Ep. 38 – Reading Comprehension & SEL Comprehension

(Promised lesson resources from Episode 38 of the Not Your Normal Social Emotional Learning PODCAST are below this introductory text.)

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This might be hard, at first, to believe, but many educators don’t fully understand what kids’ brains need so they can remember and use what they read.  According to Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who has long studied the best ways to teach reading … fact-based and experience-based knowledge often gets left out of teachers’ reading instruction efforts. Well-intentioned teachers help kids learn to sound out letters, and then form individual words … a process educators refer to as decoding individual words, yet some of those same teachers are baffled by the fact that so many kids have trouble comprehending the full content of what they’ve “decoded.” Willingham contends, and I think this makes perfect sense… that lack of knowledge about the subject about which they’re asked to read is the reason for lack of comprehension during reading exercises… even when they can read individual words in a book or on a work sheet.

In other words… Even though many so-called “poor readers” can sound out words when they see them in print, they often do not comprehend most of what they’re sounding out.  Comprehension, it turns out, is a whole other ‘ball game,’ and it requires at least 2 other layers of enrichment besides the ‘decoding’ skill:   LAYER #1: a Continually expanding vocabulary, which needs to be exercised in their daily lives and interactions, and, equally important …  LAYER #2: factual and experience-based knowledge of the subjects they’re reading about.    In a word: RELEVANCE. In 7 words:  IN WHAT WAYS DOES THIS MATTER TO ME?    In 8 words: How does this show up in my life?   Here’s an extreme example, just to make the point:  Reading a book about a game that kids have played and enjoyed is going to gain a lot more ‘traction,’ in other words achieve a lot more ‘comprehension,’ than a book about scientific theories, because #1, the kids won’t have the necessary vocabulary to bring out the meaning of the combined words and sentences, and #2 the kids won’t have any lived experiences to relate to the combined words and sentences.


So what does this have to do with students’ social, emotional and life skills learning?  Well, most of us agree that for general well being and success, kids need to grow in openness to others’ perspectives (a close ‘cousin’ of empathy).  They also need to increase their capacity and willingness to be personally accountable and take responsibility.  They need to notice and be able to read social clues.  They need to be aware of and appropriately express their own feelings.  They need to engage in mutually respectful relationships, and on and on … and on …  

Those are mighty big concepts and simply discussing them, or reading stories about them, or having a lesson or 2 or 3 that illustrate those concepts in action has not been shown to create deep or long lasting impacts on children’s behaviors … BUT … there is a way to enliven RELEVANCE, which creates ENGAGEMENT, which has been shown to INCREASE retention and carry over influence, (often referred to as transfer of learning). I’m talking about carefully and respectfully designed peer group discussions, which are structured around wide ranging, not-so-predictable, but topic-related questions.  Questions to which students in the group will not necessarily have the same answers, but questions to which most of students will have answers that the other students will be interested in, which works to everyone’s advantage.  How?  

When kids collaboratively answer and discuss questions, based on their own knowledge, understanding and life experiences, they gain the benefit of self-expression, of course,  That process of self-expression also establishes ownership of what they know, which they and everyone in the peer group discussion observes and shares, for present and future reference, in the classroom and on the playground… with more and more independence and self-sufficiency.

When we want kids to grow their comprehension, in other words, their understanding about, and ownership of: •beneficial ideas, •feelings, •behaviors, •responses and •interactions… we have to do less talking while enabling (and empowering) the kids do more talking, in situations that naturally get other kids to listening, learning and sharing.  


Ready for a practical example?  

Perhaps you have some kids in your class who are whispering in front of other kids, and feelings are getting hurt.  You’ve tried lectures, you’ve tried reading books with stories about hurt feelings, and all of that has value, none of it is wasted or wrong, but… for all of that positive guidance and information to get “owned” by the kids, so they actually act on what they know, long term … for everyone’s sake, including your own … a different approach – one that increases kids’ vocabulary and relates to their experiential knowledge needs to be activated and anchored.

The thing is:  whispering covers a      w i d e     range of interactions between people… and so one important key to success will be to expand the kids’ spoken and  visual vocabulary around words and actions associated with WHISPERING.   

Below you will see pictures of all kinds of whispering interactions, with accompanying questions that invite students to discuss what they see in each picture. For instance, you’ll see kids whispering in class.  You’ll see one child whispering a secret to Santa.  You’ll see a few kids giggling and whispering, and you’ll see a picture of kids whispering while one person is excluded… in other words, the full gamut… not just the single kind of whispering that causes hurt feelings.  Conducting a peer group discussion that includes this much relevant variety is extremely beneficial for increasing students’ comprehension … see what you think. And if you try showing these pictures (or others you find on the internet), I would love to hear how it goes for you. Also, if you have any questions or problems, please let me know – I would love to help you through to your most satisfying experience with these resources. Really.

Notice that the pictures and questions do not focus immediately on solving the problem of hurtful whispering.

That is not the way to bring kids into a discussion, in order to increase, expand and deepen their comprehension.  BUT the right kinds of questions ARE the way, and the right kinds of questions are  OPEN-ENDED.  Open-ended questions that introduce relevant new vocabulary, and that do NOT overtly point to the behavior problems that are causing problems are your key to success.  We CAN trust kids to resolve their own problems and challenges, on their own, by gaining new comprehension about the effects of different behaviors on different people, through well-structured, peer group discussions.

Because well structured peer group discussions provide opportunities to all the individual kids in the group to answer questions, each from their own individual perspective … which will be engaging and interesting to all the students because the subject matter relates deeply and broadly to their personal experiences. The open-ended questions gently invite students to look at familiar situations from different perspectives – based on their own experiences and incorporating their expanded vocabulary  –  which enables them to integrate their classmates’ perspectives with their own perspectives, in a completely unforced way, so the learning is real, and really gets used in the kids’ real life interactions.


Relating all this back to reading,  when kids are tested on reading comprehension as a separate skill, divorced from any subject with which they’re personally familiar, they’re at an unfair disadvantage. On the other hand, kids who come to school with more prior knowledge  are at an unfair ADVANTAGE — and we all know that those are often the wealthier kids.  But it does NOT have to be that way.  

Why?  Because kids learn from other kids …. ORGANICALLY… and we, as their educators, are in prime positions to create the most constructive learning environments for EVERY student’s social, emotional and life skills development when we create opportunities that align with how every student’s brain acquires knowledge – – – naturally.  


Below are the visuals and open-ended questions for a peer group discussion that will get kids more mindful about all kinds of whispering and the effects of different kinds of whispering:

Whispering
Whispering amongst friends.
  1. Where do you think these kids might be? 
  2. What do you think is happening in this picture? 
  3. Why do you suppose people have two ears instead of just one? (PEOPLE NEED TWO EARS TO BE ABLE TO KNOW WHERE DIFFERENT SOUNDS ARE COMING FROM. When people can only hear out of one ear, they can’t tell where sounds are coming from. Do any of you know someone who can only hear with one ear?)
  4. What do you suppose it’s like for this boy when these two girls are whispering into each of his ears? What if they’re whispering different things? What would that be like for him?

Whispering in the theater
Whispering to not disturb others
  1. Where are these people? Why are they whispering?
  2. Who knows what ‘demonstrate’ means?
  3. Who would like to *demonstrate what whispering sounds like for our whole group? 
  4. How far away do you think one person can hear another person who is whispering? Shall we do an experiment to see how far we can hear whispers?
  • Ask for a volunteer. Whisper in the volunteer’s ear, while sitting or standing very close to the other kids...then test at further and further distances ’til your words can’t be heard … or make up your own experiment and demonstration to engage different volunteers and the group.

COULD ANY OF YOU HEAR THAT?  WHY or WHY NOT?


Whispering can be hurtful
Hurt feelings happen when people feel left out.
  1. How many kids do you see in this picture?
  2. Is the girl who is alone close enough to hear what the other girls are saying? Why do you think that? 
  3. If the girl who is alone can not hear what the other girls are saying, do you think she can guess what they’re whispering about? What do you think they’re whispering about? 
  4. Who thinks we can guess a lot about what other people say, or how they’re feeling, even though they don’t tell us, or we can’t hear them? Why do you think that? Shall we test your theory?  
  5. Ask if anyone would like to volunteer demonstrating body language. Once you’ve chosen a few volunteers to take turns demonstrating different forms of body language, whisper:
  • Feeling afraid
  • Feeling stubborn
  • Feeling bored    (If there was more than one volunteer, thank the first child, then ask for another volunteer to provide a few more demonstrations)
  • Feeling sleepy
  • Feeling curious
  • Feeling shy

Whispering a secret.
  1. Who knows what a secret is?
  2. Why do you think people have secrets?
  3. Did anyone ever tell you a secret? What was that like? How did that make you feel? Did you keep that secret after your friend told it to you?

Whispering in front of others
Whispering can hurt feelings of other people.
  1. How does the girl who is standing by herself feel?  Do her feelings matter?  Why do you think that?  What do you think the girl who is by herself will do next?    (Thinking Forward in Time)
  2. Sometimes, people hurt other people’s feelings. Why do you think they do that? (Perspective Taking)
  3. Do other people’s feelings matter? Can you tell us more about why you think that?  (Perspective Taking)
  4. Do your feelings matter? Why is that your answer?  (Recalling Personal Experience)
  5. If those 2 girls who are whispering wanted to share a secret, but didn’t want to hurt that other girl’s feelings, what do you think they could do differently?  (Creative Options

Whispering secret wishes to Santa
Whispering secret wishes to Santa
  1. Who do you see in this picture?  What’s happening?  What do you think will happen after this?

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