Friday, 21 November 2014

Comprehension strategies

I'm working on comprehension with Sonshine. As I was doing so, I soon realised comprehension work ain't as straight forward as I thought. It requires a lot of strategies and skills that need to be taught to the children. I'm not talking about those literal comprehension questions but those that need inferring and seeking out clues throughout the passage. 

I always assumed as long as one can read-everything else will fall into place. How wrong was I. It's not always true, well not for my son at least. 

There are lots of tips on the internet on how to teach comprehension (I had to google as I had no clue). Just search for key words like 'how to teach comprehension' or 'comprehension strategies'. Not everything that is out there was relevant to me. I tweaked and added my own strategies as I worked with Sonshine. I'm going to share it here. But do note, I am by no means an expert. I am just a mother figuring her way to help her son.

1) Underline corresponding words

The passages are long for 7/8 year olds to remember every detail of the passage & they may not know where to look for the answers. Sometimes, the questions can help locate where the answers are. For instance 'Why was the donkey hurt?' I have Sonshine underline 'donkey hurt' and make him look for these corresponding words in the passage. Once he found these words, he is to read the surrounding sentences to get the answers. Many a times such questions are straight forward 'The donkey fell into the river and got hurt.' Sometimes the child is required to read the entire paragraph to find the answers. 

2) Identify literal versus inferring questions 

I taught Sonshine these two types of the questions. Literal questions are easy because you can literally copy the answers from the passage. I showed him inferring questions meant that he has to look for clues in the passage. 

To illustrate, I gave him the sentence 'Tommy went home and took medicine.' I asked him how did Tommy feel? Sonshine rightly pointed out it's because Tommy took medicine. I showed Sonshine that the sentence didn't say 'Tommy is sick' but we know he is because he 'took medicine'. I taught him this because sometimes I catch him scouring up and down the passage looking for the corresponding words from the questions in vain. He needed to be taught that literal questions meant that he had to find clues instead of the corresponding words.

This strategy seem to help Sonshine unlock the mystery of comprehension! After I showed him what inferring questions are, he suddenly tackled comprehension like a pro!

3) Identify the cause and effect

These are usually the 'why' questions. I noticed Sonshine assumed that the 'effect' sentences are always after the 'cause'. For instance 'Mary is going to the beach' (cause). 'She is happy' (effect). But sometimes it's the other way around. 'Mary is happy' (effect). 'She is going to the beach' (cause). In comprehension passages, it's not always so straight forward. The cause and effect statements are not always one after the other. Sonshine usually gets drown by all the words an details in the passages. So i had to teach him to identify which is the cause and effect. 

4) Try to decode a new word

It's probable that the student will stumble upon a word he never seen. I try to teach Sonshine to always first ask himself if that word is a noun (is it a person, place or thing?), verb or an adjective. From there, look around the passage to look for clues that tell you more about the word. 

5) Demonstrate reading skills

I learnt that a reader can be a good reader or a poor reader. I always thought the latter meant that the child cannot decode the words. But that's not right. A poor reader is one who reads without properly understanding the story. Sonshine isn't a detail person. He gets the gist of the story but overlooks all the nitty gritty details. Fortunately, I still have the habit of reading aloud to him. As I read to him, I demonstrate how he should be reading 

a) Read again
When I come across sentences that I think he doesn't understand. I show him that he can always stop and go back and read again. This time read slowly and look for clues to understand better or check if he had miss something out earlier. 

b) Ask questions aloud
Sometimes a sentence doesn't make any sense. I usually stop and ask aloud 'something is strange here! What is it?' Together, Sonshine & I will identify what is so strange about it and why. 

c) Identify with the character.
At some point, I would stop and ask Sonshine how he would feel if he's the character or reminded him that he had a similar experience before. Being able to identify with the character is important because sometimes in comprehension, the students are required to use their own personal knowledge and experiences to answer a question. It also helps them in making predictions. That's why I want Sonshine to pick up the habit of putting himself in the character's shoes. This would help him to enjoy the story and better understand the passage.
6) Build vocabulary
Looking back, I realised I never work on English with Sonshine, very rarely. I was focused alot more on Math and Chinese. I always assumed that since we speak English at home & he reads, he would be a natural in the subject. Wrong. I know a lot of parents claim that reading is enough to build a strong foundation in English. I beg to differ. Reading helps, yes, but it is only ONE of the ways to improve English. Some kids are a naturalist in the subject so reading books alone will help them. But some kids are just not very good in the language. Some kids would read but not notice things like spelling, grammar, vocabulary & especially punctuations- they read purely for the storyline. Sonshine is one of them. The only thing he picks up during his read is spelling, everything else, he overlooks. For kids like him, they need a structured, consientious lesson to teach them- ON TOP of their leisure reading.
I also thought by reading his vocabulary would improve. Well yes and no. He did pick up words but Sonshine tends to 'escape' when he sees words he doesn't know. He would not attempt to know the meaning of the word, not even make a wild guess. Only this year, I learnt that I had to consciously make him learn new words everyday- no matter how simple the word is. Why is vocabulary so important? The comprehension passages will get harder and use 'bigger' words as they progess up each level. If they don't have sufficient words in their vocabulary bank, they will have difficulty in understanding the passage. Morover, Singapore comprehension has the habit of asking 'What does XX mean?' or 'What is another word for XX?'. If the student has limited vocabulary, he will literally be throwing 2 marks away for his English paper.

Wow, this primary school education is a whole new era to me! Lots of 'work' to be done ahead! *Sweat*


  1. From our experience, I realise that to ace comprehension, the child does need to learn the answering techniques. But that is the easy part to pick up. A child who reads widely, has a strong grasp of the language and good vocabulary bank will have an edge when it comes to lengthy passages, especially when he gets to upper primary. Good luck on your journey with your boy!

  2. Thanks for the tips! I also realized while he understands what he reads, it's the reading between the lines aka inferring that he can't grasp. That's the tough part. I don't know how to teach that!