Month: June 2014

Improving Reading Comprehension Through Dread

A father of a sweet 11-year-old girl came in to have her child evaluated this week.  By impression and observations, the girl, Katie, was on the innocent side of life.  She was still in the “Hello Kitty” phase, which was nice to see, given how fast and advanced many kids are that I meet at her age.

Before we started the evaluation, the dad handed me a recent story that the child had to read and answer comprehension questions. In an incredulous tone, the dad said, “Here you go, Doc, let’s see what you make of this one.”

The story was a nonfiction piece called, “Terrorists are Big Bullies,” from  A comparison between bullying behavior and terrorism was the theme of the selection.

Here’s a quote from the story:

“Terrorists spread out and cover a wide area. They are sneaky. They use the media (radio, TV, Internet) to burst into our homes and businesses. They can threaten a whole nation with a beat down, not just a few students in a single school.

Terrorists are big bullies. They use threats and violence to get what they want. Terrorists aren’t after our lunch money; they want something bigger. It may be a change in how a country is ruled. It may be a change of law. It may be freedom for their friends who have been arrested. Whatever the causes they believe that violence will solve the problem. Innocent adults and children are hurt and even killed by terrorists and the terrorists aren’t sorry.”

To make sure the child comprehended the selection (and I presume to make sure she got the message), here were some of the multiple-choice items:

1.       A bully is to a terrorist as a firecracker is to a ________

A.    nation

B.     firework

C.     bomb

D.    threat

2.      Which one of these is NOT mentioned as a way terrorists enter our homes?

A.    front door

B.     TV

C.     internet

D.    radio

3.      Which one of these could be a weapon of mass destruction?

A.    poison gas

B.     knife

C.     pistol

D.    cell phone

4.      Even under a terrorist attack, we can try to enjoy __________

A.    life

B.     nap time

C.     video games

D.    dessert

Wow!!!!  My breath is taken away.

I can’t imagine how this could improve a child’s reading comprehension. From where I sit, the only gain would be an increase in personal terror, dread and fear in the child.

Whatever happened to the concept of developmental appropriateness (not that I can come up with the appropriate age on this one)?

Well, I guess it’s a boon to the psychiatry business.

“Hmmm, Let me think about it:” An Underpinning of Reading Comprehension

"Why do you think that?" To answer inferential questions, children need to learn to use their internal voice.

So, your child is reasonably down the road with the skills of decoding and reading fluency. The next stage emphasis is typically focused on comprehension, and one of the underpinning skills of reading comprehension is the ability to apply the skill of “Hmm, let me think about it.”

What does this skill mean?

To solve a problem or answer an inferential question, you often need to stop, consider and go,  “Hmm, let me think about it.”  Many kids lack this skill (or thought process), especially ones where the primary focus has been on decoding and reading fluency.

This thought process can appear when engaged with reading or non-reading type of activities.

Inferential comprehension strategies/games

For example, using a non-reading example on the cognitive task called “Block Design,” children match blocks to a complex spatial/visual pattern. To arrive at a solution, the child would have to apply reasoning. There would be a connection between the internal voice in the mind of the child and the action that leads to a solution. The solution may not be immediately apparent. To solve the problem the child needs to consider, reflect and think about it.

If a child is not effective in using the internal voice that says, “Hmm, let me think about it,” he may reach a quick conclusion that he can’t do it. Effectively, what happens is the child quickly gives up or answers, “I don’t know.”

I see this all the time, this early quitting on a task.

Do not assume that this voice will be there naturally as part of the child’s repertoire. Children to whom this type of thinking does not come naturally need to be encouraged so they can practice the skill.

To help develop this internal voice and skill you may want to watch for signs of this voice being applied in real-life situations. For example, let’s say your child faces a problem between him and a friend that is not readily solved. There is a conflict with no easy solutions.

Pushing the use of the problem-solving voice encourages problem-solving. You may say something like, “Well, there isn’t an immediate solution to your problem, but what might you try to do to solve it?” Such a process shows the child that there isn’t an easy answer. However, by considering and reasoning, he may arrive at a solution.

Why do you think that…?”

With reading comprehension, seek ways of asking questions that don’t have easy answer and that encourages the child to read between the lines. Ask questions that start with, “Why do you think that…?” (“Why do you think that the settlers left the village?”)

A child who struggle with this type of thought process may quickly respond, “I don’t know-it doesn’t say.”

You could continue, “Well what are the clues? What evidence is there that helps us understand?”

It is this type of back-and-fourth dialogue that helps develop the child’s thinking and increase their, “Hmm, let me think about it” voice. This is an underpinning to the success of reading comprehension.


Adapted from “School Struggles,” Richard Selznick, Ph.D. (2012, Sentient Publications



‘Rubrics – Shmubrics:” Absurdities in Kiddy Land

Writing rubrics are familiar to most parents these days.  The rubrics are the criteria used to assess a range of writing skills for a child.

Here’s a writing rubric that was handed to me recently for David, a child who I was going to assess.  On a four scale rubric, David was given a score.  As it turns out, David’s score was the lowest level of functioning among four different criteria.

David was said to show the following in his writing:

  • No sequence; no sentences; numerous grammatical errors; no attempt to revise or edit work; no supporting details; incorrect spacing and letter formation.

On the upper end of the scoring criterion where David was not functioning was the following:

  • Clear beginning, middle, and with clear sense of closure; vary sentence length and pattern; no grammatical errors; three or more editing strategies demonstrated; consistent use of supporting details, descriptive language; clearly legible, with proper spacing; product shows great effort.

Given the two polar opposite criteria for writing rubric described to evaluate him, take a guess how old David is and his grade level?

Perhaps you might be thinking David is approximately a middle schooler, maybe in seventh grade.

No, David is not a seventh grader; David is a six-year-old first grader.

Here is what David wrote when I asked him to tell a story about his weekend:

It was a it was a tid baseballgame my tem hit a lot of gramslem.

                          then we had to sing happy brthbay.

Keep in mind that obtaining this sample from David was not easy, in fact it was painstaking.  Resistant to writing anything, David needed a fair amount of external prompting to produce this sample.

I understand that I am shouting into the Grand Canyon on this one, but from where I sit it is fundamentally absurd to have children assessed with standards such as the rubric above used on a child like David, when he clearly has only very rudimentary, emerging skills.

Writing paragraphs or essays with a clear beginning, middle and end with a sense of closure as noted in the above rubric is a much later skill for someone like David.  These skills are way down the road (as it is for most first graders).

Where are we getting these notions on children’s development? Putting the standard down on paper as a does not make it a reality for many children.

Just like there are people out there who try and toilet train children after their first birthday, this seems to me to be completely insensitive to the child’s level of development.  Writing full essays for first graders, especially struggling ones, is similarly insensitive.

Yet, we persist.


A Few Problems With the ‘D’ Word: That’s Right – “Dyslexia”

One of the problems with the word “dyslexia” is the rampant confusion that goes along with the it.  If you ask anyone you know what they understand about dyslexia, I would predict that almost without exception, you will get something like, “Isn’t that when you read upside down and backward…or you reverse all those letters.”

Another misconception is the what I call the “broken bone” concept.  That is, dyslexia is viewed like a broken bone that can be pulled up on some objective x-ray with an objective determination that can be made as to whether the child does or does not have it.

Recently, dyslexia as a concept exploded in the state of New Jersey.  Whereas the term before was sort of like Voldemort  from Harry Potter (“He who shall remain nameless.”), now everyone is dyslexia focused.    I get a lot of, “So, Doc, tell it to me straight – does he have it?”

I try to do the best I can to educate people and help shake out certain misguided notions long held as truth.

I will say things like:

“Reading difficulty is a continuum, from mild, moderate to more severe.   It’s hard to say if these children who have just a little bit of reading difficulty are really dyslexic.”

“It’s not like a broken bone…there  is no X-Ray that tells us, “yes the person has it” or “no, he does not.  It’s the weighing of a lot of different  variables to come up with a reasonable conclusion.”

“Dyslexia is mostly tied into parental predisposition.  So if one or the other parent struggled with reading, spelling and writing, chances are pretty good one of the children will also show signs of struggling.”

“Really, it (dyslexia) represents difficulty identifying words accurately and fluently.  Very little has to do with the reversals.”

No matter what, though, it’s very hard to shake the perception at the heart of people’s thinking regarding reversal and the upside down view of things.

It’s tough to shake these concepts from peoples’ mental tree.



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