Mary of Providence Primary School is a co-ed school located in Tsuen Wan. The target student group of this collaboration – the primary 4 students, show great diversity in ability in spelling, grammar and vocabulary as well as the four skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking). Teachers see great diversity even within a class, especially in answering reading comprehension questions.
Reading comprehension questions vary in difficulty as they demand different reading skills. Students in P.4 have to answer questions ranging from simply locating specific information in the text to inferring the answers from given information. Teachers observed that while more able students could complete the questions on locating specific information in the text, even the brightest students had difficulty tackling questions that required inference skills. For less able students, they had difficulties tackling even questions that require them to locate specific information, let alone questions that require inference skills.
Level: Primary 4
Topic: My Fantastic Family (Nick Vujicic’s story)
- Tiered learning materials: adjusting the length and complexity of the reading text
- Multi-sensory pedagogical designs: Catering students’ varied learning styles
- Contingent scaffolding: Designing reading comprehension questions with scaffolding to suit the varied readiness of students
When it was seen that students struggle with reading comprehension questions, School Development Officer (SDO) of QSIP and teachers sat together to analyze not only the level of difficulty of the reading comprehension questions, but the reading passage itself.
After analyzing the reading text, we found that the magazine article possesses three challenges to the P.4 students:
(1) Unfamiliar vocabulary items
(2) The connection between the main ideas and the supporting details and how they are presented in a paragraph structure
(3) The hidden key message that the author seeks to convey
In addition, teachers reflected that while the usual way of explaining the meaning of the text word by word might have helped the less able students to understand the passage, it was not an effective way to help them acquire reading skills or achieve autonomy in reading comprehension. More able students were also ripped off the opportunity to challenge themselves in comprehending the text independently.
1. Tiered learning goals: adjusting the length and complexity of the reading text
After identifying the key messages (obstacles Nick faced and how his parents helped him) and the key structure of the body paragraphs (problem -> what his parents did for him) in the collaborative planning sessions, we identified them as the common learning targets for the unit.
To aid the less able students in understanding the text, the following strategies were deployed:
- Teachers rewrote the article using a simpler paragraph structure by eliminating sentences other than those expressing the key messages. While more able students read the text in the textbook as a whole, less able students were given the simpler version as a pre-reading practice to help them familiarize with the key messages and structures before they attempted the more difficult version in the textbook.
- Teachers modelled and guided the less able students in highlighting ‘problems’ and ‘help from parents’ in two different colours to help them see the pattern in the paragraphs and the connection of ideas.
2. Multi-sensory pedagogical designs: Catering students’ varied learning styles
While some students find reading a text more effortless than others, students who are still grappling with basic vocabulary and sentence structures may be easily demotivated when faced with a lengthy text, let alone having to decode the sentences and grasp the key messages in the paragraphs. To help these students, teachers break down the process of reading into ‘understanding the concepts’ and ‘understanding the language’ instead of having less able students trying to do both at the same time.
Before presenting students with the text, teachers helped less able students by showing them a video clip from the movie ‘Wonder’, in which the character Auggie has the same experience of being disabled and being bullied like Nick. Teachers guided students in taking notes about Auggie’s problems and how his mother helped him. Then, teachers guided students in comparing Auggie with Nick to help them understand the concept of ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’. By introducing a movie clip with a similar ‘problem – solution’ structure to less able students, it was hoped that they could grasp the concepts before moving on to decode the text and that they would not be demotivated by having to struggle with concepts and language at the same time.
3. Contingent scaffolding: Designing reading comprehension questions with scaffolding to suit the varied readiness of students
Another obstacle faced by students was that questions testing students’ inference skills (See Fig. 1 below) was extremely challenging as the answers cannot be located directly from the text. Teachers discussed the various steps involved in tackling an inference question and instead of giving only lines for students to fill, they broke the thinking process into manageable chunks (See Fig. 2 below).
Fig.1 An example of inference question students have to tackle after reading the text
Fig. 2 Breaking the question into a series of steps to guide students in inferencing
Another type of question that teachers found students struggle with was identifying the main theme of paragraphs and spotting the wrong option(s) in a multiple-choice format. Since the ideas in the paragraphs had been generalized into a single noun phrase, students were required to first identify the options with the paragraph using the key words and single out the option that was not discussed in the text (Fig. 3). To aid less able students, teachers required them to write down the paragraph numbers in which students could find the relevant information (Fig. 4). This not only helped students to eliminate the options they could not locate in the paragraphs, but also helped teachers see why students got the answers wrong.
Fig. 3 Question that requires students to identify the main idea in each paragraph and single out the option that was irrelevant
Fig. 4 Requiring students to write down the paragraph numbers helped them eliminate the option in a more visible manner and helped teachers see the part that went wrong when students got the wrong answers
On the 30-minute lesson that was observed, students were instructed to take notes on (1) Auggie’s difficulties, (2) how his teacher and mom help him and (3) the person he admires as well as some adjectives to describe him/her (See Fig. 5). With the step-by-step guidance of teachers, students were able to fill in the blanks and gained a clear picture of the ‘problem – solution – personality revealed’ structure, which prepared them for a similar table analyzing the main text on Nick (see Fig. 6)
Fig. 5 Students jotted notes on a table form showing the structure of ‘problem – solution – personalities’
Fig. 6 A similar table-form activity helping students to analyze the same structure in the main text about Nick
On following lessons, less able students were able to identify the problems faced by Nick and his parents’ help using the method of colour coding. The rewritten version helped students focused on the key messages without being confused by additional ideas. This made it easier for students to understand the key message “parents’ love can help one overcome obstacles in life” presented in the text before they moved on to comprehend the more difficult version in the textbook. Teachers commented that even the less able students, being able to grasp the key ideas and key message, were able to understand the difficult version of the text in the textbook and could focus on developing other reading skills like vocabulary inferencing.
As for the reading comprehension questions, teachers reflected that having questions that required more basic reading skills like identifying specific information in the text would help students to warm up and build confidence. It would also help teachers to check students’ understanding before students move on to attempt questions that require analytical ability and inference skills.