Comprehension | 4 Self-Checking Strategies to Help You Understand What You Had Read

"Comprehension" refers to "the ability to understand something". Reading and understanding are not the same thing and it is not always easy to understand the words in front of our eyes. This is especially so during an examination, combined with stress and a rush for time. It is therefore no wonder that the comprehension section in the English examination is one of the most challenging components to children. 

In order for children to understand a passage, it is important for them to check their understanding as they read and not after they have read it once. Hence, I would ask my children to pause after each paragraph to check their understanding before moving on to the next paragraph. By checking, it is definitely not enough to only ask themselves, "Do I understand this paragraph?". Here are 4 strategies to help children to do self-checking during their meaning-making process.

1. Which is a word that you do not understand?

We all know that having unknown words in a passage will impede our understanding. Hence, the first thing I will do is to be aware of the words I am unsure of and to try and make a reasonable guess about what it means. There are two ways that I will go about doing it:

Using contextual clues + Word substitution

At times, contextual clues can be found hovering near the unknown word in the sentences before and after it. These clues help us to make a reasonable guess about the unknown word's meaning. 

Passage taken from SCGS 2013 P3 SA2

Passage taken from SCGS 2013 P3 SA2

In the example shown, "yearned" may be a word which stumbles some children. Based on the passage, we can see clues like "the boy would dream of growing up and living in that house..." in line 4 and "dreamed all day about how wonderful..." in line 6. 

Even if "yearned" is a new word to readers, based on the clues in the two lines before and after the sentence, readers should be able to make a reasonable guess that "yearned" is an action that is related to the idea of the character dreaming of doing something, hence it is likely to be about him wanting and longing to do something. 

Passage taken from Nan Hua 2014 P5 SA2

Passage taken from Nan Hua 2014 P5 SA2

Here is another example with the word "manoeuvre" as the unknown vocabulary. Based on the sentence structure, "narrow space for the helicopter" helps us to make a good guess that "manoeuvre" is an action. Using word substitution, "move" is a likely word to replace "manoeuvre".

What if the guess is wrong...?

It is true that the words that a reader substitutes with is often a very basic word like "want" or "move" and there are times when some of the words that children substitute with are not accurate. However, I would think that having the children zooming in on the unknown word provides more awareness to them about what is going on in the passage and aids them to make more meaning out of what they are reading

Another important note is that if the children are doing a practice at home, they should proceed to check out the actual meanings of the unknown words. This helps them to learn the vocabulary and in addition, when they find out that some of their guesses are accurate, it helps them to build up confidence to carry this out more often too.

2. Checking your understanding with 5W1H

If you ask me, I think the 5W1H is really the most flexible strategy to be used in learning English. Whether it is in writing, comprehension or oral, the 5W1H helps us to generate content and understand content. 

In order to ask questions about the paragraph, the child must first be able to think of an answer to that question. Hence, asking questions actually forces the reader to make an effort to make sense of what he/she is reading. When they finally can ask a question and gives the correct answer, it means they have understood what they read. 

During reading, I help my children to process the passage better by having them ask 5W1H questions after every paragraph. My rule of the thumb is that there should be 1 question asked for every 2 to 3 lines. If a paragraph has 5 lines, they should ask themselves 2 questions to check their understanding. 

For the paragraph above, I can ask the following questions:

- Who lived in the small, old house on a hill? (A little boy lived in it.)
- Where did the little boy live? (He lived in a small, old house on a hill.)
- When would he see the wonderful house? (He would see the wonderful house whenever he was playing in his small garden.)
- What was so special about the house? (It had golden windows.)

These factual questions are straightforward but children become more aware of what they are reading during the process of setting the questions.

3. One "Why" or "How" question for deeper understanding

I have decided to place this point on its own as it is so important! There must be one "why" or "How" question asked for every paragraph. As mentioned above, factual questions are straightforward and it is usually the inferential questions that require readers to read between the lines that are challenging. These questions usually start with "why" or "how". Using the same paragraph above, here are my "why" and "how" questions.

-Why did the boy dream of living in that house? (The house had windows that were so golden and shining that the boy felt it must be wonderful to live there.)
- How do you know that the boy really wanted to live in that house? (He wanted to live in that house although he loved his parents and family.)

"Why" and "How" questions help to achieve deeper understanding, so think hard to set and answer such questions as you read!

4. State the main idea in 10 keywords or less.

After reading the paragraph, it is always a good idea to check that you know the main idea. The main idea answers the question, "What is this paragraph talking about?!" 

Step 1. Pick out 10 keywords from the passage as these keywords will represent the key idea. Start by picking out who or what the key person, animal or thing is. Following that, pick out other words which you feel are important (definitely not words like "and", "when", "is", "the" etc.) as you read. Remember, no more than 10 words.

E.g. Little boy, wonderful house, golden windows, shining, dream, lived (9 words)

Step 2. Form a sentence that puts all these words together:

A little boy dreamt of living in the wonderful house with golden and shining windows.

It may not be easy to string the words together in a sentence but in the process, pupils will actually be paraphrasing and putting the words together in their own words. This is powerful as it encourages pupils to make a link between the words and think about the meaning of the paragraph as a whole. If an adult is able to model and aid the pupils when they first start using this strategy, it will definitely help the pupils become more adept in carrying it out on their own.

As with any skill, practice is required for the strategies to be carried out well and for pupils to use them quickly and confidently. In addition, due to the time constraint during an examination, I would think that strategy 4 on stating the main idea may not be the friendliest of strategies to use during an examination. However, if a child finds that it aids him/her in his/her understanding and he/she is able to manage his/her time well, the child should still use the strategy. Ultimately, understanding the passage is half the battle won.

1st of October is round the corner and it is going to be an exciting day for so many reasons. Before I end off this post, I would like to thank you for your patience in waiting for our 2016 schedule. We have finalised our schedule and our current parents and pupils are starting to receive them this week. For our subscribers and those of you who have expressed your interest in joining us for 2016, do watch out for our mailer soon!