by Meredith Flory

My three year old has recently started interrupting stories to ask questions. While it is easier to ask her to be quiet and to think of it as toddler impatience, I have realized that she is really trying to make sense out of stories now.  She wants to know what happens next or why a character is acting a certain way. 

Thinking about how curiosity plays into how children learn new skills, I spoke with Amanda Brewer, a fifth grade Gifted and Talented Reading, English, Language Arts and Social Studies teacher at Aiken Elementary School. Brewer is 2016-2017 Teacher of the Year and has a Master’s in Divergent Learning from Columbia University. Brewer lives in Aiken with her husband Jeffrey and their two daughters.

During her teaching career, Brewer has noticed a growing gap between students who are able to return to a text in order to justify thoughts and those that can not. Brewer points out, “Truly analyzing a text  is one of the hardest literary skills for students to conquer but reading is powerful and students need to know how to take that information and make it worthwhile.” Skills such as asking questions, making predictions and summarizing are foundational for filtering through research.” The groundwork for these skills can start earlier than we sometimes think.  Students learn and practice these skills in the classroom but if they live in a home where curiosity is encouraged and cultivated, classroom tasks may feel more natural. 

Developing curiosity through discussion

It is important to make sure a child understands specific elements of the plot, who each character is, what the conflict is and what the setting is in order for them to get anything further out of the story. With preschool age children, we can begin asking simple questions: Who is the story about?  What is happening in the picture?  Why is that character afraid?  What made them feel better?

While we need not do this every time we read, try mindfully talking with your child about a story they love. If a younger child asks a question while you are reading, stop and acknowledge the question and go back to reading by suggesting “let’s find out.” After their question is answered in the story, remind them of their question and how the story answered. Brewer explained that, “silent comprehension is great but it is not as good as collaborative comprehension and the best work for both students and adults happens when we can share information we have learned with others.”

For independent readers, Brewer encourages asking questions about their interest to challenge students to seek out texts. Amusingly, Brewer realized that this was a powerful teaching tool when thinking about how to get her husband to read more, since it is an activity she loves, but not one he shares.  Brewer started asking her husband challenging questions about his hobby and found that without prompting, he would research the answer in order to be able to share the information with her because he was reading and enjoying it, only a different genre. Asking a family member a challenging question about something they love also shows your commitment to their interests. Brewer uses a “question of the day” in her classroom but she suggest that families could have a question for each person to look up on their own and share at the dinner table or another designated time once a week. This allows parents to model reading for information.  This is a strategy that works for both struggling and gifted students because both types of learners often need motivation to increase their effort in engaging with a text.   

Developing curiosity through notetaking

Brewer suggests parents encourage readers to use sticky notes to remember questions or important moments in a story without causing damage to the book to reinforce notetaking skills.  For younger elementary school age children, this might be as simple as having them put a sticky note if they read something they do not understand or if they see a word they are not familiar with then they can then come back to this page with an adult. For secondary students, sticky notes can mark important passages or topics they might need to understand for an essay or test. 

Summarizing and understanding clues

Being able to summarize and explain what you have read begins before you have even read the text fully. Summarizing can be a surprisingly difficult skill for students because it requires combining several skills such as observation, comprehension and communicating clear ideas.  Brewer discussed how she teaches students to “notice text features and details” such as subtitles, chapter headings, organization and pictures first. When students are reading at home, occasionally check to see if they are paying attention to details like illustrations, titles and character names. For non-fiction, talk about how the information is organized.  Is it giving instructions? Sharing a problem and solution? Or explaining?   

If you do not feel confident in going over parts of a text with your child, think about encouraging their ability to observe and deduce in other areas.  Give clues for a family activity instead of telling children where you are going – how quickly can they guess?  Hold a family discussion on what team will win a sporting event or pause a mystery movie to predict the outcome.

By implementing some of these strategies, when students struggle to use a text to find answers, remind them that they are already doing this in many ways outside of school.

This article appears in the April 2017 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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