Last week, our 11th grade son Mike had to answer some questions from an Earth Science chapter – you know, the “boring stuff”. After about 20 minutes, he asked for help. He couldn’t seem to find any of the answers.
Mom: “Did you read the chapter?”
Mike: “I’m not sure which chapter we’re on.”
Mom: (Gritting teeth to keep my eyes from rolling.) “Well, how could you figure that out?”
Mike: “Look up some of the vocabulary words in the index.”
It was chapter 11.
Since he was floundering already, I decided I’d better remind him of how to read a chapter for content…again. I wrote the following article two years ago, but our kids need to be reminded of this over and over again.
One of the best skills we can teach our children is how to read a chapter of information. Schools usually do a great job of helping children understand fiction and short passages of non-fiction. All textbooks generally are organized so that the average, left brained child can see the big picture, and get a working knowledge of the subject matter simply through reading a chapter. But our children aren’t average. Actually, if you ask me, they’re better than average…
Nonetheless, I know several boys who can read a chapter completely through with a good recall of facts and specific incidents, but little or no concept of the real topic or the main idea of the material. They remember the battles, but not the war or why it was fought. They can tell you what medicines are exclusively obtained in the rain forest, but remain unable to explain why deforestation is harmful to society.
It’s like they have all the pieces of the puzzle, but the puzzle isn’t assembled, so it still doesn’t make sense.
Many times our children are very right brained, and this is the root of the difficulties they have with processing information. Before I go further, let me say that I realize that no child is completely right or left brained; none of our children fit the mold exactly. But there are definite patterns.
Unlike their left brained siblings, right brained children do not process linearly. They don’t outline as they go. They see the big picture first, then fill in the gaps. This presents a big problem when learning, because when they are confronted with completely new material, there’s no big picture for them to see. It is therefore crucially important that our children be given an outline or a broad overview of information before they jump into reading. They have to know what they are going to learn. We have to teach them to make a frame to organize the puzzle pieces of information.
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Most textbooks provide very good chapter introductions, and outline the reading material with section headings. Our children, however, must be taught to recognize these as the big picture. They must be shown how to use the main idea and the chapter headings as a framework on which to place the facts they are going to learn while reading. It takes teaching, it takes modeling, and it takes time. Since most chapter reading is done at home, it is probably up to you as a parent to teach and model how it is done. You’ll have to do it day after day, and maybe year after year. But it beats the alternative!
Here’s an example. Your child has been assigned “Read Chapter 7, Lesson 1 in Science and answer the questions at the end of the section.” For the girl next door, that’s a 15 minute proposition. For our children, we’re looking at one hour….or two. I don’t have to describe the agony to you. Your child isn’t a strong reader, her handwriting is atrocious, he doesn’t understand what he reads, and has no interest in studying the boring stuff. Do yourself a favor. Do your child a favor. Instead of spending one or two hours struggling, work with your child so that they finish their homework quickly and actually learn the material and begin to learn how to study independently.
This means that you will be teaching, so you’ve got to be familiar with the material yourself before your child is with you. I always retreat to my room with textbooks and do ‘lesson plans’. It doesn’t take long, and the time is multiplied back later – I promise!
So tonight, your child’s homework is from Chapter 7, called “Water and Air”. Your first step is to read the chapter to yourself so you’ll get the big picture. See if the chapter has an introductory section that will give the chapter theme. Then look at the chapter headings, and if you’re right brained yourself, write them down. (If you’re left brained, you’ll probably do it anyway!)
Water and Air
~Starting the Chapter
~Lesson 1 “Where Do You Find Fresh Water?”
~Lesson 2 “What Are Oceans Like?”
~Lesson 3 “Why is Clean Water Important?”
~Lesson 4 “What is Air Like?”
~Lesson 5 “Why is Clean Air Important?”
Note: Ignore pictures and any sidebar type material that doesn’t flow with the regular text.
Now you’re ready to call your child. Open the book to the beginning of the chapter and say something like, “This chapter is about Water and Air, which is the title. You’re going to learn about water and air and why it is important for both to be clean. That’s important to remember. It’s the main idea, so I’m going to tell you again, and then I want you to repeat it back to me…”
“Now, lets look how the chapter is organized. This first lesson is what you’ve got to do tonight. It’s called “Where do you find fresh water?” and it is about fresh water. I’m going to show you the whole chapter really fast, though, so you’ll know where’s we’re going with this. Lesson 2 is about oceans – “What are Oceans Like?” That’s salt water. So you see, first you’re studying fresh water and then salt water. Then Lesson 3 is “Why is Clean Water Important?” Next, you’re moving to air. See? In Lesson 4 you find out “What is Air Like”, and then in Lesson 5 you learn “Why is Clean Air Important?”
“So first you’ve got the two kinds of water and why it’s important for them to be clean, then you’ve got air and why it’s important for it to be clean, too.”
At this point, you might let your child take a look at the pictures in the chapter. Then show her the vocabulary list, and if it’s not long, read it out loud. “These are words you’ll learn while you’re reading.”
Now it’s time to start reading. And here is where I shock some parents and teachers. Until they’ve mastered reading for content, I don’t think kids should read the material themselves. I think you should read the material out loud to your child so you can model how good reading is done. By reading to your child, you’ll also be able to keep attention focused and monitor comprehension.
Read the chapter title again, then the chapter introduction. Then move to Lesson 1, read the title, the vocabulary words and the questions at the back of the section.
“Lesson 1 – “Where Do You Find Fresh Water?” Your vocabulary words are groundwater and dam. Let’s look at the questions at the end of the section to find out what you’re going to learn. Where can fresh water be found? And What is ground water? So that’s the information I want you to listen for. When you hear me read about places you can find fresh water, you know you’ve got the answer!”
Read the chapter out loud with great expression. When you run across a vocabulary word or an answer to one of the section questions, change your tone of voice so your child will notice the answer. Watch your child for signs of wandering attention. If you come across a difficult concept, take time to explain it further until your child really understands.
When you’re finished with the lesson, review the vocabulary, then have your child answer the questions orally. (If you write down your child’s answers, then dictate them back to them, homework will be done!) Go back one more time and review the chapter headings! Then you can relax, look at the pictures and read the sidebars.
Because you have done the background work, this whole process will take much less time than if you had told your child “Go read Lesson 1 in Chapter 7 and answer the questions.” (Be honest. Fifteen minutes might pass before your child finds the correct page in the book!) With this system, you might even have time to do the cool hands on activities or visit recommended websites. These interactive things teach our kids as much as the textbook, but who ever has time to do them? Hopefully, you’ll have time, now!
Now, suppose your child does Lesson 2 in class the next day, and Lesson 3 is assigned for homework. That night, before you begin homework, review the main idea of the chapter and the chapter headings to reemphasize the framework the information fits into. Go back and review Lesson 1 and go over Lesson 2. Remind your child how it fits into the big picture. Make a graphic organizer if possible. By the time the chapter test comes around, your child will have not only studied the boring, but he will have learned it.
And learning is the whole point of school!