Thursday, October 30, 2014

How Can I Help a Struggling Reader / Writer Who Only Writes Single Word Responses?

Today, a visitor to my website asked me the following question:
Hello Mr. Morton:

Your website is wonderful, however, I'm looking for materials to teach my 5th grader at home the CORE fundamentals of reading. He has a hard time putting his thoughts on paper. Therefore, he gives one word answers when the question is looking for details. Do you have any information that can assist me in this area?
Thanks a bunch
I responded in the following way.

It's hard for me to give you good advice
without being more familiar with your child's
specific needs and all of the factors that might
be affecting his behavior, so take what I'm saying
with a grain of salt.

I will try to give you some insight from my distant position, however.

1. Students generally write one word answers because they are hurrying to complete the assignment. They don't care about their grades or the value of the activity. They only know that they get in trouble if they don't complete the assignments. So they learn pretty quickly that if they slop some stuff on the paper as fast as they can, and then they can get back to gaming or browsing the internet or chatting with friends or whatever.   

I don't know if it's possible to drill in appreciation for learning. I don't think it is.

You can, however, increase the requirements of the activity. You do this by being more specific and clear with your expectations.

Here are some simple ways to do that.

1. No matter what he is reading, have him provide a summary. A summary cannot be one word. It should capture all main points of the text. Catching him on this will require that you read the text too, but you seem like an involved parent, so that shouldn't be too hard.  If he can effectively summarize a text, he had comprehended it. Then he can discuss it with you. 

This prevents him from just cherry picking the answers. Many students use this shortcut to prevent themselves from doing reading. They learned that they don't have to read the texts, they can just skim for the answers. Often times they will get a 70% or so of these answers correct, so it is a method that works for the student who is solely working to avoid punishment. 

That method actually sucks though. They don't learn anything and it is a bad habit. 

By having him to summarize every text, and making him revise his summaries if they are lacking, you are requiring him to develop a closer relationship to the text. Maybe you can try some of these activities to get him started.

2. One of the big pushes in the Common Core is for students to support their answers with text. Truly, this has always been an important skill for upper level English courses, but the Core has slid this skill down the ladder so that younger students learn to do it. I think that this is fantastic. Using text to support your arguments is one of the most important things that you can learn in an English, reading, or language arts class. So how do you do it? 

After he had provided a summary of the text, ask him to answer the following question: "What can readers learn from this text?" Require that he states his position clearly in the first sentence. Then have him find a quote from the text that supports his argument. Then have him explain what this quote shows. This will help him get on the road to writing better responses. 

It may take a while. His first responses definitely won't be as good as his last, but that's a good thing. That's what growth is. 

Again, there is no silver bullet to solve this problem, but hopefully some of these techniques help you to push him more effectively.

Best wishes,

I have published this exchange in the hopes that it might help others.