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Helping Students Find the Most Important Information in a Text

By: Tracy Ostwald Kowald
Determine Important Points When Reading Content

Every January my alma mater, a small liberal arts college, holds the Great Midwest Trivia Contest—a contest for answering questions that are extremely trivial, or unimportant. If it’s common knowledge, it’s not trivial. If the answer is important in any way, it’s not trivial. The Trivia Masters who run the contest take pride in selecting questions that are so unimportant that no one can answer them—so trivial that, in truth, no one really cares about the answer.

When reading for information, however, students must learn to use an approach that’s the opposite of the Trivia Masters’ method! Instead of seeking the trivial or insignificant details, they need to read with the intention of finding facts that are relevant to a specific topic.

I used this approach last summer, when I took a graduate class on ancient Rome. Every time I picked up my textbook, I set a purpose for reading by asking myself, What is the topic of this chapter? What do I need to know in order to understand it? I wasn’t seeking trivial details; I was seeking important information, information that was key to unlocking the meaning of the material I was reading.

Structure and organization of texts help readers understand what’s most important by grouping related information together. Headings, subheadings, chapter titles, highlighted vocabulary—all of these features guide readers to find and remember the most important information. For example, I read a chapter titled “Roads.” Paging through the chapter, I saw a map, a subheading called ...

Coaching Children to Use Inferences and Draw Conclusions While Reading

By: Tracy Ostwald Kowald
Use Inferences to Aid Reading Comprehension

Recently during a test, a puzzled student carried his test booklet over to where his teacher sat, pointed to a word he didn't know, and asked her, "Inference—what does that mean?" Unable to assist because it was a state exam, the teacher suggested that he make an educated guess. Later, we teachers chuckled together, saying that this particular teacher's advice was that the boy infer the meaning of the word inference. We also made a mental note to strengthen our teaching of inferences.

What Are Inferences in Reading?

Making inferences is like drawing conclusions: discovering information in the text, adding it to our own knowledge, and forming an educated guess based on the combined evidence. Reading between the lines, filling in the blanks, and enhancing the meaning of the words—all of these skills are part of one overarching strategy: inferring, or making an inference while reading.

Examples of Making Inferences to Aid Reading Comprehension

Comics and cartoons are ideal tools for students to use when practicing how to make inferences. One of my favorites pictures a snowman under a starry night sky surrounded by rabbits. The snowman is looking worried and thinking, “Uh-oh.” I ask my students to look over the cartoon and then infer what might be bothering the snowman. A conversation might sound like this:

Student: "He's melting."
Teacher: "Does he look hot?"
"No. Not really."
"What else do you see?"
"Rabbits."
"You're right. I see a lot of rabbits surrounding the snowman. I wonder why?"
"Rabbits ...

8 Quick Reads for Elementary Students About Gratitude

By: Beth Werrell
Children's Books That Teach Gratitude

Is your child an avid reader? We put together a short book list to help you introduce your child to or reinforce some gratitude lessons during this holiday season. These easy reads for elementary schoolers are perfect tools to engage your child in reading while teaching them life lessons in thankfulness.

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble

This simple, impactful story teaches children to appreciate what they have. It begins when Sylvester the donkey discovers a magic pebble that grants his every wish, but soon after he is confronted by a lion. In a panic, Sylvester wishes to be a rock to escape the danger, but being that he can no longer hold the pebble while he is a rock, he must remain a rock until he is switched back into a donkey by outside forces.

The Giving Tree

This emotional tale about an ever-changing relationship between a boy and a tree takes the reader through a journey of giving and self-sacrifice. The story begins with a young boy who loves a tree. He plays in its branches, eats its apples, and slides down its trunk. As the boy gets older, he comes back time and time again to ask the tree for more, until the tree is left a stump for the now old man to rest on.

Rainbow Fish

This story follows the most beautiful fish in the sea, who, in the beginning, is reluctant to give up his beautiful scales. But as he realizes he can spare ...

Using Reading Comprehension Questions to Read Between the Lines

By: Tracy Ostwald-Kowald
Ask Questions to Boost Reading Comprehension

Absorbing and interacting with reading material often brings questions—and questioning is a skill that comes naturally to most children. While some questions can be challenging to answer, it's important to encourage your child to continue this practice, because thoughtful and insightful questions help readers understand and draw them more deeply into whatever they're reading.

The 5 W's (and How) of Reading Comprehension

To get started and help your student learn to summarize a passage, think of the basic W's of reading comprehension: what, when, where, who, and why—and the one stray H, how. If the readers can answer all of these questions about a selection, they understand. They comprehend. They "get it."

Asking the five W questions (and one H) is just the beginning, however. In 7 Keys to Comprehension, one of my favorite sources for reading strategies, the authors suggest generating questions while reading. The most valuable questions, the authors suggest, are often the self-questions, the questions that arise in readers' minds while they're reading.

Poems are great for this approach because they pack a lot of thought into a few lines and often generate self-questions. Let's try Jack Prelutsky's "Louder Than a Clap of Thunder."* After each stanza (like a paragraph), stop, think, and question. I've included in italics a few samples generated by my own students.

Louder than a clap of thunder,
louder than an eagle screams,
louder than a dragon blunders,
or a dozen football teams.

How loud does an ...

How Prior Knowledge Helps Kids Understand What They Read

By: Tracy Ostwald Kowald
Activating Background Knowledge for Better Comprehension

In my sixth grade class, we were reading a scene from a novel in which the character was waiting impatiently for her sister. Immediately one of my students waved her hand energetically to get my attention. "I can identify with that," she announced. "I'm supposed to walk home with Elizabeth after school, and I'm always waiting while she talks and talks and talks."

The girl in my class knew exactly what it felt like to be the character in the novel we were reading. She had experience that helped her understand what she'd just read; background knowledge contributed to her comprehension.

Background knowledge enlivens reading material. Knowing something about a topic gives readers a point of contact, a connection to the material or the story. Without the understanding that prior knowledge brings, reading material can be more difficult to comprehend. Activating and connecting background knowledge is one of seven key strategies to reading comprehension, which are valuable principles for teachers and parents or Learning Coaches.

Consider Bruce Lansky's poem "The Virus Cure." *

Your laptop has a virus?
Don't tuck it into bed.
Don't give it tea, no matter what
the family doctor said.
Don't take it to the school nurse.
Don't rest it for a week.
The only way to cure it is to
show it to a geek.

Today's students are likely to know what a laptop is. Sadly, they probably also know what a computer virus is and does. As they read how the humorous ...

Picture This: How Visualizing Stories Supports Reading Comprehension

By: Tracy Ostwald-Kowald
Visualization Supports Reading Comprehension

"The fog comes in on little cat feet." Carl Sandburg wrote this vivid image more than a century ago. Every time I see fog, I picture the fog to be like an old and wise feline softly padding along its way and then sitting silently, as cats do, to watch people go about their day, the sounds muffled somewhat because the fog blankets the world.

Why authors use sensory imagery

When the weather is foggy, it brings up a sensory image—for example, a mental picture inspired by the words of a brilliant poet. Creating sensory images is one key to reading comprehension: a strategy that helps readers better understand reading material. Readers who lack reading comprehension, i.e., people who do not visualize the scenes depicted on the pages they read, rarely enjoy reading. To them, books are just words, dry words without meaning or pleasure. But fortunately, imagining sensory details is a skill that parents can help their children develop! Laura Ingalls Wilder was a talented artist who worked with words and inspired my imagination. When I was a young person reading her books, I'd take breaks, closing my eyes to envision the scenes that were without modern distractions. In Little House in the Big Woods, Laura sees a town for the first time: the town of Pepin, Wisconsin. Before this point, she had never seen two houses together, so the sight of a town with buildings from one end of the horizon to the other leaves her speechless. ...

An Introduction to Using Effective Reading Comprehension Strategies

By: Tracy Ostwald-Kowald
How Reading Strategies Improve Comprehension

How do you know if your student really understands what he or she reads? Parents often resort to a strategy, such as sounding it out or decoding the letters that make the words, but decoding isn't enough. Skilled readers think while they read in order to understand the meaning of a text.

Long ago, in a galaxy not so far away, I attended a meeting with a goal of revising elementary progress reports in my school district. We were talking about assessment and subsets for evaluating a student's reading progress when a committee member declared, "Let's have a line that reads, 'Uses reading strategies effectively.'" Comprehension, or understanding, was the only strategy that ended up on the final draft of the new progress report.

To help you better understand how reading comprehension works for young students, below is a brief rundown of a helpful book by Susan Zimmermann and Chryse Hutchins that highlights the essential components of comprehension: 7 Keys to Comprehension: How to Help Your Kids Read It and Get It!

What does it mean to comprehend something?

Let's put it in perspective by using Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning. Knowledge, or remembering, is the first level of learning. For example, I know the words in the book The Cat in the Hat, but can I put those words in context and understand what they mean? Comprehension is a step above knowledge. If I understand the book The Cat in the Hat, I can explain that ...

How Alice in Wonderland Changed Children’s Literature

By: Muffie Sandberg
Summer Reading Adventures with Classic Stories

One summer day long ago, an English mathematician went on a quiet river outing with an Oxford dean and his three young daughters. To entertain the girls, the mathematician spun a fantastical tale of another little girl who dreamt that she’d fallen down a rabbit hole, entering a topsy-turvy world inhabited by an execution-happy queen, a mad hatter, a tardy rabbit, a vanishing cat, and a host of improbable but unforgettable characters.

That tale was Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland—and 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of its publication. In honor of Alice's "birthday," we thought our own summer readers would want to know how Alice is still shaping what and how we read today.

Reading for Enjoyment

Before the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, children's books (such as they were) focused on moral instruction and academic basics. The language could be dull and moralistic, with children's characters resembling miniature adults more than real-life kids like the inquisitive and oft-annoyed Alice.

"'Tut, tut, child!' said the Duchess. 'Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it.'"

But Lewis Carroll and Alice changed all that, moving entertainment to the forefront and moralizing to the background. (As Carroll and his duchess character suggest, the moral is still there, but you may have to search to find it.) Placing the child at the center of the story's action, Carroll launched a golden age of children’s literature and even helped change how society viewed childhood.

Thanks in part ...

11 Book Resources to Help Parents Find Great Children’s Reading Books

By: Tracy Ostwald-Kowald
website list of children’s book reading resources

By now, you’ve gotten the hang of how to choose age-appropriate books for your child’s summer reading list. The next step is finding great books that fit his or her interests.

Browsing the library shelves, asking librarians or friends for recommendations are good ways to find children’s books, but there are also plenty of online resources you can try. You might even find a few tools to support your own summer reading!

Try the book resources listed below.
  1. Bookish
    Bookish is one of several websites that provide you with personalized recommendations based on the books you’ve read. Once you create an account, start adding favorites to your shelf to find new titles. Although older students will be able to manage their own accounts, you’ll have to use the site on behalf of a younger child.

  2. Goodreads
    Students in middle school and high school may enjoy using Goodreads, a book-focused site that encourages interaction. Users can write reviews, track books they have read and want to read, join book groups, take quizzes, and more.

  3. Children’s, Teachers’, and Young Adults’ Choices Reading Lists
    The International Reading Association provides recommended reading lists for kids, young adults, and teachers each year. A short description is included next to each book to give you a better idea of what it’s about.

  4. The Best Children’s Books
    Formed by a family of teachers, this site lists children’s book recommendations by subject. For example, you can find books about punctuation, fossils, and ...

3 Simple Tips for Choosing Age-Appropriate Children’s Books

By: Tracy Ostwald-Kowald
mother and daughters reading a book together

When you go to the library with your child, there are hundreds of books to choose from. How do you find books that are just right for your child’s reading level and interests?

You can take a chance and pick a few, of course, or you can ask a teacher or librarian for a recommended reading list. But you can also find the right books for your child just by using a few simple techniques.

  1. Determine your child’s reading level.

    Sometimes, finding an age-appropriate book is as easy as matching your child’s age to the reading level printed on the back of a book. If your child is 10, for example, then you can look for books in the 9–12 age bracket.

    Here is one tool that uses a measure called a Lexile to match readers of all ages with books and other reading resources.

    But before you rely on this method, remember that every child is different. Struggling readers fall below the normal reading level for their age or grade, while advanced readers may be several levels ahead. Difficulty varies within reading levels and within Lexile ranges, as well. If a book uses a lot of figurative language, metaphors, idioms, or hyperbole, it will be more challenging to understand than other books in the same Lexile.

  2. Do a background check.

    If you want to know more about the content of a book before your child chooses it, do some research. Read reviews online and ask for advice from ...

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