Very often when children are learning to read, they focus so much on naming words that they don’t absorb the meaning of the words they are reading. Poor reading comprehension is a problem that plagues thousands of children. So I'd like to suggest some tools and strategies that will go a long way toward helping children improve their reading comprehension over time.
Basically, when we read, we need to create a mental scene that shows the action or the content of the material we read. For me, and for other right-brained or visual learners, this mental scene is a global picture that is formed when we read. We actually see pictures in our minds and when an action occurs, we see what might be called mental movies. I cannot speak for how dominant left-brained people react to print. I have heard that they think in words and I am not sure what that means nor what that looks like (please feel free to comment if you can shed light on this question).
Images help children improve reading comprehension
So, when teaching children who struggle with comprehension, it is really helpful to have images accompany words and sentences. The image is like a stepping-stone to creating mental images for themselves. In fact, during early learning when children are just beginning to learn words, it is critical to embed images into the words because so many young children believe their goal is to learn to say the words they see, or to sound them out. Often, no one tells them the words carry meaning! So to embed a picture from day one will help them avoid reading comprehension problems. As these children are learning their first words, talk to them about making mental images for themselves and how important this skill is.
How to teach visualization
The first step toward creating mental images is to use stylized picture words such as SnapWords®, where the images are already embedded. Have the child study the image and notice details. Next, have the child close his eyes and “see” the image with word embedded in his own imagination. The more you do this, the stronger the imagination/visualization muscle will become. And if you share with the child that visualization is a powerful learning tool, they will come to habitually practice visualization without being prompted to.
Word pictures also help with spelling. Try it yourself. Here is a word to study and then to visualize with eyes closed. How long do you think you will remember this word and the picture? I designed this stylized word a long time ago; yet any time I think of the word “enough,” I picture these characters and I believe sincerely that they just had Thanksgiving dinner and ate too much, and that the little girl is managing to vocalize the fact that she had more than enough to eat! The character playing the part of the G is content to let her speak for him while the H character is gazing off into space in a sated euphoria.
Now try this with a child. Have her study the picture for "pull". Next, have her close her eyes and describe the image she sees in her mind. How many boys are pulling on the rope? Which one has a big muscle-bound chest? How many are tall and thin? When she is finished describing what she sees, have her open her eyes and write the word she saw in her mind on paper. The meaning behind this word is very clear. Point out that the two L’s are guys who are helping the first guy pull on the rope for their team. Then, talk about the size of the first guy… the big muscly chest. Next have the child close her eyes and see the word in her imagination; doubtless she will be able to read, comprehend and know how to spell the word after doing all that.
(Two weeks from now, check your own memory of this image, and then check the child’s memory.)
Images are worth a thousand words
It is difficult for me too when I'm learning a new concept to only have someone’s words as they speak to me. For me, images make all the difference. A confession here. I am middle aged and truly did not understand the difference between a sea and an ocean. I always assumed (because I never really thought about the difference) that they were used interchangeably and that “sea” was used in more romantic, sentimental, poetic occasions. For instance, it's used in a lullaby I heard my mother sing when I was really little, which I had the pleasure and delight of singing to my new grandson this winter.
Sweet and Low
By Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Sweet and low, sweet and low,
Wind of the western sea,
Low, low, breathe and blow,
Wind of the western sea!
Over the rolling waters go,
Come from the dying moon, and blow,
Blow him again to me;
While my little one, while my pretty one, sleeps.
Sleep and rest, sleep and rest,
Father will come to thee soon;
Rest, rest, on mother's breast,
Father will come to thee soon;
Father will come to his babe in the nest,
Silver sails all out of the west
Under the silver moon:
Sleep, my little one, sleep, my pretty one, sleep.
This song has always captured me, and it is what I associate “sea” with… a poetic, evocative scene illustrated with vivid images in my mind.
However, I abandoned my right-brained-ness long enough to consult an expert about the difference between sea and ocean, and this is what I found:
“Many people use the terms "ocean" and "sea" interchangeably when speaking about the ocean, but there is a difference between the two terms when speaking of geography (the study of the Earth's surface). Seas are smaller than oceans and are usually located where the land and ocean meet. Typically, seas are partially enclosed by land.”
Office of Coast Survey, NOAA 200th Anniversary Web Site
This was great to learn about. So here are two stylized sight words: “ocean” and “sea.” The image for ocean conveys more the depth and vastness of the body of water, while the image for sea allows the child to see where seas might be located: on the edges of the ocean, but partially surrounded by land. In the stylized sight word for “sea”, there are three seas and each has a sailboat. In the picture, the whales will help lead into a discussion about the ocean and the huge body of water where the whales are swimming, but the seas are actually somewhat protected by land on a side or more.
After staring at this word for a few seconds, I can see how permanently the word, complete with meaning and spelling, is branded on my mind. I can image standing on the island (e) and watching the whales and feeling the salt air blowing me around a bit. I can hear sea gulls and the waves lapping.
This is a complete learning experience —far different from showing a child the word SEA and telling them a sea is a body of water on the edge of an ocean that is partially surrounded by land. That learning experience may or may not stick!