By Kristin Di Perri, Ed.D.
Parents naturally want their children to read with ease. Fluency and comprehension requires active engagement with print. Readers must use the their stored knowledge to interact with print in a meaningful way. When reading effectively, continual connections are constructed between print and personal pieces of organized information. This mental storage of information in an organized manner is known as schema theory. The amount of schemata one has stored on a particular topic will greatly affect their comprehension. This is one reason why reading can be a difficult challenge for your child. However there are things you can do that will greatly help!
Lets consider a visual image to help us understand how humans cognitively organize and categorize information. Before computers, a trip to the library meant stopping first at the card catalogue. This chest-high, set of drawers contained rows and rows of tiny cards that organized the entire library in an orderly fashion. Understanding the system allowed an individual to narrow their search quickly and walk to the exact spot a desired book was located. Our brains organize information in a similar way.
With each new experience our brains take in information that can be categorized and stored. This process continues to be updated and refined as new information is encountered.
For example, a one year old is playing outside and the neighbor’s Dalmatian comes over. Mom says, “Oh look at the dog! You can pet the nice dog”. The child files away a card in his “Animal” drawer that notes ‘4-legged animals, black & white, called “dogs”, friendly.’ However, the next day the family goes to a farm. There the child sees a Holstein and promptly says or signs “dog!” This label seemingly matches the existing “card” in his drawer. However, mom quickly says, “Oh no, that's a cow.” Now the child must make a new group called “cows”. Thus the category is refined to make two separate classifications that while different, also share similar aspects. This process continues throughout our lives.
So how do life experiences support reading? The fuller the ‘drawers’ in our brains the easier it will be to read a variety of materials. The more information you know about a topic the easier it will be to understand the overall piece. For example, suppose you have 15 seconds to write as many related words to the following topics: 1. Camping 2.) Laurent Clerc 3.) rBGH. How many words or related ideas would you have for each topic? Depending on your experience and interest, some words will have more “entries” than others. This means that for those topics you know well, your drawers are full of information and reading a piece on this topic would likely be easy for you. Conversely, the fewer related words or ideas you have, the harder it would be to understand what the passage is talking about.
How can parents help their children in this area? You can provide and share as many experiences as possible with your child. Extend those experiences beyond the normal observational points. For example, take your young child to the grocery store. Depending on their age, a wide variety of topics can be discussed. Direct them to notice specific patterns in the store.
What foods are grouped together?
Where can you find frozen foods?
What kind of containers hold food?
How many kinds of pasta are there?
What are some of their names?
What do they do with the food that is old?
How can you pay for the food?
What happens if you don't have enough money for what you selected?
Ask the manager if they could show you a “behind the scenes” look at how food comes in, is ordered, etc. Even simple trips to the grocery store can be varied, learning experiences.
Another activity you can do at home with younger children is to actively build cognitive connections across items in a game format. Using magazine pictures or Internet clip art, place three or four pictures in front of the child and ask them to pick a word/sign that connects all of them. For example, pictures of an orange, a beach ball, a Hula Hoop might elicit possible answers such as “Things that are round” or “Things kid have in the summer”. Extend this game by using only English words or ASL signs. A game made by Mattel called “Apples to Apples” is fantastic for older children.
We tend to think of reading as a “paper” activity. However, what the child brings to the process before even opening a book can determine whether the experience will be a successful one. Parents have a wonderful opportunity to continually influence the storage of new information by providing superior learning through a rich variety of experiences. Though on the surface it seems minimal, continuing to present your child with opportunities to use higher cognitive processes (e.g. consider, evaluate, predict, draw conclusions, etc.) will have a significant impact on reading.