Monday, February 17, 2014

Stories & Snowy Day Frustrations

Last week our area was hit with snow. More snow than we are used to getting. Most kids love snow because it means they get out of school, but Cava is not like most kids. Instead, he was frustrated by this.

He and Benjamin did enjoy playing outside in the snow: snow ball fights, sledding, snow angels, and building a snowman were all part of their fun activities.

And, Cava being Cava, would take breaks from playing in the snow to do what he loved to do best: puzzles! He did another 1,000 piece puzzle . . .

And two 3-D puzzles: the White House and the Empire State Building. One of the advantages of him doing these was we got to do two short history lessons on the importance of those two buildings in American history.

I love to read and I also love reading to my kids. When Benjamin was younger, I read to him every night and now I get to read to Cava. One of my favorite kids' books is Cornelia Funke's Inkheart, which is the perfect book for anyone who loves books and reading. When I first read it to Benjamin, he and I both loved this magical tale of stories come to life. Now I was fortunate enough to get to share that with Cava.

I think it's important to read to Cava so he can not only hear the story, but also hear the language. After I read a little to him, I stopped and ask him what he thinks about what has happened in the story so far. 
I know better than to ask him an abstract question like, "What do you think will happen next?" because he won't be able to even guess because that is something that has not been taught and he will only shrug and give me his usual, "I dunno'." 

"It's hard for me to understand," he replies, "There are so many words."

So instead of reading chapters, I may only read a page or two to him before we stop and talk about what I've just read. Reading to Cava is not about getting through the book, but helping him to understand both new words and all of the elements of a story that he hasn't learned yet (such as about plot, character, and setting). It helps to stop every so often and talk about what I've read to help his concentration because if I just read aloud, he loses his focus on what I'm reading. I also have him sit right up next to me, so he can see my finger move along each word on the page. 

Reading comprehension is a real struggle for him.

Despite being out of school, we still worked on homework he'd been assigned, such as his daily reading and answering a question related to that reading. On the last day, he had to read a story and then write a question that he had about what he just read. I told him to keep this in mind as we read so that he could think of one after we'd finished. 

With Cava, I sit next to him while he reads and we stop after each page to go over what we just read, also I can go over the meanings of any words he doesn't know. If I let him read a book on his own and I ask him what he's just read, he will reply every time, "I dunno'." 

The story he read was about two friends: one who loves to stay home and one who likes to travel the world and see different places. The illustrations and the text show each friend at home or somewhere in the world (Egypt, Paris, Antarctica, etcetera). When we got to the end of the book and I asked Cava, "So what is the question you have from reading this?"

He looked at me all blank-eyed and confused. 

"Remember, your homework for today was to read and then think of a question you had about something in the story and for you to write it down. What question do you have about anything you just read?"

I can tell he is waiting for me to give him a question, but this is his homework assignment, not mine, and he needs to learn how to think about what he's reading. As I wait, he begins to get frustrated and he tells me, "I dunno'. This is too hard for me."

Patience is critical despite how frustrating it can be. Taking things slowly is another key to helping him. So I take a deep breath, and try to find a way that he can understand the task that is put to him.

"Okay, the story is about one friend who loves to stay home because they think nowhere is as perfect as where they live and the other one loves to see the world. If you could ask one of them a question, what would it be?"

"I dunno'."

"Well, what if it was Trevor?" I ask about his best friend at school. "What it Trevor went away on a trip. When he got back, what would you ask him about his trip?"

He thought for a moment or two before answering, "What did you see on your trip?"

"See, that's a question you could ask one of the characters. Write it down on your homework sheet."

To formulate a question was to abstract for Cava when it related to a story, but when I posed him asking a question of his best friend who just got back from a trip, he could do it. He had a concrete context to work from.

As Dr. Boris Gindis has written in his article "Cumulative Cognitive Deficit in International Adoptees: Its Origin, Indicators, and Means of Redmediation":

Based on my experience with hundreds of internationally adopted children undergoing psychological assessments at the BGCenter, I can trace the roots of their reading comprehension problems to 3 major issues:
  1. Lack of cultural context awareness.
  2. Delayed cognitive processes and skills necessary for a speedy cognitive/ academic language acquisition.
  3. Emotional problems related to weakened nervous system and developmental trauma, lower self-esteem and motivation, which often block cognitive processes involved in reading activity.
In regards to the first category, Cava tends to do better with books that he's seen the movies or TV shows for, which is why he often checks out books based on shows he watches (Curious George, Martha Speaks, Phineas and Ferb) and movies he's seen (Spider-man, Frozen, and any other Disney or Pixar film). But if he reads a new book that is unfamiliar to him, he struggles with understanding not only the words but the story as well because he has no frame of reference. 

During our snowy break last week, as I was taking some dirty laundry to the washing machine, I past by Cava working on a puzzle. I could tell from his demeanor that he was upset, so I stopped and asked, "You okay, buddy?"

With a crack in his voice, he sadly replied, "It's too hard for me?"

"What is?"


Putting the laundry basket down, I sat beside Cava to listen to him. "Everything is pretty big. What exactly is too hard for you right now?"

He brought up shoveling snow, which he and his brother did. "Yeah, it can be when the snow is icy and it's not something you do every day. But you did it. Was there anything else?"


"I know reading can be difficult for you, especially since you are still learning a whole new language. You are having to relearn reading and reading in English can be tricky, especially when you have words like year and cheer which are spelled differently but sound the same when spoken aloud." (I used those two words because they had been spelling words for him). "But you've come a long way in just over a year and I'm proud of you. Do you know what that word means?" I've told him I'm proud of him many times but this was the first that I stopped to take the time to see if he even knew what I meant.

He shook his head. "No. What does that word mean?"

I gave him the simplest definitions I could, "It means we are happy with you, with all that you have done, such as how well you are doing in school, and are happy that you are our Cava. We are proud that you are our son now."

"Oh, okay."

"And Mommy and I and your teacher will all work with you on your reading. Just think how much more you can read and understand than you did just a year ago."

"Yeah, I know more words in English now."

While he is quick in his acquisition of his new language, English, his progress in reading and understanding what he's read is coming at a much slower pace. 

It is important for him to not only build up his speaking vocabulary, but also his understanding of what words mean verbally and written on the page. We do this by reading with him and asking him about what he's read on each page. When he struggles with understanding something, we have to put it into a context he will understand that way he won't get defeated so easily and become frustrated, angry, and then give up. We have to raise his cultural awareness and his contextual knowledge of the material he's reading. 

Dr. Gindis writes that to give an internationally adopted child context, go back culturally to their beginnings: songs, riddles, cartoons, books, images, games, routines, favorite places, sounds, food, and activities because "everything that surrounds a child born into this culture has to be re-introduced into your adopted child's life and be reinforced through multiple repetitions." Repetition is critical.  

Many of the learning skills that Benjamin has acquired both through school and at home, are missing for Cava. We are having to go back and help him learn how to learn. We are having to teach him to not only be able to read in English, to understand what he's reading in English, but to, hopefully, be able to formulate his own thoughts and ideas on what he's reading. 

As I've written about before, we are working on both Cava's communicative language (the language he needs for social interaction in everyday communication), but also his cognitive language, which Dr. Gindis defines as "a tool of reasoning, a means of literacy, and a medium for academic learning." By strengthening both, we are also helping to build his self-confidence so that he can see that he can do something new and challenging because he already has accomplished so many difficult and challenging things successfully. Reading is just one of those areas that we work on daily with him. Unlike with Benjamin, we realize we have to approach teaching Cava differently: both in terms of pace but also in terms of how we teach him, which all goes back to framing it in a context he can grasp. 

Though this process can often be extremely frustrating, it is also very rewarding. When I see that he gets it and, more importantly, see that he realizes he's understanding what he's reading and that there is a joy to his understanding, it makes all of this worth it. 

Hopefully, I can keep the spark of a love of reading alive in him and that it doesn't get squashed under all the frustrations of re-learning how to read. Cava loves to go with me to the library or to the bookstore, which are both something I hope will continue throughout his life. I want to foster a real love of books in him. I think it will give him a much bigger picture of the world around him. His world already got larger when he came here to begin with, so I can only imagine how much greater it will be when he finally reads a book that makes him understand: I'm not alone. Someone else understands, too. That is the magic of books.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, just a quick note to say I really enjoy your blog. I'm learning loads I really should have known more about. Thanks for all you are doing to share your experiences.