My oldest student really struggled with reading comprehension when he was younger. The kid could read anything you put in front of him, but answering even basic reading comprehension questions was, well – out of the question, if you’ll forgive the pun! He’d attended public school for 3 years, finishing first grade in the system before we brought him home. He took 2 years of speech therapy and had a diagnosis of “semantic pragmatic disorder.” Now, he’s 16 and reading Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aenied. Here’s how we overcame the reading comprehension issue.
We were so excited to start homeschooling, the summer after Christian finished first grade! We’d known since February that we’d be pulling him at the end of the year. (I figured at the time that it was easier than pulling him. I was scared of a fight. I know better now, but that was my mindset at the time. Plus, it gave me a clear idea of where to start academically.)
He was SO smart. In fact, the public school wasn’t able to keep up with him academically. Nor were they able to help him with the social oddities he had. We discovered later that we were dealing with High Functioning Autism. The best thing about him being in the public school was, first of all, he’d had an above-the-mark kindergarten teacher. But also, he’d been placed in a three-year speech program starting in kindergarten; he finished it in only two years. He was diagnosed with semantic pragmatic disorder.
Semantic Pragmatic Disorder is a language processing issue. It played out for us mostly with asking him questions. I could ask where Daddy’s hat was; he’d tell me it was blue. I’d agree that Daddy’s hat was blue, and ask again if Christian knew where the hat was. He’d tell me it’s Daddy’s. The question gets mixed up in his brain and he gives the closest thing he thinks might be the right answer; it’s the right answer… to the wrong question. (And it should have raised a flag for someone at the school to point us to further testing. It’s now known that this is a possible marker for HFA. No one said a word at the time. Shame, that.)
The very first thing we did for our homeschool was break out one of those big, complete curriculum workbooks for second grade. The very first page had a simple story that went like this:
Cats like milk.
I give the cat milk.
I give the cat juice.
Then it asked a question:
What happens next?
I felt like a failure. Two full weeks worth of working on this page, friends. No exaggeration. Yes – I turned the page and let him do the other work. Yes, we worked on subjects outside of that complete curriculum book. Yes – we visited the library and tried to find a local support group. We did “all the things,” y’all. Something was just not right.
Finally, I just laid it aside. It was obvious that reading comprehension was an issue for my son. I broke out the World Book Level Reader set my mother had purchased when she sold World Book when I was a kid. We started with the first grade readers, which all had questions at the end of each story. These really are fantastic resources, y’all. Class A stuff, here. (Sorry, I checked – they don’t have them any more.) They were still excruciatingly difficult for my son. I walked him through the logic to the correct answer, but things didn’t seem to get much better.
It was over a full year after we’d pulled him from the public school system, and moved our family 2 hours down I-35 to Austin, TX before I discovered a few things. First, this is when we discovered the HFA and the fact that the semantic pragmatic is a classic flag for it. It’s where I discovered that I wasn’t a failure as a mom, but my son had an actual, diagnosable condition, that affected how he processed not only information but also situations. I discovered that my stance that his issues weren’t behavioral but social issues (that was always the wording I’d used) were correct. And, by God’s grace and mercy, I discovered that the paths I’d trodden to find what worked for my son with his specific quirks were actually proven techniques used with kids dealing with HFA. I was doing it right.
That empowered me to start over with this reading comprehension thing. I tried doing narration. That was the big “thing” in the homeschool world at the time. It’s still a great tool. It didn’t work. What can I say? My kid was always the exception to the rule.
I let him read high-interest books. He seemed to read it just fine. (He was still only starting the third grade. At 4 years old, the first time we had him tested, we were told that he had a crazy high IQ and that he could read on “at least” a 4th grade level. They didn’t do testing, the school did that. The school wouldn’t do it until he’d finished second grade. Yay, system.) He seemed to enjoy the story. He was able to regurgitate a line or two, and tell me the characters’ names. Sometimes he was able to pull out a detail or two, but still I had no earthly idea what the topic and theme of the book had been.
So we backed up and restarted. Again. I’d read a few articles and kind of meshed my own system out of several suggestions. We found a book with very short chapters. Roald Dahl books are great for this; we started with The BFG. (It’s still one of his favorite books!) His chapters are about 2 or 3 pages in length. I had paper with me, and we went to my bedroom – normally he wasn’t allowed in my bedroom – and laid on the bed as we read together. I read very quietly so that he would have to concentrate and really listen to me in order to hear me.
I read a sentence or two and explained that this is “when” the story was taking place, and “where” it was taking place, and “who” the main character of the story was. I wrote those things down. Then I re-read the sentences, or the whole first paragraph. I read another paragraph, and then I stopped and did my own narration – a summary, if you aren’t familiar with that term. I would then re-read the paragraph, and continue to the next paragraph. I’d give my summary again, repeat the last paragraph, and continue in that manner.
In between all of this, I was having Christian stop me if we came to a word he didn’t know or understand. One of the ones I remember him stopping me to explain was the word “orphan.” I explained that an orphan was a person whose parents had died. I would write down the word, and continue reading. I’d stop at the end of the sentence with the word, give the meaning of the sentence again in my own words, and restart the paragraph.
So, yes – we read each chapter effectively 3 or 4 times by the end of the 2 or 3 pages worth of text. But, he’d understood every last bit of it. And then I’d hand him the page I’d used. I’d have him tell me the Who, When, Where of the chapter. I’d have him tell me what the words he hadn’t understand meant. And then I would have him narrate. I’d have him give me the basic main events and I would write them on our paper. If he got them in order, great. If he didn’t, I’d left space between each item so that I could squeeze in another point if needed.
I had him draw on the back of the page. I’d seen it suggested to have the child project what would come next and draw that on the back of the paper. That was a disaster! We were working on reading comprehension and the whole projection and conclusions thing is a progression that comes after having mastered the comprehension. So instead, I just had him draw what he was thinking about while I read, or a scene from the chapter we’d just read.
It didn’t take long and I created a graphic outline page to use in this way, so that he could collect them in a notebook. When we’d finished the book, he could go back and look at every page and then be able to narrate the entire book for me, and then again for Dad. I’ve recreated some pages similar to what we were using back then, and you can download them for free! I hope they are a blessing to you.
We went through two books like this together. After that, I could hand him a page and tell him to read a chapter. He’d fill out the organizer and bring it to me when he was finished. He’d narrate and I’d fill in the timeline of events, just like we’d done together previously, and he’d add it to his notebook. Eventually, he got to where he could just narrate the chapter to me and he didn’t need the graphic organizers any more. It wasn’t much longer and he could read several chapters and narrate them. That was followed by being able to narrate an entire book, with me having assigned it at the beginning of the week and expecting the narration on Friday.
Now he’s in high school and reading some very difficult literature – stuff I’ve never read. He’s able to keep up with the reading comprehension questions posed by any curriculum we’ve tried. More importantly, he can read in his Bible and understand what it says. This is my kid who was diagramming the Proverbs not long ago, and helping us all to see a deeper truth within those verses that might have otherwise been hidden.
God is good, and my son is so cool and so smart.
Would you be interested in my restarting the Diagramming the Proverbs series?
Do you have a student who struggles with reading comprehension? What have you tried? What has been successful, and what has not?