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Even those elementary school students who can easily read a novel often struggle when reading a social studies or science textbook. And often the problem worsens as students move into middle school.
The primary reason children struggle with this type of information-rich material is that it requires different strategies from fiction reading, strategies that are commonly overlooked in their education. Much of the reading that an average adult does over the course of a workday is non-fiction. The importance of teaching children to become proficient in this type of reading will have a major impact on how well they will fare with their reading later in life.
What can parents do to help? When children come home with a passage or chapter to read in a social studies or science textbook, you can help them before, during, and after their reading. Many children read an entire assignment, yet retain nothing, but without comprehension, they have not truly read the material. Real reading requires understanding. If children cannot tell you what they have read, they may have gone through the motions of reading without absorbing the information. Once you have identified that your child has this problem, there are several ways to help.
There are specific things that children can do before, during, and after reading. For example, not understanding some of the important words is one of the major reasons that students fail to comprehend what they have read. You can begin preparing your child to read an assignment by pre-teaching the important vocabulary that will be encountered.
Other strategies that you can teach your child are:
BEFORE READING • Browse through the headings. These give clues to the content. • Talk to your child about what he already knows about the topic. • Make a list of what he still wants to know. • Make a chart based on the major headings so that he can organize the material visually.
DURING READING • Have your child fill in the chart as he reads. List details under the appropriate categories. He can draw some of these if it will help him to remember. • Write a small summary after reading each section. This will force children to go back and reread what they didn’t grasp immediately since they will be unable to summarize what they do not understand. • Give your child a pad of sticky notes. Tell him to use one whenever he gets to a part of the textbook he does not understand. This will make it easier to identify where he needs help later. • Tell your child to try to answer the questions on the list made before reading. Can he do it?
AFTER READING • Have your child talk about, write about, or draw what he read. These actions reinforce what has been read. • Re-read the organizer that was made during reading. Does it make sense? • Look back at the questions written before reading and make sure your child can answer them. If not, look back to make sure this information was not covered in the reading. • Have your child make a list of things he still wants to know about this topic. This forces him to think about what he already knows about the subject.
Patience: the most important component As a school administrator responsible for curriculum development, I know that patience is the most essential part of helping your child with reading. Reading is difficult, and non-fiction reading with many facts is the most difficult of all. Identifying the problems your child may be having with this difficult kind of reading may take time. Remember, it is difficult for your child, too. In fact, he is probably more frustrated than you.
When either you or your child become frustrated, take a break and return to the reading at another time when you both can approach it in a positive way. Setting up a negative perception of reading will create even more problems.
Remember, it may take many assignments and lots of practice to become proficient at reading difficult material. But it is a skill your child will need all through life — so investing time and patience will pay off.
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Denise B. Geier, Ed.D.
DENISE B. GEIER, Ed.D. is a curriculum director and former elementary school principal in New Jersey. See More.
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