How to identify and assess a reading problem: some strategies for tutors

How to identify and assess a reading problem: some strategies for tutors


In a recent post, I talked about the challenges that (ACT) tutors often face when working with struggling readers; I also discussed how different types of problems can signal difficulties in different component skills that combine to produce reading. In this post, I’m going to cover how to identify a reading problem and provide some strategies for determining whether it stems from decoding, aural comprehension, or both.

To quickly review, the Simple View (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) states that General Reading Ability = Decoding x Aural Comprehension, with the weaker factor limiting overall skill.

Proficient teenage-adult readers decode at approximately 200 words per minute, or the speed of speech; however, many struggling readers never learned sound-letter combinations well enough to “map” them orthographically—that is, to store them in their brains for automatic retrieval. As a result, they read slowly and dysfluently, and may guess at, skip, misread, reverse, add, or omit letters/words.

On the other side, weak vocabulary (particularly words denoting abstract concepts); difficulty making sense out of complex syntax; and poor general knowledge can cause students who are solid decoders to have trouble understanding what they read.

Problems can be restricted to either of these areas; however, they often involve both factors and together produce a general reading problem. (more…)

Why won’t students look at the text? Blame the three-cueing system

Why won’t students look at the text? Blame the three-cueing system

Of all the difficulties involved in tutoring SAT reading, the one that perplexed me the most was the inordinate difficulty certain students seemed to have in grasping the notion that the answers to the questions were *in the passage,* as opposed to in their head or somewhere on the other side of the room. As I wrote about in a fit of irritation many years ago, not long after I started this blog, it literally did not seem to occur to them to look back at the text, and I could not figure out how to get them to do otherwise.

That many tutoring programs treated the location of the answers as some kind of amazing secret baffled me even more. Where other than in the passage would the answer be? How was it possible that so many students seemed to struggle not just with understanding what various texts said, but with the idea that answers to reading questions were based on the specific words they contained? How could such absolutely fundamental notions of reading be so lacking that they could actually be packaged as tricks? (more…)

The knowledge deficit in action

Occasionally I’ll stumble across a passage that seems perfectly straightforward to me, but that I see students get confused about over and over again. One such passage begins in the following way:

Through a friend’s father, Elizabeth found a job at a publishing company.
Her parents were puzzled by this. The daughters of their friends were
announcing their engagements in the Times, and those who joined the Peace
Corps or had gone to graduate school were filed under the heading of
“Useful Service” as if they had entered convents or dedicated themselves to
the poor.

The passage continues for another couple of sentences, but that’s pretty much the gist of it.

That my students should have such difficulty with this of all passages was a mystery I had filed away in a mental drawer somewhere, to be trotted out an examined from time to time but never yielding sufficient clues for me to draw any real conclusions from.

Then I had a couple of illuminating moments.

First, I had a student miss a Writing question because she did not know what the Peace Corps was. This was a girl who liked to read and had already scored a 750 in CR — not the type of kid I’d expect to have that sort of gap.

Next, a friend of mine who teaches high school told me that her AP students did not understand what a mistress was — as in, they had never been exposed to the concept and couldn’t really grasp it.

She also told me the following anecdotes about her son, who had just finished his freshman year of high school: One, he had accidentally bubbled in, on a practice ACT, that he intended to pursue a two-year college degree because she’d recently explained to him that it took her two years to get her master’s, and he didn’t realize that people go to school for four years of undergraduate education before they go to graduate school. And two, while going over a newspaper article with him, she discovered that he did not know what pesticides were. This despite his having attended an über-progressive middle school with a community garden!

Incidentally, her son is a very smart boy (albeit not much of a reader), but no one had ever bothered to explain to him these very basic pieces of information that most adults take for granted. Everyone, his mother included, assumed he knew them and therefore never saw any reason to discuss them. His mother was absolutely gobsmacked when she discovered what he didn’t know. (If you’re a teenager reading this, don’t be so quick to laugh. I guarantee that there are some very important pieces of information about life in the real world that you don’t know either.)

The moral of the story? Every time I think I’ve stopped taking things for granted, I discover that I need to strip away yet more of my preconceptions about what pieces of knowledge I can and cannot assume students possess.

After all that, I started taking a look at the SAT from another angle: that of cultural reference points that most adults don’t give a second thought to but that plenty of kids taking the SAT haven’t picked up. I was inspired, of course, by E.D. Hirsch, but the reference points aren’t so much Great Events in Western Civilization as they are things you learn from reading a newspaper on a regular basis. Even a really bad newspaper.

Then today I happened to be going over the passage cited at the beginning of the post, and suddenly I had a lightbulb moment. It’s chock-full of references that wouldn’t give most adult readers pause, but that the average teenager wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails of.

1. “Announcing engagements in the Times”

Assumed knowledge: The Times refers to a newspaper, e.g. The New York Times. When people get engaged, they sometimes post announcements in the local newspaper. Usually the people who do this are relatively well-off or socially prominent, especially in a newspaper like The New York Times. This piece of information suggests that Elizabeth’s family is probably at least upper-middle class, if not outright wealthy, which in turn suggests why her parents are surprised that she doesn’t want to take money from them.

2. The Peace Corps(!)

Assumed knowledge: The Peace Corps is a governmental organization that places American volunteers (usually college graduates) in various high-need areas in the developing world. Members may teach English, help preserve wildlife, or run recycling programs. In general, they have a reputation for being left-leaning tree huggers.

3. Graduate school

Assumed knowledge: “Graduate school” refers to any post-college academic program leading to a masters or doctoral degree. Most masters program last two years, and most doctoral programs 5-7. The doctorate is the highest academic degree one can receive. In order to apply to graduate school, you must first obtain a bachelors degree (four-year undergraduate degree).

4. Convent

Assumed knowledge: a convent is a place where nuns live apart from the world in order to devote themselves to prayer. For a good part of European history, unmarried women were expected to enter one. By equating joining a convent with “Useful Service,” the author is being ironic — that is, suggesting that Elizabeth’s parents would have considered it more useful for Elizabeth to renounce all worldly goods and lock herself away than to take a job at a publishing house.

Are you starting to get the picture?

Technically, it is not actually necessary to understand all of these references to answer either of the questions that accompanies the passage. But that is somewhat beside the point. The point is that if the reader does not have a pretty darn good idea of what these things refer to, the passage itself has the potential to read like sheer gobbledygook. At that point, it’s not even relevant whether the questions can be answered without that information because the reader is so thoroughly lost that he or she can barely even focus on the questions.

Knowledge deficit indeed.

Three levels of reading incomprehension

Three levels of reading incomprehension

When I first started tutoring reading for the SAT and the ACT, I took a lot of things for granted. I assumed, for example, that my students would be able to identify things like the main point and tone of a passage; that they would be able to absorb the meaning of what they read while looking out for important textual elements like colons and italicized words; and that they, at bare minimum, would be able to read the words that appeared on the page and sound out unfamiliar ones.

Over the last few years, however, I’ve progressively shed all those assumptions. When I start to work with someone, I now take absolutely nothing for granted. Until a student clearly demonstrates that they’ve mastered a particular skill, I make no assumptions about whether they have it. And that includes reading the words as they appear on the page. (more…)

When to read slowly and when to skim

When to read slowly and when to skim

In discussions about skimming, one question that often arises is how to know when various sections of passages should be read slowly vs. skimmed through.

What makes this question so important is that it cuts to the heart of what a lot of standardized-test reading targets — namely, the ability to sort essential information (main ideas) from information of secondary importance (supporting details), and to use the “clues” that an author provides within a text to identify just what that important information is.

What that means, practically speaking, is that while you do need to read slowly enough to get the gist of a passage, you don’t have to read everything slowly — at least not the first time through. Very often, what looks like a time problem is really a problem of recognizing when it’s ok to skim through things and, consequently, of getting overly caught up in irrelevant details. (more…)

Make sure you understand what the questions are actually asking

This post was inspired by Akil Bello’s Best SAT Prep Tip Ever on the Bellcurves blog. While I agree 100% that reading the full question (along with reading full answers) is indeed one of the most important things you can do on the SAT, I also think that advice takes a bit too much for granted because it assumes that most test-takers will understand what a question is asking, provided that they read it carefully enough. In my experience, however, that’s simply not the case.

I think there’s a tendency to forget that vocabulary issues can crop in passage-based questions themselves as well as in passages and answer choices. If you don’t understand precisely what a question is requiring you to do when it asks you which of the following would most undermine a given theory, it’s very hard to answer that question correctly!

Take inference questions. When a question asks you make an inference about what a particular person mentioned in a passage would believe, it is generally asking you to make a reasonable assumption about that person’s beliefs based on specific information that the author says about that person. It is not simply asking you to summarize what that person says or believes. It is asking you to form a general, often more abstract idea that will not be found word-for-word in the text. But if you don’t make that distinction, if you just try to summarize what the person says or thinks, you’ll be lost when you look at the answer choices.

Or, to give a slightly more concrete example, it will be very hard for you to answer a question that uses the word “analogous” if you don’t really know what that means.

So I’m going to suggest two things.

First, treat any unfamiliar vocabulary you find in the actual questions the exact same way you would treat any other SAT vocabulary — write it down and learn it.

Second, try rephrasing the questions in your own words to make sure you actually understand what you need to do. For example, if a question asks you what “transition is marked” in a particular line, you can rephrase it as “what change happens in the passage here?” Define, sum up, simplify. Whatever you have to do to make sure you understand.