you or they can write this down - perhaps as speech bubbles on stickers. 

7. Try to avoid asking closed-ended 'right or wrong' questions about what children are reading. 

8. Try to think up open-ended questions which have different plausible answers which can be discussed: e.g. questions about whether you think things turned out in a scene in ways that were 'fair' or 'unfair'? whether this or that character was likeable or not? why do you think that this or that character did something? Was there anything else they might have done? What would you do? What would you think if that happened to you? 

9. Try to arrange for children to think up plausible story-lines that took place before what they've read or might take place after - i.e. 'prequels' and 'sequels'.

10. Help the children to talk about other books, films, TV programmes which the book they're reading might remind them of…why? how? 

11. Help the children to talk about events in their own life (or in the lives of people they know) which they are reminded of by the book they're reading.

12. Talk about what books or sources help us find things out when we don't understand something - dictionaries, reference books, wikipedia, encyclopaedias…

13. Arrange for some time when they can make up words and their definitions - like a mock-dictionary or nonsense-dictionary. 

14. Arrange for children to be in pairs or groups to read something out loud. Encourage them to direct each other so that they split the passage up into parts and think of ways of making their performance better (more interesting/exciting/funny etc).

15. Play the titles game - thinking up alternative titles for the chapter, poem or book that they've read. Discuss these together.

16. Imagining that someone else is reading the passage/poem/book. What if you weren't you, but you were someone else very different from you - choose that person…would you have the same thoughts about what you've read - or different? How and why? 

17.  Play 'substitution' games: what happens if you tell the 'same' story, but changing one or more of the characters into - e.g. animals? or from animals to humans? or by swapping the sexes of the people? or by changing just one character into e.g. someone you know? Or: what happens if you keep the plot and all the characters and change the time-frame to e.g. the future, the past, the present? What happens if you keep the plot and change the setting to somewhere completely different e.g. to a school, a beach, a shop, a party etc etc?

18. Recommendations: discuss amongst children what might be the best ways of recommending a book or magazine or comic to someone else. What are helpful things for someone to know if a book is good or not? Then, try to say or write to those guidelines. 

19. 'The message': (or messages). Discuss the idea that books, films, TV programmes pass on messages. You can use the example of the 'moral' at the end of an Aesop fable or a Jesus parable. So at the end of a poem or chapter or book, is there a 'message', some different messages, a 'moral', different 'morals'. Discuss what these might be. What would happen if things turned out differently…(different ending or outcome) would the 'moral' be different? 

20. In poems and stories, people and creatures can 'represent' things other than what they are. So, in Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf, we might say, is both a wolf and also 'danger' or 'threat'. So is the danger just that he might eat her, or is he any other kind of 'danger'? This is how 'symbolism' and 'figurative' language works. Or again, Miss Haversham in 'Great Expectations', we might say, is not only the strange old lady that we perceive, but she might also represent Dickens' view of the state of the aristocracy - its state of decay, its backward looking point of view, its potential for viciousness, its ultimate potential for self-destruction??? etc. So, with examples like these (fairy tales are very good as starters for this, but many modern songs are too) what kinds of symbols, representative 'figures' can we see in a book or poem?