Teaching comprehension

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Re: Teaching comprehension

Post by palisadesk » Sat Dec 13, 2008 7:22 pm

frances5 wrote:How do you teach children to infer meaning from text?
You don't say what age of student or level of text you're concerned about, but I'll assume it is pre-teens (primary and junior grade students).

First of all, I would teach them what we mean by "infer" or "making inferences," and I would use pictures, rather than text. Too often kids have very little idea (and that idea often a muddled one) about what we are asking them to do. The more we talk the more we confuse them.

As it happens, I did something like this a few days ago with a student who tends to be a lightning-fast reader who pays no attention to what he is reading (he is impulsive about everything). I had him look at a picture -- one I got from a writing instruction book, but which I selected because it was a clear, blackline drawing with a lot of details. It showed several children at what appeared be a lakefront beach site. There were children fishing from a dock, swimming, floating in an inner-tube tire, rowing, playing in the sand, playing with pets, etc. I told him I was going to make statements about the picture, and he had to tell me whether what I said was in the picture or not (if it was, he had to point to it).

I started off with straightforward things like, "There is a bucket on the dock," "the girl is floating in the tire," etc and then made mis-statements like, "a girl is rowing the boat" (it was a boy), and "the dog is swimming" (the dog was digging in the sand). So he had yes/no questions --it was either in the picture, or it was not.

Then I said, "I'm going to ask you some other questions about the picture. This time you'll have to explain why you think something." I asked questions like, "Are the kids having fun?" He said yes, and then had to say, they were smiling and looked happy. I said, "Is it winter?" He said no, and said, it has to be summer, because there are leaves on the trees and the people on the beach look hot.

Now I had the entrée to explain what "infer" means. I said, "You can figure things out about the picture by using what you already know . You knew that people don't go to the beach in winter because it's too cold, so this picture must be of a summer event. You inferred what season it is. You figured it out using what you already know. You inferred that the children were having fun, because you already know that kids having fun are smiling and laughing. When you figure out something, using what you already know but what wasn't actually said, you are inferring."

I did a couple more pictures with him, then did a verbal-only example. I said, "Here's a harder example. You are going to have to infer what time of day it is. Listen to this sentence: When the bell rang, Jeremy grabbed his books, went to his locker, got his backpack and coat, and went out the door. What time is it?"

The boy said, Three o'clock. I asked how he knew? "Because the bell rang and he got his coat and left." How did he know it wasn't lunchtime? Because he got his backpack.

So I explained how (again) he inferred -- he knew the student would not go to his locker and take out his backpack at lunchtime. He brought his own knowledge to the problem.

These are VERY concrete examples, but even with a class of very able kids, I use several picture-type examples, and a number of anecdotal "mystery"sentences to have them practice actually inferring something quite simple before I introduce text . I also sometimes get them to dramatize something -- the kids take turns acting out a little vignette (for example, someone looking for their glasses, or their wallet, or trying to open a bottle) and I ask other students to infer what the character feels or what s/he is trying to do. They can always do this, and also they can explain their thinking very clearly in nearly every case. What all this does is build a clear understanding of what "inferring" means - you understand something that's not explicitly stated, but you are able to understand it because of something you already know or have experienced.

After that I introduce short reading selections -- in fact, in one class, I had students write them (I gave out a couple of model paragraphs) and the students had to infer things such as, how the character felt, whether two characters were friends or siblings, where the story was taking place, etc. Building on that, in read-alouds (two recent ones that really lent themselves to having students infer meaning and events were Louis Sacher's Holes and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne -I haven't seen the film of either book, but they make excellent read-alouds for students aged 10-13)

My suggestion would be to teach inferring directly, in numerous brief exercises over a period of weeks (starting with concrete visual and oral examples) before expecting students to "just do it." I would also make sure students were proficient at making and explaining inferences orally before expecting them to do it in a written response format. Some might need graphic organizers or writing frames to help them make the transition.

Hope this helps! It's a big subject since it extends over such a range of skill levels but, like most "comprehension" skills, it consists of discrete skills that can usually be modeled and taught explicitly and systematically.

Susan S.

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Post by mtyler » Sun Dec 14, 2008 9:01 pm

I use a technique called 'narration' with my kids. When they read, I will ask them to tell me in their own words what happened or what a selection was about. With little ones, it may be only a sentence or two, with my 10 yr. old it is whole chapters and books. It usually leads to a discussion along the lines of Susan's inference lessons, although sometimes it leads us to go back to the material to clarify information. Currently, it is all oral, though as my oldest daughter's spelling level increases it will be written.

These discussions are nice because they help me know what the kids know and what background info they need to fully understand.

I was told an alternate suggestion by a practitioner of the Mae Carden Method. Students analyze sentences based on who is the sentence about and what happened. Students then have to pick out key words and title the sentence. For example, in the sentence, "Jane baked a cake," the sentence is about Jane, a cake was baked, the key word could be cake or bake (this is more subjective), and the title would be, "The dessert Jane made." The purpose of this is to help the kids see the larger patterns of communication.

Minnesota, USA

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