Socrates Does Not Need to Apply. Not Yet.

A few months ago,  I considered writing the post, about  Socratic Method (Although now, I am not sure if this is the appropriate name. ) versus intensive teaching through discrete trials and verbal behavior.  According to this method, as it was presented to me long ago, the teacher, master really, should only help the student to uncover what the student already had in his/her mind.  The teacher was supposed to  lead the student through questions to the truth or, at least,  to the rejections of false assumptions, by showing the student  the consequences of the student’s chain of arguments.

Socratic  method would be impossible to apply to my son’s teaching, because it implicitly requires that the student and the teacher start with the same  core  knowledge and use the similar reasoning strategies.  The student might know  less than his master, might make errors here and there, but the teacher can still rely on some shared knowledge, and shared strategies.

When teaching Robert, however, I have to establish that core knowledge first.  Not  because Robert doesn’t have the basic information or skills, but because I don’ t have a way to access what he knows and how he knows it.  I have to create points of reference before the path for the Socratic Method could be created.

I realized that while I was working with Robert on worksheets addressing reading comprehension.  Since I am not a reading specialist, I treated reading comprehension like a test.  Robert read the text and then was supposed to answer a set  of questions.  They might be questions about specific information provided in the text, about order of events, about characters and settings and so on. But reading comprehension,  measured by Robert’s ability to complete such worksheets, did not improve.  We used old Specific Skills Series for reading comprehension from SRA, where every sub skill: finding main idea, details, making inferences, reconstructing order of events and so on,  was addressed separately through one of the little  workbooks.  This did not seem to help.  Or at least I did not see an improvement.

A year or so ago from one of the  parents’ lists I learned about the book The Power of Retelling by Vicki Benson and Carrice Cummins. Not much later, I became also familiar with   The Power of Stories by Carol J. Strong and Kelly Hoggan North. Sadly, I couldn’t fallow the procedures described in any of the two books  because of Robert’s learning profile and my shortcomings as a reading instructor.  Nonetheless, those two books forced me to rethink the way I (and the school) introduced reading to Robert.  I knew years ago, that one of the problem with reading comprehension Robert had was created by the fact that  he did not have any of those reference points that most of the five, six,or  seven years old have, when they start reading.  They recognize in texts  elements that are familiar  either  from their lives or  the stories they heard before.  The early reading mostly reshuffles familiar words, well-known phrases, or parts of their own simple experiences.  This, the  early reading comprehension depends on the child’s ability to utilize  language in finding familiar things in the text.  Only later, the reading is used to introduce new concepts. In the first phase, the  child finds it thrilling to discover variation of his/her language world in a story.

Robert did not have those reference points.  Maybe he had them, but I did not know the way to find them and use them.  The best I could do to help him understand the story  was to write synonyms above new words as we went on reading.

Terrible!

After reading the books I mentioned above, I realized the obvious. Each reading  should be well planned ahead.  Most of the new words should be introduced BEFORE reading, as Robert is not capable yet to deduce their meaning from the sentence.  Maybe one day he will, but not yet.  The story might be summarized before reading. The characters should be introduced and the relations between them clarified. The illustration should be talked about as a way to make prediction about what the story might be about.  A child’s experiences, if relevant, could be recalled.

This is what every good teacher does while teaching typical children.  I am not sure, however,  if any teacher did that with Robert.

I know that Robert’s participation in such preparations is limited  to a few singular words, very simple phrases, a few repetitions of what I have said.  Nonetheless, attention is crucial. When Robert enters the story, he has to discover familiar or, at least, predictable world that would not scare him away or make him feel alienated and lost.

In no way I try to undermine importance of retelling, of drawing story maps,or  filling graphing organizers.  They are important  part of understanding a story, assimilating it and adding it to  one’s life. All those techniques are used after reading.   Writing about them here, would make this long post even longer.

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