Help! My Student Finished the Book Too Fast!

This question appeared in my email box one day: What would or did you do when your children zoomed through a book with only one problem? He did great except for the part where he had to read a riddle and figure out what the answer was. He didn’t know what “pup” was so he missed it. It was also hard for him to comprehend because he reads slowly. By the time he gets to the next word he already forgot what he read. But when I read to him he can tell me the correct answer. The mom who wrote the email was puzzled by a student who had no difficulty reading his first book. They had worked together on letter sounds and short vowel words and were attempting to have him read an actual book. Young Son read slowly, methodically working word by word, but stumbled over only one word. Mom was not at all sure that it should be so easy.

First, there is no reason to dwell on lessons that have already been learned. Make sure your student learns the part he had trouble with, and then keep going forward. His reading speed will increase with practice — just like riding a bicycle, you start slowly and shakily, but you get better and faster the more you do it.

Second, if your early reader is able to answer questions from what you read to him, then you know his listening skills and comprehension are good. What you will be working on improving is his own reading — do not expect fantastic comprehension immediately from his own reading time. It will come with practice. Remember that your student is just entering a new world of written communication: up to this point, he has only had to interpret pictures and symbols, not words. Try mentally relating it (for your own understanding) to developing a brand new skill yourself, such as learning to read Chinese. An entirely new system of symbolizing words and thoughts would be difficult to comprehend all at once, but practice would enable you to learn little bits, then bigger bits, and then bunches. Your student will master reading in the same way.

Perhaps the child having difficulty with comprehension would benefit from decoding 3-4 words individually, then backing up to read those words together, gradually assembling the separate words into a sentence. In that way, his mind will learn to switch back and forth from decoding mode into reading mode: solving what the word is and then remembering it to read it in context with the other words. Getting the hands involved often helps transfer an idea to the brain, so if your student needs a little more help, you might consider supplementing (at least for a while) with homemade flash cards of the individual words to touch and hold and slide around on the tabletop. Let him decode each word as a task in itself, then line up some words on the table to see how a few words can form a sentence and actually SAY something. Then he can begin to understand longer and longer sentences. This is the “learning to balance the bicycle” stage. Expect it to be a little shaky and ungraceful temporarily. Also expect it to be mentally and physically exhausting to your little one as he struggles his way up these word-mountains, so do not push him beyond the limits of his endurance.

Third, for proceeding to the next book, if your diligent reader is ready, move on with confidence! Just remember that learning is like terrain: uphill climbs, downhill coasting, and an occasional plateau. The boy at the beginning of this story was fresh and ready and ran up an easy hill — no problem, little expenditure of energy. He may continue that way for a while. Then, just when you have gotten used to his jackrabbit pace, he will hit a plateau and need to stay there for a while to absorb all that he has been taking in rapidly. Sometimes progress will seem so slow that you will wonder if the hill actually has a top or if you are possibly sliding backwards!

Children grow physically in the same way — in little spurts — but we do not worry that they are going to shrink the next week. We know they will keep going forward, and eventually they may skip a size here and there. Children will learn in little spurts, but will always continue to move forward. Sometimes it may seem that they have forgotten a lesson or tended to slide backwards, but in actuality they are resting on a plateau and absorbing all that has been learned. Whether you can see it or not, the child’s mind is sorting all the information and contemplating how it all fits together. Give him time to “catch his breath” and he will soon be ready to move on again.

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