Thursday, June 21, 2007

Improving Reading Comprehension (Introduction)

The plenary sessions I have narrated so far involve abstract thinking about the meaning of Charlotte Mason's principles with respect to assessment. The talk on geography also focused more on ideas rather than practical application. Breakout sessions are usually more concrete with an emphasis on how to implement her ideas. The first one I attended was exactly that, for I walked out of the classroom with techniques that I am already using in real life! Because my notes on this one are copious, I have broken the narration into two segments (Introduction and Model), followed up a blog post about my experience with her model to date.

Jennifer Spencer, the Assistant Director of The Village School, spoke about a research project she did to complete her master's degree from Gardner-Webb University. She called this session, "Improved Reading Comprehension through Retelling". She begins by turning to research covered in the book Brain Matters by Patricia Wolfe. Charlotte Mason's primary educational habit to form was the habit of attention, which is not an easy task when you realize that the brain discards ninety-nine percent of stimuli with fifteen seconds. (I thought to myself that it is no wonder too much sensory input overwhelms autistic children!) She reminds us that Charlotte Mason hinted at the difference between long-term and short-term memory (the inner place and the outer court). In case you are curious, I found a wonderful quote on page 257 of Volume 6:
But the mind was a deceiver ever. Every teacher knows how a class will occupy itself diligently by the hour and accomplish nothing, even though the boys think they have been reading. We all know how in we could stand an examination on the daily papers over which we pore. Details fail us, we can say,––"Did you see such and such an article?" but are not able to outline its contents. We try to remedy this vagueness in children by making them take down, and get up, notes of a given lesson: but we accomplish little. The mind appears to have an outer court into which matter can be taken and again expelled without ever having entered the inner place where personality dwells. Here we have the secret of learning by rote, a purely mechanical exercise of which no satisfactory account has been given, but which leaves the patient, or pupil, unaffected. Most teachers know the dreariness of piles of exercises into which no stray note of personality has escaped.

Jennifer explains that our long-term memory has five kinds of storage (like files in a filing cabinet). She mentions two, semantic and emotional memory. Semantic memory, the focus of the teaching profession, involves facts and information not associated with events in one's life and is most difficult to retain. On the other hand, emotional memory, the most powerful, derives from emotionally charged events in one's life.

I would like to add how fascinating this information to me from the perspective of Relationship Development Intervention. The link I found furthered my understanding of memory, which comes in two forms, non-declarative and declarative. The former is the kind of memory that is recalled non-verbally, while the latter is recalled in words. Non-declarative memory comes to people much more readily: procedural memory (blowing bubbles with gum or candlewicking), motor skill memory (procedural memory so well-learned that it no longer requires any thought--did you ever reach the store and not recall actually driving there?), and the emotional memory (discussed in the last paragraph). Declarative memory requires the recall of facts and information, the domain of schools. It has two forms, episodic memory and semantic memory. Episodic memories derive from events that happen in our lives at a specific time and place and are most powerful when anchored by emotion. When taught with traditional methods (oral lessons and emotionally dry textbooks lacking storytelling), semantic memory require practice and review for facts and information to make it to long-term memory.

Please humor me with one more rabbit trail before turning back to Jennifer's session. In the passage quoted earlier, Charlotte Mason observed difficulties we have in storing information in semantic memory. After we read the newspaper, "Details fail us, we can say,––'Did you see such and such an article?' but are not able to outline its contents." Teachers give an oral lesson, and "We try to remedy this vagueness in children by making them take down, and get up, notes of a given lesson: but we accomplish little." She noticed information is lost most readily when it "leaves the patient, or pupil, unaffected." Charlotte sprinkles her writing with hints at the marks of a fit book that stirs the souls of pupils by making an emotional connection.
A book may be long or short, old or new, easy or hard, written by a great man or a lesser man, and yet be the living book which finds its way to the mind of a young reader. (Volume 3, page 178)

There is never a time when they are unequal to worthy thoughts, well put; inspiring tales, well told. Let Blake's Songs of Innocence represent their standard in poetry DeFoe and Stevenson, in prose; and we shall train a race of readers who will demand literature--that is, the fit and beautiful expression of inspiring ideas and pictures of life. (Volume 2, page 263)

Jennifer then talks about ways to improve the chances of facts and information making it to long-term memory. One way to support semantic memory is to tap into emotional memory by forming emotional connections and episodic memory by setting up events related to the knowledge. Acting out a passage, building models, getting first-hand knowledge, taking field trips and using graphic organizers are all ways to support semantic memory. The mind must connect new ideas to prior knowledge ala the law of association (page 157), forming links in a chain of memories. Studies show that peer teaching (group narration), summarizing and paraphrasing (Volume 3, page 180), and self-asking (Volume 3, page 181) all grow dendrites in the brain.

Jennifer addresses the relationship between reading comprehension and retelling (narration). She discusses several problems that crop up when assessing reading comprehension. First, successful decoding does not automatically mean the student comprehends the material. Decoding does not reflect understanding with accuracy. Second, traditional "thinking" questions cause the question writer to think more deeply than the child. Charlotte agreed, quoting a philosophical friend of hers, "The mind can know nothing save what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put to the mind by itself" (Volume 6, page 16).

If decoding and answering clever questionnaires does not reveal comprehension, then what does? Jennifer cites research that a child shows comprehension in how he evaluates, organizes, and presents ideas from a reading passage. Retelling reveals all three of these skills! It requires students to sequence events, connect ideas with background knowledge, recognize and interpret clues in the reading, and construct a cohesive narrative. Jennifer explains that she wanted to see if teaching students these four processes (sequencing, connecting, interpreting, and narrating) is positively correlated with increased reading comprehension scores on standardized tests. (Yes, Virginia, even private school teachers and homeschoolers often find it hard to escape this bogie.)

To see if learning to narrate is positively correlated with improved reading comprehension scores, Jennifer explains she found ways to measure comprehension and to teach processes required in narration. For a pretest and post-test, she collected three narrations from students in a fourth grade class and performed tests from the Ekwall-Shanker Reading Inventory, which contains thirty-eight diagnostic tests in eleven different areas. She selected the oral and silent reading subtest, which assesses oral reading accuracy, oral reading comprehension, and silent reading comprehension. The test tops out at an eighth grade reading level and a couple of students needed higher-level material. She also presented two rubrics made with a free Internet program, Rubistar, to help her score the narrations.

Jennifer explains how she developed developed a hybrid model of how to teach processes required in narration based on three sources: Charlotte Mason (Volume 1, Volume 3, and Volume 6), Read and Retell by Hazel Brown and Brian Cambourne, and The Power of Retelling by Vicki Benson and Carrice Cummins. In my next post about her model, I will explain the latter two models and the results of her research.

Jennifer does not spend much time discussing Charlotte Mason's view of narration because she knows her audience. In case you are new to Charlotte Mason, the following are links to many explanations of narration:

"Reading for Older Children" Volume 1, V, VIII Pages 226-230
"The Art of Narrating" Volume 1, V, IX Pages 231-233
"How to Use School-Books" Volume 3, Chapter 8
Sample Narrations from Examinations Volume 3, Appendix II
Results of Narration Volume 6, Introduction Pages 6-8, 15-17
Elementary Schools Volume 6, II, Chapter 1, Pages 241-248
Secondary Schools Volume 6, II, Chapter 2, Pages 259-261, 268-272

The following are links about the relationship between narration and the mind:

"Well-Being of Mind" Volume 6, I, Chapter 3, Pages 49-52
"Knowledge versus Information" Volume 3, Chapter 8, Pages 224-225
Literature Volume 6, I, Chapter 10, Section II, Page 180-185
"Composition Comes by Nature" Volume 1, V, XIII, Page 247
Composition Volume 6, I, Chapter 10, Section II, Page 190-192
Languages Volume 6, I, Chapter 10, Section II, Page 211-213
"History Books" Volume 1, V, XVIII Pages 288-292
History Volume 6, I, Chapter 10, Section II, Page 169-174
Geography Volume 6, I, Chapter 10, Section III, Page 227
Art Volume 6, I, Chapter 10, Section II, Page 213-217
Citizenship Volume 6, I, Chapter 10, Section II, Page 185-186
"Fitness as Citizens" Volume 3, Chapter 8, Page 88
Public Speaking Volume 6, I, Chapter 5, Page 86

The following are links about the relationship between narration and the soul:

"The Well-Being of the Soul" Volume 6, I, Chapter 3, Pages 63-65
"Method of Bible Lessons" Volume 1, V, XIV, Pages 251-252
"Knowledge of God" Volume 6, I, Chapter 10, Section I, Page 158-169

The following are links with Parents Review articles about narration:

Some Notes on Narration
Concerning "Repeated Narration"
Some Thoughts on Narration

We Narrate and Then We Know


JEMD1966 said...

I was glad to be reminded that even the simplest book can be a living book. One of the simplest books I know is The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss. I has very few words and very few pages, but the idea presented in the book of perserverance in the face of adversity rings true. My boys and I have had several discussions regarding questions which were raised by the book ("Why did the big brother say it won't come up?"). Simple does not have to mean lacking worth!

walking said...

Jennifer, here is another great quote you will appreciate about the selection of living books from Chapter 21 of Volume 3:

A book may be long or short, old or new, easy or hard, written by a great man or a lesser man, and yet be the living book which finds its way to the mind of a young reader. The expert is not the person to choose; the children themselves are the experts in this case. A single page will elicit a verdict; but the unhappy thing is, this verdict is not betrayed; it is acted upon in the opening or closing of the door of the mind. Many excellent and admirable school-books appreciated by masters are on the Index Expurgatorius of the school-boy; and that is why he takes nothing in and gives nothing out. The master must have it in him to distinguish between twaddle and simplicity, and between vivacity and life.

Niffercoo said...

Tammy, this is a fascinating topic! Austin struggles mightily with reading comprehension, and it's something I've been working on diligently and we seem to get nowhere. Last spring we spent an entire month working through Reading Detective in preparation for the ITBS only to have Reading Comp. be the only area where he actually lost ground rather than made progress! I'm very interested in a new approach, and I'll be studying these blog posts intently!

walking said...

Jennifer C.,
I think you will find Jennifer Spencer's project very helpful. I explain her model in greater detail in the next post and then I will be posting how we are applying her ideas.

Prince Andrew and the Queen Mum said...

I've been reading through some of the links on this post. there is SO much. I do think that Andrew and i have been doing narration for a long time but when I start ASKING him to narrate he clams up. But on CM overall- there is SO much in all the volumes, and on the AO website...where to begin? that is why I started on your blog- to cherry pick some good links. I was thinking about buying a few more books since i do better w/ books than with internet reading. thoughts??? i'm just a bit overwhelmed although i think if I can get a handle on CM then it will be easier/simpler than chasing down 'activities' for each book that we read.