What to Do When They Don't Understand

You are sitting at the guided reading table with a group.  Everything is going beautifully. All the kids are working independently and engaged in their activities.  There is a purposeful, low hum of conversation in the room.

The kids at your table are reading their text and you tap in with little Johnny and he reads the text beautifully.  You ask him to tell you about what he just read and he says, "I dunno."

Never had that happen before?

Or maybe just the everyone on task during groups part? LOL!

It does seem like a fairy tale, but the child having no idea what they read?  Yep, it has happened to me a time or two.

To me, these are some of the hardest readers to teach.  Simply because I can't see inside their brains to figure out what is the problem.  When kids have decoding issues, you can listen to them read and it is a window into their brains.  Comprehension problems can much harder.

So what do you do?

First have the child reread the text.  There is a chance their mind was wandering and they simply weren't attending to the text.

If students are still having trouble and can't retell the text or answer the questions, use it as a chance to model.  "I noticed...." Then, after this scaffolding ask a specific question from your scaffolding.

For example, scaffold with, "I noticed that the main character, Ned, was very sad when he lost the baseball game. Can you go back to the text and show me what he did that tells the reader he was sad?"

This is a great a simple strategy to help in the moment.

However, what should your next steps be as a teacher?

First of all, you may need to reevaluate the text level.  The student may be fluent, but if they don't comprehend then you may need to back up the text level.

You may also want to spend great deal of time building background and previewing the text before reading. You can do this by using graphic organizers and working with the vocabulary before opening the text.  I also had students watch (short) videos online if if related to the text.  This worked especially well with nonfiction.

Be careful with text selection.  Choose high interest text the student will be interested in, if possible (sometimes we have little choice). Choose fiction with a predicable structure of beginning, middle, and end.  Choose texts with one central problem.  When selecting nonfiction, consider starting with biographies.  They have a predictable structure by following the sequence of a persons life- birth, childhood, young adult, adulthood, death.

After students are successful with these text, move into more complex texts on a similar level.

When reading the new text, stop frequently and ask students to retell and ask questions.  Avoid reading large chunks of text without checking in.

These are just a few ideas to help students that struggle with comprehension.  Are you looking for specific strategies?

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5 Smart Strategies for Problem Solving

When I was a little girl I hated math.

Like despised it.

I was the child that took forever to memorize math facts, stared blankly at word problems, and suddenly had to go to the bathroom when it was math time.

Sound familiar?

It just didn't make SENSE to me. I had no idea why some problems meant to add and others meant to divide.

Now this, this made sense to me:

As a teacher, I tried to helped kids "get" math and problem solving.  I really wanted them to understand the why, and not just the how.  However, it took me a very long time to get there and I had lots of "learning experiences" in between! LOL

Here are some strategies that I learned over the years, to help students solve world problems.

Forget the Key Words
This is a tricky one and there are lots of different opinions on this.  For the most part, I avoided teaching students key words in math problem solving.  Why?  Well, they didn't always WORK.  Instead of focusing on what the problems was asking for, students zoomed in on a key word and some numbers.  BOOM!  They had an answer.  They just didn't understand WHY it was the answer or explain how they got it....other than "I added."

Jessica over at What I have Learned wrote a great blog post about NOT teaching key words in problem solving.  You can read it here.

Increase or Decrease?
Often, I tried to get kids to focus on the nitty-gritty....is the answer going to increase or decrease?  Are we getting more or less? Most kids, even some with language processing issues, could understand and usually get if the answer was going to get "bigger" or "smaller."

This is an important skill.  First, it helps kids understand what is even being asked.  Second, it can help students choose an operation to help solve the problem.

Which leads me to my next point.

Teach the Relationship Between the Operations
Each year (especially in third grade, where are four operations are taught), I made an anchor chart with students.  It looked like this:

We added to it all year long, as we learned more about each operation.  On the edges of the poster we made notes about how addition and multiplication usually led to a larger answer (when working with whole numbers) and division and subtraction usually led to a smaller answer. I showed this with the arrows.  We also talked about how addition -subtraction and multiplication-division were inverse relationships.

I kept this anchor chart up all year for students to reference.

Help Students Visualize Problem Solving
There are many awesome ways to help students solve the problems. There are great acronyms and graphic organizers.  I liked to keep it as simple as possible.

I used this format:

Understanding Word Problems
Well, this tip isn't rocket science, but I still felt it need to be said.  Students need time to master problem solving with ONE step word problems, before moving on two step problems.  I know this is a hard one, because it is explicitly states in the second grade CCS that students need to solve two step word problems.  However, if kids aren't ready for it...they aren't ready for it.  This is when math groups are really your best option.  Kids can work on the word problems of varying styles and steps, with a varying amount of teacher support.

When students ARE ready for two step word problems, I tried to help students understand what was going on with ALL THOSE WORDS.

We asked ourselves who, what, how, and made a plan.  You can see the anchor chart below on how we color coded the problem to match.  We didn't do this with EVERY problem, just when we were modeling our thinking.

In this post, I shared how students can create their OWN word problems.  This will also lead to a deeper understanding of how word problems work!

Do you have any other tips to help students with problem solving?

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