Dear Dr. Fournier:
Our daughter is in the seventh grade. Prior to this year, she was an A student, but now she’s dropped to mostly C’s with a few B’s here and there. We’ve never had a problem with her in school and we are beside ourselves trying to determine what has happened to her.
It’s not that she won’t study. In fact, the minute she gets home, she gets her books out and does her homework assignments. She’s having trouble with reading and says on tests, she just goes blank. We see her struggling and we don’t know what to do. We’ve met with her teacher who says she must try harder. She is trying harder. In fact, we’ve taken her off the soccer team so she can concentrate on her school and homework.
Any help you can give us would be greatly appreciated.
Dan and Beth Anne L.
Dear Dan and Beth Anne:
School expectations completely change in the seventh grade, from allowing students time to develop basic skills to assuming that those skills are already in place – and in use.
In elementary school, students are typically taught to read and answer the questions at the end of the chapter. These children may score well in reading comprehension on achievement tests, but when they are unable to perform on a daily basis they may be told they must “try harder” and “live up to their potential.”
In junior high school, students are suddenly expected to change their reading habits. Rather than reading with fluency for comprehension, they are expected to read with ideation for long-term recall. Also, the reading content becomes more complex. There is less formal language and more academic language.
Dan and Beth Anne, let’s define a few technical terms that will help you and other parents in this situation. Picture the reading process in three consecutive stages:
1. Reading: To be able to read words in a fluent way that permits the student to concentrate on the thoughts conveyed without thinking about the reading task itself.
2. Ideation: To take what the author says and be able to retell it in the student’s own words, phrases, symbols or drawings with extensions from their own thoughts.
3. Questioning: To be able to deal with two types of questions – how to answer someone else’s questions (on a test) and how to answer the student’s own questions.
Ideation is the missing link that stumps many seventh graders.
In grades one through six, teachers typically skip over the paraphrasing stage by asking students to read and answer questions with answers straight from their books and teacher’s manuals. Without paraphrasing, students do not truly learn – they only memorize what the author says.
Students who jump over the ideation stage may read well and be able to answer questions on a test, but they do not have the skill of knowing how to anticipate the different ways information can be asked. They are like little pitchers, filling themselves with information to pour into the test, but afraid of tipping over and spilling all the facts. These are the students who typically freeze on a test, especially if the questions are phrased in unfamiliar formats or if they are faced with questions that require analysis and not just memory.
When ideation does occur as the crucial middle step, students cannot only answer test questions, but they can also create their own questions and anticipate new ones. This allows the student to take ownership of knowledge – and to use that knowledge to springboard to new knowledge. This is when the student becomes an independent, lifelong learner by reading with ideation for long-term recall and long-term critical thinking.
Unfortunately, many seventh graders try to apply their elementary school skills – reading and questioning based too often on study sheets – to demonstrate both comprehension and long-term learning. The same technique cannot be used for both outcomes. And when their strategy fails, most students just try to do more of the same.
I have seen students try so hard that they keep copious notes of answers to questions, but the more notes they keep, the worse they do and parents experience what you are experiencing, a drop-off in grades. Ultimately, many give up. Studying more is not a substitute for learning better.
WHAT TO DO
Explain to your child the difference between reading and answering questions (reading for remembering) and reading with ideation (reading for learning). The difference is not just answering questions, but asking and anticipating questions. Explain that once she has read, she must take the knowledge the author has given and make it her own.
Without this step, knowledge will never be hers and she will have to depend on memory rather than on understanding.
Both science and social studies are excellent subjects for her to draw her knowledge. She should never copy the knowledge. She should either rephrase the most important information or draw a picture of it. For example, she might draw a crown to represent a king, writing his name inside the crown and “decorating” it with other information such as the years of his reign.
You can help her by encouraging her to have fun with her own re-creation of knowledge and by asking to see her pictures (drawings) of her knowledge.
Once your child has put the information into her own words or pictures, have her write her own questions with the knowledge she now owns. This will become a practice test, including all types of questions that may be anticipated. By the time she finishes the chapter she will be ready to take her own test two or three nights before the classroom test. Once taken, she will find the knowledge she has yet to master and then she can spend her next evenings finding strategies to master only what she till has left to learn.
By following these simple strategies, parents can help their child go from the school skill of answering questions with fear to the life skill of asking questions with confidence.
CONTACT DR. FOURNIER
Have a question about education, education-related issues or your child’s schoolwork or homework? Ask Dr. Fournier and look for her answer in this column. E-mail your question or comment to Dr. Yvonne Fournier at firstname.lastname@example.org.