November 26, 2001
Guest Editorial: Breaking through: When school gets tough
by Karen Lytle Blaha
When adolescents groan that they "just don't get it," meaning their schoolwork, what's a parent to do?
Schoolwork becomes more complex as kids get older. Concepts and texts get complicated and difficult to understand. Reading skills that worked just fine in the lower grades may not work for tougher material. Knowing what the words "say" and what they "mean" is a complex skill that many kids find difficult to master. In fact, some kids can amaze you with their "reading" but with little or no understanding about what they've read.
"Reading is thinking," says Dr. Rebecca Novick, literacy and language team leader at the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.
Kids need solid decoding skills to figure out what a word is, but that alone is not sufficient for understanding.
"Proficient readers put together some specific strategies that help them understand what they're reading," she points out, "and these strategies can be taught. All reading material isn't the same, and good readers realize the differences and adapt their reading strategies to fit the material. A novel is different from a science text, and both are different from a computer manual, for example."
Education researchers know that proficient readers match up how they read with the demands of what they're reading." Novick points to a "I Read It But I Don't Understand It" by Chris Tovani (Stenhouse Publishers, Portland, Maine,) as a resource teachers find useful, and parents might find informative.
Drawing from Tovani's work, Novick reports that adolescents who are good readers know how to revive information they already have in their heads to help them make connections for understanding.
They draw upon their experiences, memories, facts, and any other existing knowledge that help them relate to what they're reading. Without drawing on what they already know, kids don't hook into the new material, and tend to forget it.
One of the things parents can do to help is to notice how they themselves read, what connections they make, what their thinking process is like and then talk about it with their kids.
For example, says Novick, if a student becomes confused reading about an experiment in a science text, the parent might say: You know, this reminds me of when I put together that cabinet that came in pieces. Wow, I was so confused. I reread the instructions three times, but still I didn't get it.
So I laid out all the pieces, drew a rough diagram of them, and the wrote out the instructions, going back and forth between the "real" instructions, what I was writing, and the pictures I had drawn. I won't say it made the job a delight, but I got a better idea of the steps and their order. It took me a while, but now we have a cabinet, and that was the purpose. Do you think writing out and drawing this experiment might help you? When rereading along doesn't help, Novick says, both writing and drawing may help to tug meaning out of text, making it part of a student's experience.
This column by Karen Lytle Blaha is provided as a public service by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.