Language and Reading Comprehension

Knowing but Not Showing: When All The Studying Seems To Go Up In Smoke


Dr. Marion Blank, PhD

Creator of Reading Kingdom


“I don’t understand it. She seemed to know all the material, but then forgot it when I asked her again a few days later.”

If you’ve faced an experience like this, you are not alone. It’s an unpleasant situation encountered by many families.

Of course, if this is a rare occurrence, it’s nothing to worry about. It’s easy and appropriate to dismiss the results with reasonable explanations such as “he didn’t get enough sleep,” “she was getting sick.” But when the failure to accurately recall what has been learned occurs on a regular basis, it is rightly a cause for concern. Poor results are always demoralizing, and when you have studied and can’t make use of what you have learned, you begin to question your skills and abilities. Despite the best efforts of parents to provide reassurance, the children “don’t buy it.” They are sure that if they were really smart, this never would have happened.

There can be many reasons behind the behavior. One of the most common rests with the study methods that are used. Often they are based on what is termed “rote learning”—in other words, memorization by repetition.

There are situations where rote skills are fine and even desirable. For example imagine you are doing addition or subtraction and you are either not permitted to use a calculator. In that case, you really should know the facts “by heart.” It’s painful and inefficient if you have to “figure out” each calculation.

But rote learning is automatic and unthinking. That’s the goal. You just want the answer and you don’t want to think about how you got there. But for lots of material, that is not what you want. Language and reading comprehension represent such material. Questions such as “who was the main character …?”, “give three examples of …”, “what is the meaning of ….” require thoughtful responses that reflect real understanding and the ability to think about and analyze a subject.

In studying for this type of content, you can often achieve good results by reworking the language. Here are some suggestions

1. Preface the question with a statement that sets up a fuller, clearer context. For example, in asking about the main character you might say, “This story was about someone being very brave. That was certainly true of the main character. Who was the main character?”

2. Restate the question in a different form. For example, in restating the main character, you might say, “one of the people in the story was the most important person? Who was it?”

3. Ensure that your child answers in full sentences. Often, it’s possible to answer – correctly –with a word or phrase. But more attention and focus are required if you have to answer in a full sentence. Commonly, when faced with having to produce full sentences, a child will use the words of the question. (e.g., “Ben was the main character in the story.”) That’s fine — but when that happens, it can be productive for you to move on to the next step.

4. Take the sentence your child has used and reformulate it so that the idea has some different words and a different organization. For the Ben example, you might construct the sentence, “The story focused on Ben.” Then you offer only the beginning part of the sentence you have come up with (e.g., “The story focused on…”) and wait for your child to complete it. Once the fill in has been provided, you then say, “Now tell me the whole thing.” At this point, your child is repeating the new, full sentence that you constructed.

It takes a bit of time to get accustomed to these techniques. But once you do, they actually cut down study time. Even more importantly, they can yield powerful results where success, not failure, becomes the name of the game.

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 About the author:

Dr. Marion Blank is the creator of Reading Kingdom. She is a world-renowned literacy expert on the faculty of Columbia University where she developed and directed the Light on Literacy Program. She has lectured extensively around the world, authored dozens of peer-reviewed articles and books and developed numerous award winning teaching programs.



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