If you’ve felt as though your child is being asked to learn more and think more deeply than you were asked to at your age, you’re not imagining things. The current standards are pushing students to be active learners who think critically while reading (or listening to the audio version) and go further than the traditional who, what, when, where, and why questions.
Talking Is Teaching
But how do you teach children to think?
Model it. And how do you model it? You think (out loud) while you’re reading with them.
Talking while reading might seem counterintuitive; but, by verbalizing our thought processes—or making thinking audible—children can begin to develop their own patterns of deeper understanding. By talking about your ideas as you have them, you’re actually teaching your child how to comprehend the text.
How to Share Your Thinking
Remember in math class when your teacher made you show how you arrived at your answer, instead of just writing it down? Sharing your thinking as you read is the same thing!
It’s never too early, or too late, to start the conversation; these conversations can vary in degree depending on the individual child. For example, a beginning reader (ie, preschool or Kindergarten) may only be prompted to name and discuss either the characters in the book or the setting of a story, while an advanced reader (4th grade or higher) may engage in conversation by comparing and contrasting two different authors’ perspectives on the same topic.
Here’s an example: If a character, let’s call him Spike, does something surprising, then you might say to your child: “Wow! I’m so surprised that Spike did that. From what we’ve read about him so far, I expected him to go to the castle and get the lamp, instead of going into the dark woods alone.”
Thinking out loud while reading a nonfiction book may sound like this: “You know, when we started this book, I knew that elephants use their trunks to drink water and gather food, but now that we’re finished, I know that elephants trunks play an important role in keeping elephant calves safe.”
In both examples, the adult seems to be doing all the work (and that is true for the time being), but the structure of the adult’s thinking leaves a path for the child to follow. Note, in the first example the adult shares a reaction, followed by an explanation of their reaction based on the text. To bring the child into the conversation, the adult could simply add, “What surprised you about this chapter/book/experience?” In the second example, the adult reader shares a bit of prior knowledge followed by stating a new piece of information gained from the text.
Where to Begin?
Initially, you can tell your child that everyone has an inside voice that talks to us whenever we’re reading or taking in information. The voice tells us when something is funny or sad or surprising or dumb. When we’re reading, it’s important to pay close attention to that little voice.
Next, preview the section of text you’re going to explore with your child. Then, based on the reading, think of a question or two to bring to your child’s attention. Here are a few to try:
- “This is a hard word. I wonder how to figure out what it means.”
- “I wonder what could happen next.”
- “Does this book remind you of another book we’ve read?”
Questions can be more or less complex: “I noticed the author is using some strong language. How do you think they feel? What makes you think that?” If you need some help getting started with question stems, check out Scholastic’s® parent resource. On this site, you can find question stems for K–5th grade, and two cheat sheets—one for literature and one for informational texts. The documents begin with simple stems and then progress in difficulty.
As often as you can remember, ask your child to explain their thinking to you and keep following up so the exchange becomes a conversation. “Oh, you thought that was going to happen? How did you know?”
So now you’ve gotten started, which comprehension skills should you incorporate into your conversations? Here are four areas that kids tend to struggle in.
- Identifying a main idea or theme and supporting details
- Drawing (accurate) conclusions/inferences
- Using context clues
- Evaluating a character’s actions, choices, and motivations
Once you’re in the habit of thinking out loud together, encourage your child to do more of the thinking on their own while they’re silently reading or listening to an audiobook. Start slowly by having your child read or listen to small sections of text or read for 10 minutes and then discuss.
Other Points to Consider
There are many different lenses with which to view reading. For now, we’re only looking at comprehension and not the ability to read words accurately. Yes, accuracy is important and does affect comprehension, but for this “conversation” the focus is primarily on how well the child gleans meaning from text either heard or read.
What if my child reads above grade level? If your child is in first grade but can read “third-grade” books, you should start with the more challenging first-grade question stems. This ensures that Jamie not only can read the words in a first-grade level book but also deeply understands the content.
What if my child is a striving reader? If your child is in the 4th grade but has some difficulty accessing grade-level books, provide her with text that she can read on her own, or an audio or online version of text. Then, use the fourth-grade reading stems to initiate your conversation. This ensures that Jamie gets to practice using her inner voice on grade level comprehension skills.
When should I start using the next grade level’s stems? First, it never hurts to look ahead to see what will be expected next. Second, it’s most prudent and productive to skip ahead when your child can independently and accurately respond to the questions stems for their current grade level.