TRT Podcast#19: When kids can’t remember what they read
It’s one of my least favorite experiences as a teacher or parent. I have a child who is halfway through a book; I ask them about it, but they look at me with a blank stare and can’t tell me anything about it.
There’s hope! In today’s episode I’m sharing 10 things you can do to help kids remember what they read.
You will learn
- how to help learners find the right chapter book
- how to teach kids monitor their comprehension
- the tools you can give kids to help them keep track of what they’re reading
- the secret to productive conversations about the books your learners read
Full episode transcript
You are listening to Episode 19, When Kids Can't Remember What They Read.
It is one of my least favorite experiences as a teacher or a parent. You've got a child who is halfway through a book and they look at you and can't tell you what they read. You ask questions, you try to get answers, but the child gives you a blank stare or a terribly confusing summary that makes no sense at all. That's frustrating. And it can be hard to know what to do, especially if it's a book that you, the teacher or parent have never read. So today I'm going to talk to you about some things you can try when learners don't understand what they read. If this sounds familiar at all, it's because you remember a blog post I wrote some time ago with these very same tips, but now I'm sharing them in a podcast episode.
So here we go, 10 things to try when learners don't remember what they read. Tip #1: Know what to listen for. The way you find this out is you ask them questions about the book and they can't answer them, or they tell you things that aren't exactly accurate, or they try to tell you about the book and it's just very confusing and clear that it really didn't stick. So when a child is telling you about a book, the first thing I recommend doing is familiarizing yourself with the book as much as possible. So scan the book yourself. It's amazing what you can pick up from the summary on the back or the inside flap, or the titles of the chapters. And then listen to how the learner is summarizing the book. If they're giving you every single detail, that's actually a problem.
And it's also a bad idea if they can't really tell you much of anything, right? What you're really going for is for them to tell you only the most important details, a summary. When they're summarizing for you, do they rely on you to feed them? So do they need you to say, "And then what? Okay. But why did that happen? Okay. But why did that happen? And then what?" If they need you to do that, it's like you're pulling teeth, then their comprehension isn't very good. If they feel comfortable and excited about the book and enjoy talking about it, chances are good they understand it.
Let's move on to tip number two. You want to make sure the book is appropriate for the reader. And that's why I think it's really important to make sure you know the child's reading level and have them choose within that range. So I am a fan of the Fountas and Pinnell guided reading levels. I have a blog post all about them. I will link to that in the show notes. I think that's very, very helpful because it gives you a range of books that are good for a child, especially when we're doing early chapter books.
I did something that I can hardly believe that I did because it took so much time, but I spent about six months reading and reviewing over 250 different chapter book series so you don't have to. And I did that because I know as my own children are reading, it can be very hard for me to know what chapter book series to suggest next based on their level. And I figured if I have that problem, other people do too. I know as a teacher, I certainly had that problem. So I created this long blog post giving you a quick summary of each series and their levels to show you what I think is a good choice for kids at different levels and interests. And then I also bundled them into a pack in my shop, which includes a huge variety of early chapter book book lists. So book lists for kids who like sports, for kids who like animals, things like that. And then also I have them organized by reading level. So this is a goldmine, and in my opinion, it's worth every penny, because not only will you get these book lists to help you match books to kids, but you will also get 75 reading response sheets that are perfect for helping kids keep track of what they're reading in a chapter book. These are open-ended, they can be used with nearly any book. And it's just a way for kids to keep track of their learning. But I'll get to that more later in this list of 10.
So after you know what to listen for, you've made sure the book is appropriate, it's about their level and their interest, you want to teach them to preview the text before reading. Think about when you get yourself a new book. I always preview the text, right? I look through it. I check what the chapters are called. I just see how long it is. I always read the back or the front cover. Teach your students how to do that. That's just priming the pump and getting them ready to read the book. You don't want them to read a book cold. And that would mean just starting on the first page without any understanding at all of what the book is about.
Tip number four is to teach them to monitor their comprehension. I know when I was having this problem with one of my boys that he wasn't remembering when he was reading, I would come up and talk to him about it. And we could be halfway through the book and I would say, "Tell me what happened here." And he would be, "I don't remember that. That was four chapters ago." Or he would be reading to me and we would stop and I would say, "Tell me about what you just read," And he wouldn't know. Personally, I have had that experience where I read a whole bunch of something and it goes in one ear and out the other. That can happen with our students and we have to teach them to notice when that's happening, to monitor their comprehension. If they get to a stopping point and they don't remember what they just read, they need to learn how to go back and then reread. That's very important.
So that moves us into tip number five, which is to teach fix up strategies. They need to know what to do when they're suddenly not understanding. So one thing is to reread. Another problem could be understanding some tough vocabulary. So getting help from an adult or a dictionary to learn what some words mean. To slow down and read that confusing part slowly. Maybe there's some text features if it's a nonfiction book that can help them understand the text better, or teach them how to create a visual in their mind, or even sketch it on paper as they read. I remember when I was in college in biology, I would take a piece of paper and draw all the new concepts I was learning because science does not come naturally to me and really wanted an A in that class. So the only way for me to retain all the stuff I was learning was to create a visual of it for myself. Your students can do that too.
Tip number six is to make sure your learner has a purpose for reading. Now that may just be to enjoy the book, but if they're reading for school, the purpose is to understand it, right? And so we want them to sometimes set shorter goals than read and understand the whole book. So it can help if they have a sticky note maybe at the end of one chapter. And then you tell them, "When you find the sticky note, I want you to find me and tell me the most important thing that happened." And of course, if you're busy, they may want to write that on the sticky note or a piece of paper and they can come see you later. But if you're at home with your child, it's easy for them to come find you. Maybe you're cooking dinner and when they get to a certain page, they need to come give you a summary.
Other things they could do would be if it's a nonfiction book, tell them to read these two pages and then tell me the most important thing the author wants you to remember. Or read these pages or this chapter and tell me the problem the character is having. Or again, with a nonfiction book, read this section and then tell me a question you still have about this topic. So there are many different things that you can do to give kids a purpose for reading, even just a small chunk of text.
Tip number seven is to use a paperclip. This is a lot like the sticky note tip, but it is to put a paper clip where you want them to stop and engage with the text. And this could be talking to themself, maybe tell themselves what they remember reading. If you have some kind of recording device where they could actually record themselves talking about what they've read so far, if you're home, the child can just come to you and tell you what they've read when they get to the paperclip.
Number eight is to use sticky notes more. So I talked about using sticky notes as a stopping point, but they can also be a recording space. Sticky notes are seriously unappreciated and it's amazing how many possibilities they hold for our young readers. So imagine the things they could write on them. For example, I think blank will happen next. Or at the end of a chapter, they could write, blank just happened. The most important thing in this chapter was, or a question I still have is, so this is just a visual stopping space with a prompt on it so they know what they need to think or write about.
Tip number nine is to work through a graphic organizer. Now I mentioned earlier that my mega pack of booklets for early chapter book series comes with 75 graphic organizers perfect for early chapter books. And so if you go through that, you will find lots of ideas for helping kids talk through a story. At first, you may not have them write in the organizer and that's okay because having that visual of things to talk about can also be extremely helpful. Organizers are great, but I want to encourage you not to overdo it. So don't assign too many in one week or you'll burn your children out. Show them how to use that organizer to help them keep track of what they're learning. It may not be for a grade. It may just be a tool to help them understand what they're reading.
And my last tip is to think conversation, not quiz. This is really hard to do and I fail at it most of the time. But it's so important to remember that when you're talking to a child about a book, try to make it a conversation and not a test. So imagine you're talking to another adult about a book you've both enjoyed or that she or he has read and enjoyed and you want to know more about it. Try to make it be more like that rather than, then what happened? Then what happened? Why did he do that? Then what happened? What happened in this chapter? That can feel kind of like hammering and we want kids to enjoy their books and to enjoy conversations with us about them. So imagine you're in a mini book club so that your students know that they get to talk about it with you afterward, not be tested.
So those are my top tips for helping kids who struggle to remember what they read. Let's recap. Number one, know what to listen for. So scan that book so you have some ideas about what it's about and notice how the child is telling the story. If they're comfortable, if they're halting. Number two, make sure the book is appropriate by checking the reading level. Again, I encourage you to check out my early chapter book list. I'll link to that in the show notes. Number three, teach them to preview the text before reading. So take a look at the back. Look at the chapter titles before they read. Number four, teach them to monitor their comprehension. So they should be able to know when they're not understanding what they're reading. So that number five, they can apply fix up strategies like rereading or reading a part slower.
Tip number six is to give them a purpose for reading. And often these are smaller for smaller chunks of time. So you might say read just this chapter so that you can tell me this. Tip number seven is to use a paperclip so they can mark the place where you want them to stop. Or tip number eight, use sticky notes. And those are often a great place to actually record their thinking. Number nine, talk them through a graphic organizer. I've got 75 of those waiting for you. And number 10, think conversation, not quiz. So in the show notes, I will link to the early chapter book blog post that I have as well as the bundle in my shop and some other things that I've mentioned in this podcast episode. And you can check out the show notes at themeasuredmom.com/episode 19. Thanks for listening, and I'll talk to you again soon.
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