expert advice MORE
Problems with Reading Comprehension/Retention
Q: Sometimes my fifth-grade son has a problem comprehending what he's read. He can remember lines of poetry very well and recite the poem from memory. However, he can't remember what he's just read in a story or what I just explained to him about a math problem. He seems to have a problem remembering math problems and how to work them even though we've gone over the same ones time and time again. Is he just not paying attention to what he's doing, or is it something more? What can I do to help him?
A: Certainly the behaviors you are seeing could be indicative of a learning disability or an attention deficit disorder. The only way you can be sure is to have your son evaluated. You have the right to request a free, comprehensive evaluation by a child study team in your local school district. Have you expressed your concerns to the guidance counselor at your son's school? She should be able to walk you through the process of an evaluation if you decide you need more information about your son's needs. You can also call the toll-free number for the Coordinated Campaign for Learning Disabilities at 1-888-GR8-MIND or have a look at their website for more information.
In the meantime, there are things you can do to help your son at home. You're right that sometimes people have difficulty remembering what they've read just because their attention is wandering. All of us have experienced that phenomenon: We read a page in a book or a story in the newspaper and become distracted by other thoughts, then suddenly realize that we don't remember anything we've read. The important thing is that we realize that we've lost the content. If we know it is happening, we can be ready with "fix-up" strategies to fill in the holes in our comprehension. This can be as simple as re-reading the text or clarifying difficult vocabulary. I've often recommended the use of an electronic dictionary to retrieve the meaning of challenging words. It's much faster than using a regular dictionary. Franklin Electronic Publishers at 1-800-266-5626 has a host of user-friendly electronic dictionaries.
People who have difficulty understanding what they're reading may use other strategies, such as stopping at shorter sections to make sure they are building meaning before they get too far lost. Some people create visual images that transform the words they are reading into pictures. These "word pictures" make it easier for them to construct and then to retrieve meaning over time. Try talking with your son about strategies you use when reading challenging text to remember and understand what you've read. Talk through the process to make it explicit to him and get him to try some of these strategies in his own reading.
The problem you're describing in math is somewhat different. You're talking here about "procedural memory," i.e., remembering the steps you need to take to complete a task. Try creating a "math notebook" for your son where you write down the steps to solutions, with examples of completed problems. Before he begins his math homework, have him look at the completed example and review in his own words the steps he took to solve it.
If you're not comfortable trying these strategies on your own, your son's teacher or the guidance counselor at his school may be able to recommend a tutor who can help him to develop more "active" learning habits. Good luck!
More on: Expert Advice
For more than 20 years, Eileen Marzola has worked with children and adults with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders, and with their parents and teachers. She has been a regular education classroom teacher, a consultant teacher/resource teacher, an educational evaluator/diagnostician, and has also taught graduate students at the university level. Marzola is an adjunct assistant professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Hunter College of the City University of New York. She also maintains a private practice in the evaluation and teaching of children with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders.