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Q: My third grade son doesn’t like reading. He has to read for 20 minutes each day for school, but if he has to read for more time, he gets tired. He has also been doing poorly on assignments at school, because he isn’t understanding the directions. What can I do?

A: Reading out loud helps tremendously. Read books he’s interested in, every night. You don’t have to go overboard, maybe even start with reading a chapter or half a chapter. To start, it’s important that he is interested in the material. Even if it’s a silly story that you don’t feel is particularly interesting or useful.

I once had a student at that age who hated reading. It was boring, and she had low reading comprehension. Not understanding the assigned books in school made reading even more boring. So I started reading out loud to her.

There was a lot of complaining at first, but I made it clear that reading was non-negotiable. To keep her interested, she would be allowed to illustrate the story on a piece of paper while I read. She could also do hand crafts, but nothing that required enough thought to keep her from listening.

While reading, I would frequently pause to make sure she understood everything. I would ask her questions about the reading, and we would discuss any new words. I would have her summarize the previous section, and we would guess as to what would happen next. For books that had good movies made from them, we would watch sections of the movie to review what happened in the book. On the next day, we would review the previous day’s reading again before we started. Her forgetting what happened on the previous day was an issue at first, but when she was challenged to remember it, her reading comprehension improved. We would go back to the text and review key quotes and plot points when necessary.

Over time, she was able to tolerate more reading. We went from reading half a chapter/day to an entire chapter, and eventually to reading until my throat was sore. After two years, she was frequently begging to keep reading, and she finally told me that she enjoyed the books more than the movies and TV shows. Reading was finally exciting and interesting for her.

Now, what does this have to do with understanding homework and test questions? Everything! The first step to understanding homework and test questions is understanding written English in addition to spoken English. There are a lot of subtle differences between writing and speaking that are unnoticed by people who frequently read. But for infrequent readers, the often pose a problem. And there’s no better way to familiarize yourself with written English than by reading books first. It doesn’t fix everything right away, but it gives a good foundation.

Here are some more specific strategies for test questions: you can practice breaking them up into “important” and “unimportant” information. Have him underline the information that is necessary to solve the question, and rewrite it below if necessary (usually necessary for math questions). Make sure he underlines and asks about any words he doesn’t know.

Example: Caroline and Joshua are competing in this year’s read-a-thon. Caroline’s favorite books are Mystery, and Joshua’s favorite books are Adventure. Caroline read 30 books in the first month, and 45 books in the second month. Joshua read 40 books in the first month and 25 books in the second month. Who read more books overall? How many more

In that question, the first two sentence are just fluff. Have him ignore those. Have him underline the necessary info to solve the question, and underline what is being actually asked (as I underlined it above). Have him recopy the info in an organized way beneath the problem, and make sure he remembers to answer both questions. Example of  an organized way to solve the question is below.

Caroline

Month 1: 30 books

Month 2: 45 books

45+30=75 total books

Joshua

Month 1: 40 books

Month 2: 25 books

45+25=65total books

Answer:

Caroline-Joshua=difference.

75-65=10.

Caroline read 10 more books than Joshua.

Notice how in the work, I was rather redundant in writing out the units (books) and what each math equation is for. (such as Caroline-Joshua=difference) It’s important to do this for students who have trouble comprehending the question. They might see their friends solving it like this:

45+30=75. 45+25=65. 75-65=10. Caroline. 10 more.” 

Trying to mimic this work is difficult for a student with low subject comprehension, and will confuse them even more. Make sure they write out ALL the steps and label ALL the units until they can understand the problems fully. Even if the don’t want to (after all, who wants to do more work?).

It’s hard to build new habits, but consistency is key. If you have any questions about applying these methods to your children, shoot us an email and we’d be happy to give you advice!