READ THIS! Make it HOT all the way

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Photo courtesy of Deb Dunn

Your child comes home from school. “Did you have a good day?” “How was your day?” “What did you do today?” The answers, in order? Yes or no. Fine. Nothing. However, “Tell me about your day” often elicits a full sentence and, if we’re lucky, a short conversation. What does this have to do with reading? A lot: The types of questions we ask our children before, while, and after they read or engage in an activity can lead to deeper comprehension (and more interesting conversation).

It’s relatively easy to understand and memorize information. It’s a different ball of wax to apply that understanding to new scenarios, analyze the information, evaluate it to justify a course of action, and create new ideas or perspectives from information gained. This is called higher-order thinking, or HOT, and it’s a very useful tool for nurturing complex thinkers.

Picture this: Your child finishes listening to or reading a book, and you ask, “Did you like it?” She says “Yes” or “No.” Do you have evidence that your child has digested the meaning, theme, language, or nuances? To do that, a better question might be, “If you were Cinderella, what would you do?” Or try this one on for size. “If Cinderella grew up in a loving family, how would her story be different?” Get my drift? The idea is to dive below the surface to elicit deeper thinking.

HOT is for children of all ages. A kindergartner’s eyes would glaze over if asked to justify the merits or pitfalls of wind turbines in our coastal waters, but she would happily respond if asked to explain why it’s OK for Cinderella to be the new princess, even though her family didn’t give her permission to go to the ball. You’re a natural teacher here. You can adjust questions to the age of your children.

After your child has learned a math concept or read a book, for example, a few more sample questions are, “Would you explain that (or show me) in another way?” “What are some ways you would solve that problem?” “Why did he act that way?” or “What do you think will happen next?” The possibilities are endless.

Dare I say you can even encourage HOT with children who enjoy video games? Instead of feeling dismayed at the lack of interaction, ratchet it up a notch. Ask your children HOT questions about the games they are playing. You might start a conversation with, “What are the flaws in this game? If you were to re-create the game, what would you change, and why?” Or try this: “What problems did you solve in your game today, and how did you do it?” If you’re not a gamer, like me, this could be a tough one to buy. You might be surprised, though, at the level of thinking he puts into the games, and his eyes may light up at your sudden interest. When I asked my son these questions, the conversation lasted the length of dinnertime! Using HOT may help you sleep better, knowing your child is actually applying problem-solving strategies and analytical reasoning when gaming!

Back to the eye on the prize, though. Before we can learn new ideas, we have to connect them to the ones we already have. In order to do that, we have to understand them at a level higher than memorization of facts or rote learning. We have to own the ideas by applying, evaluating, and synthesizing them. While these are not easy skills to learn, with practice every child can learn them from an early age. We have to intentionally activate their higher-order thinking with our own open-ended questioning, without worrying about “right” answers. HOT requires some risk taking, problem solving, and strategy building. We have to fail many times before we get it. It’s our job to encourage critical thinking and exploration of ideas and concepts.

It may be chilly outside, but when it comes to reading comprehension, remember to make it HOT all the way!

Deb Dunn is a mom and the literacy coordinator at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School. She has been teaching for more than 20 years, the past 10 as a reading specialist. Deb welcomes your questions and comments at ddunn@mvpcs.org.