My ten year old daughter, Emma is reading at a second grade level, (or so) but when she is given reading comprehension questions on her homework she gets very frustrated, bites her hand the minute she sees the homework. I only mention this to indicate her level of anxiety. Do you have any tips for me in working with her on reading comprehension? Are there ways I can make this less stressful?
This is a complex question, because there are several points in the process during which the anxiety could be addressed, and I want to talk about assessment a little bit, and also what happens with "reading comprehension" when certain things are not taken into account. I will start as a person who teaches assessment courses and has colleagues who are reading specialists with whom I converse frequently, and when I get to the examples and start talking about anxiety, you may notice a bit of Autistic awesomeness coming into play. ;) I'll talk about what you can ask for at school and what you can do as a mother at home if the homework stays exactly the same. Meanwhile, I'll make giant assumptions about the homework since I haven't seen it, but I have seen a lot of reading comprehension homework in general.
It is notoriously difficult to assess reading comprehension, especially using the kinds of assessment that are currently considered the most valuable because they are able to be standardized easily and take the least amount of time to administer, etc. Another thing to take into account is that special educators and reading teachers are often taught to teach reading in very different ways. That is to scaffold the discussion.
As I said, I have not seen the homework, but usually it will consist of a list of some specific questions which, if the child "did and understood the reading," he or she would presumably have been able to answer correctly from the text, given the right amount of the complex set of skills we call "reading comprehension."
This may be wrong, but I'll construct one of the very most common types for the sake of answering. If the homework is so different as to render this part of the answer toothless, let me know and I'll go back and see what's what. OK so.
Jack and Jill/Went up the hill/To fetch a pail of water;/Jack fell down,/Broke his crown/And Jill came tumbling after.
Comprehension Questions: (Slightly exaggerated for emphasis, but man, I'm telling you, only slightly.)
2. Jack and Jill fetched (circle one): a. lemonade b. water c. alligator shoes d. none of the above
3. If you were Jack, how might you feel in the fifth line?
4. Circle the event that happened first: a. they fell down the hill b. they got water
Now, as healthy Autistic-American ;), I have answered the first fine, but am derailed on number 2. It doesn't say in the story they actually fetched the water; it only says they intended to do so. Also, why would you go up the hill for this? Since they are using a pail, they may be going to a pump or a well, and in either case, placing the thing uphill would cause the diggers to have to work harder to get to the water table. Argh, skip to the next question. 3. ARGH! He might feel all sorts of different ways breaking his crown. We do see he is the kind of royal who tries to fetch his own water, so maybe he is glad not to be saddled with marks of his class-guilt all over his head. Maybe his father is the one who made the workers put the well on the hill and work twice as hard. Is this an allegory? I don't have any evidence either way!!!!!!! Skip to 4 for now... 4b I TOLD YOU THERE IS NO EVIDENCE THEY ACTUALLY GOT THE WATER! MY STOMACH HURTS! What is wrong with my eyes? I need to get out of here. AAAAAAAAUUUUUUGHHHHH!!!!!
The teacher is able to see that I am only able to read the first two lines of Jack and Jill. My family is able to see that reading comprehension homework makes me sick and anxious. The more of it I do, the sooner I get anxious. Soon, I don't even bother looking at it to see if it is logical this time. This probably takes like three iterations.
If this assessment had been taken without me freaking out, the teacher would have gotten the useful information that I believe the crown mentioned in line 5 is a masculine tiara rather than a body part, as well as that I have a potentially useful aptitude for critical thinking and searching for evidence. Not only that, but I am more interested in social studies than some of my peers, which might cause me to want to socialize. You never know.
How could the assessment have been done to gather that information instead of freaking me out?
Authentic and portfolio assessment styles exist for this purpose, and my favorites involve retelling customized to the kid's strengths. If I am good at drawing, I am asked to draw a picture about the story after I read it. Later, looking at the picture, I'm asked to tell you the story. The picture will remind me the elements of the story that were salient to me. I will tell you that Jack and Jill went up the hill to get water, which why would they do that, because the water table would be harder to reach from there, and then Jack broke his crown. Did he break it because he made people dig twice as hard for no reason? Because that was unfair. You can ask me to clarify what on earth I am talking about. I can tell you that if a king or a queen makes people work too hard that might make his crown fall off, like in that song. You can ask me to sing you the song. Now you know I do not know the body part "crown." You know music might reach me and etc. Writer kids often rewrite the story, or kids can act it out or make up songs about it. It is a fun style to experiment with, and you learn a lot more about what the kids really think the story says than you can ever learn from a list of questions. The teachers may let you do the homework like that if you ask them. They may say that this is what they do in school but they wouldn't want to put that on people's families. You may say, that is awesome. This is the best case scenario. Let me know how it goes.
Now, more normal scenario, the homework stays how it is and you really just need an answer to the part about the anxiety. And you read along about the reading stuff and kind of laughed and things but you were like, dang, is she going to be able to answer questions after all? Yes. I will.
Are there ways you can make the exact thing less stressful?
Yes, and I do it to myself a lot. It is called "desensitization" and comes from a field of study whose other inventions I am not normally as much in love with, but this one is good, has been good for me in my life. The basic idea is to always pair the stressful thing with something enormously and fabulously the opposite of stressful. For Emma, let's say the homework sheet of reading comprehension homework never shows up without the most amazing, bass-booming dance track. And you are dancing. And you wave that thing over your head with two hands woot woot Chelsea style. What you do in the long run is get it closer and closer to the stressor event but by then the ick has worn off. It can take a while... don't rush it... The first time you dance with it, I mean, you don't even try to do it. The next time, mayyybe you sing a question. Don't worry about getting an answer. Get closerrrrrr as it gets less worrisome. Sing a question and cock your head.... Closerrr..... Over a few sessions.... This is how I became able to drive a car, incidentally. This is how I have done many things. So then in Emma's life, Homework Is Stress gives way to Homework Is An Experimental Dance Genre. When she is a singer on the stage, you will see some choreography about it sweep the nation....
This association of a stressor with something relaxing and awesome works better the more super awesome the person considers the excellent thing. Try it with yourself. You can even do it in your head. For example, the next time I see someone I am likely to frown at, I can mentally put the person on a John Deere tractor, because, you know, high awesome factor. Then I will probably smile instead of frown. This is adding method-acting to the desensitization, because the techniques are related. But I wanted to clarify it because I only did one example.
Another kid might super love the Mets, and whenever the homework comes out, you are suddenly dressed as if the Mets had a special designer line. You might keep the stuff in a special edition Mets folder, etc. The key is baby steps and pairing the irritant with the thing that is relaxing and beloved so the halo effect rubs off on it.
Over and out for now!