by Kaia Cunningham
October 12, 2021
I love stories. I love getting lost in a narrative and using the magic of words to imagine another place, time, and life. It can be so powerful, and it’s an experience that I love sharing with my students.
Vocabulary knowledge and background information are the cornerstones of reading comprehension. They are the necessary foundations on which understanding is built and a mental movie is created. That said, vocabulary knowledge and background information can present a roadblock to reading comprehension for students with dyslexia, who can often present with sizable gaps that thwart their path to understanding. Students with dyslexia read less than their peers and, thus, are exposed to fewer words. As a result, fewer words become a part of their vocabulary. This limited vocabulary can impact their ability to recall parts of history, geography, or political events that often set the stage for the literature that we read in school.
Reflect back on the first pages of To Kill a Mockingbird. They make many references to American history and relevant locations in the American south: Andrew Jackson, “Creeks up the creek,” Battle of Hastings, Mobile, Montgomery, and the list goes on. Imagine trying to make a mental movie of the setting of this novel if you thought Andrew Jackson was not a prominent and controversial American president, but a character in the novel? Or if you mistook Mobile for Mobil and assumed the text was referring to a gas station not a city in Alabama? It would be a muddled setting at best and it would be challenging to be drawn into a story where the scene didn’t make any sense.
It is important to note that a limited vocabulary is not the single story of our students; I have been corrected more than once for making the assumption that students with dyslexia don’t like reading and that laborious reading does not equate to a disinterest in learning or stories. Our older students who are diagnosed with dyslexia often crave these complicated texts with big moral questions. And herein lies the problem: high and school and middle school students with dyslexia or other SLDs often have the cognitive capacity and desire to understand complex texts like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Bell Jar, and other widely anthologized texts, but they are often tripped up by a lack of memory or exposure to important words and concepts.
So what do we do? What is an effective strategy for students to be able to gain entry to these interesting and complex texts? This is a problem that I have grappled with for nearly 20 years of teaching. It is impossible to make sure that every word, concept, and reference is explained and taught in novels. When I have attempted that, it has been a spectacular failure: the pacing was excruciating and the excitement of the story was lost.
A solution can be found in a simple study skills strategy: paraphrasing. The skill of paraphrasing asks students to take a passage and restate it in their own words, making sure to keep all the essential information intact. To do this with fidelity, students must know the meaning of all the words in the given passage: the figurative language, all the references and concepts. Missing one of these essential pieces can result in the student missing essential pieces of information in the passage or walking away with only the gist of the meaning.
For example, in the first few pages of The Bell Jar, the protagonist, Esther says: “Only I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself. I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolley bus. I guess I should have been excited the way most other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo” (Plath p. 3).
At first glance, there are only a few words to which an 11th grade student wouldn’t at least have been exposed, but when asked what the word trolley means in this context, a student must examine how the figurative language explains Esther’s feelings. Engaging students in this wide and deep language study can inspire authentic conversations and discussions about words and their multiple meanings and roles, as well as give a solid foundation to explore Esther’s emotional state. Paraphrasing passages frequently and early in the reading of a text can also help students narrow their focus when reading. Thinking back to the Bell Jar, knowing early on that Esther is feeling numb, that she feels that she is moving without thinking, and that, most importantly, she feels as though she isn’t reacting to a situation the way she believes she should can help explain and frame many of her later decisions within the novel.
Not only does this type of skill work provide a framework for understanding, but when students are asked to put the events and meaning of a quote into their own words, they are also working on written expression. This is a lucky consequence, as not only is their understanding of the novel improved, but also their ability to write clearly about complicated information.
As with all language-based education, it is important to coach students through the process. Tell them what it means to paraphrase and why it’s an effective tool to boost comprehension.
Check out the attachment, which provides a sample of how this strategy can be used in the high school or middle school classroom.
Kaia has been at Landmark since 2006. In addition to her work for Outreach, she has been a language arts teacher at Landmark High School. Previously, her roles and responsibilities included assistant director of the preparatory program, academic advisor, and full-time teacher and tutor. Kaia graduated from The College of Santa Fe with her bachelor’s in English, and she earned her master’s degree in special education from Simmons College.