Monday, February 27, 2012

“I’m stuck on a word, can I skip it?"

Everyone has done it. You’re reading along well, and you come to an abrupt stop when encountering a word you are unfamiliar with. Children experience this often, and the strategies and insights we provide them to make it through these sentences while retaining the meaning are pivotal. How often is the word we are stumped on integral to comprehending the meaning of the reading? What if the word is a noun? Adjective?

Let’s use this example provided by Debra Goodman from The Reading Detective Club:

The Three Little Pigs

1 Once upon a ______ there were three little pigs.
2 One day the ______ pigs decided to go out into the
3 world to make their ______ .
4 Each little pig ______ a house.
5 The first little pig built a house of ______ .
6 The ______ little pig built a house of sticks.
7 The third little pig built a ______ of bricks.
9 One ______ a world saw the three little pigs.
10 “A little ______ will make a tasty meal for me,”
11 he ______ .

Read this passage, filling in the missing words with your best inference.

Some of the techniques that we can suggest for children to pay attention to include:
- Using our background knowledge of the story
- Using the cues in the text to infer the missing (or unknown) words
- Read the sentence without the missing word, go back and try it again
- If the sentence makes sense without the missing word, move forward in the text

You may notice as you naturally fill in the missing text that your background knowledge, context clues, and natural ability to form conventional language provide enough information to successfully complete the passage with the intended meaning.

Look back at line 2. Most readers will naturally fill in either “three” or “little.” Do either of these words change the meaning of the text? No. Both choices are rational and the story continues unchanged regardless of this word. Even if we omit the adjective completely: “The pigs decided to go out,” the story continues accurately. We can use this concept to teach our children techniques to understand adjectives and their role in a sentence. We want children to be able to read every word in a sentence, but when a tough word comes in the way of comprehension, we can empower our students to carry the meaning of the text through the barrier of the unknown word! Teach your children to omit unknown adjectives, and move on through the text. The meaning, fluency, comprehension, and confidence will be preserved. Debra Goodman suggests thinking of unknown words as “smudges” on the paper.

Now look at line 5. Here some responses may have differed. I initially read “straw,” and so did my colleague. Other people may have added another noun here. Examples include mud, candy, Jell-O, snow, etc. Unlike omitting and changing our adjectives, if we veer too far away from the intended noun (something like straw or hay), we lose the writer’s intended meaning, and our comprehension fades. Our brains are naturally search for language clues, and would suggest to us that the missing word has influence in our sentence. We cannot simply omit or replace unknown nouns in sentences, but we can tell our children to remember background knowledge, look for context clues, and read through the sentence without the word and try again with a “running start.”

Understanding what words are necessary for comprehension and meaning making can help our students to feel empowered when reading independently. Children want to be good readers, and we can empower them with the techniques to be exactly that!

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