Category Archives: reading comprehension

Teaching a Child to Read

Learning to read is in no way an easy experience. In order to read at even the most basic level requires mastery of syntax, phonology, morphology, and semantics at a minimum. These are skills that we expect a child normally under the age of 8 to show some proficiency at.

This post will explain a process for teaching reading to small children that worked. Of course, there is no claim here that this is the way but it does provide an example. When I began this experience I had been an educator for years at higher grades but had never actually taught anybody how to read. My training and experience have mostly been in improving reading comprehension skills.

The Process

The process I stumble upon goes as follows

  1. Letter recognition
  2. Letter sound production
  3. Word family phonics
  4. Sight words
  5. Reading stories with support from steps 3 & 4

Each step builds on the steps before it

Letter Recognition

The first step in this process was to have the child recognize the letters of the alphabet. This was done through the use of flashcards. In many ways, this was the easiest step. I thought it would take a year for a 4-year-old to learn this but it only took 3-4 months

Letter recognition relates to morphology as letters are in many ways morphemes that cannot be further divided. At this point, the learning experience is simply memory only with no application

Letter Sound Production

Once the alphabet was memorized, I exposed the student to the sounds of the letters. The student then had to reproduce the sound in addition to recognizing what letter it was.

This was much tougher. The student would either forget what letter it was or forget the sound or both. There was a lot of frustration. However, after several more months, we were ready to move on.

Letter sound production is an example of phonology or the understanding of the sounds letters make. This is a crucial step in learning to read.

Word Family Phonics

At this stage, we combine several letters and “sound” them out to produce words. Often, the words used had the same ending or morpheme such as “-ap”, “-at”, “-ad”. etc. and only the first letter would change. This helps the student to recognize patterns quickly at least in theory.

There was also an introduction to vowels and other common morphemes. Looking back I consider this a mistake as it seemed to be confusing for the student. In addition, although phonics are valuable in learning to sound out words I found them to lack context and read “cap”, “tap”, and “map” outside the setting of some story was boring for the student.

Sight Words

Sight words are words that are so common in English that they need to be memorized. Often they cannot be sounded out because they violate the rules of phonology but this is not always the case.

There are two common systems of sight words and these are Dolch and Fry respectively. In terms of which is better, it doesn’t really matter. I used Fry’s and again I think the lack of context was a problem as I was asking the student to learn words that lack an immediate application.

Reading Stories

After about a year of preparatory training, we finally began reading stories. The stories were little short stories appropriate for kindergarteners. At first, it was difficult but the student began to improve rapdily. It was much easier (usually) to get them to cooperate as well.


The most important point is perhaps not the most obvious one. despite my inexperience and mistakes in pedagogy, the student still learned to read. In many ways, the student learned to read in spite of me. This should be reassuring for many teachers. Even bad teaching can get good results if the aspects of planning, discipline, and commitment to success are there. Students seem to grow as long as they have some guidance.

I would say the most important thing in terms of teaching reading is to actually make them read. Reading provides context and motivation as the student can see what they cannot do. Studying all of the theoretical aspects of reading such as phonics and letters are only beneficial when the child knows they need to know this.

Therefore, if you are provided with an opportunity to teach a child to read start with stories and as the struggle teach only what they are struggling with. For example, if they are having a hard time with long “o” sound, reinforcing that with supplemental theoretical work will make sense for the child. As such, children learn best by doing rather than talking about what they will do.


Reading Assessment at the Interactive and Extensive Level

In reading assessment, the interactive and extensive level are the highest levels of reading. This post will provide examples of assessments at each of these two levels.

Interactive Level

Reading at this level is focused on both form and meaning of the text with an emphasis on top-down processing. Below are some assessment examples


Cloze assessment involves removing certain words from a paragraph and expecting the student to supply them. The criteria for removal is every nth word aka fixed-ratio or removing words with meaning aka rational deletion.

In terms of marking, you have the choice of marking based on the student providing the exact wording or an appropriate wording. The exact wording is strict but consistent will appropriate wording can be subjective.

Read and Answer the Question

This is perhaps the most common form of assessment of reading. The student simply reads a passage and then answer questions such as T/F, multiple choice, or some other format.

Information Transfer

Information transfer involves the students interpreting something. For example, they may be asked to interpret a graph and answer some questions. They may also be asked to elaborate on the graph, make predictions, or explain. Explaining a visual is a common requirement for the IELTS.

Extensive Level

This level involves the highest level of reading. It is strictly top-down and requires the ability to see the “big picture” within a text. Marking at this level is almost always subjective.

Summarize and React

Summarizing and reacting requires the student to be able to read a large amount of information, share the main ideas, and then providing their own opinion on the topic. This is difficult as the student must understand the text to a certain extent and then form an opinion about what they understand.

I like to also have my students write several questions they have about the text This teaches them to identify what they do not know. These questions are then shared in class so that they can be discussed.

For marking purposes, you can provide directions about a number of words, paragraphs, etc. to provide guidance. However, marking at this level of reading is still subjective. The primary purpose of marking should probably be evidence that the student read the text.


The interactive and extensive level of reading is when teaching can become enjoyable. Students have moved beyond just learning to read to reading to learn. This opens up many possibilies in terms of learning experiences.

Reading Assessment at the Perceptual and Selective Level

This post will provide examples of assessments that can be used for reading at the perceptual and selective level.

Perceptual Level

The perceptual level is focused on bottom-up processing of text. Comprehension ability is not critical at this point. Rather, you are just determining if the student can accomplish the mechanical process of reading.


Reading Aloud-How this works is probably obvious to most teachers. The students read a text out loud in the presence of an assessor.

Picture-Cued-Students are shown a picture. At the bottom of the picture are words. The students read the word and point to a visual example of it in the picture. For example, if the picture has a cat in it. At the bottom of the picture would be the word cat. The student would read the word cat and point to the actual cat in the picture.

This can be extended by using sentences instead of words. For example, if the actual picture shows a man driving a car. There may be a sentence at the bottom of the picture that says “a man is driving a car”. The student would then point to the man in the actual picture who is driving.

Another option is T/F statements. Using our cat example from above. We might write that “There is one cat in the picture” the student would then select T/F.

Other Examples-These includes multiple-choice and written short answer.

Selective Level

The selective level is the next above perceptual. At this level, the student should be able to recognize various aspects of grammar.


Editing Task-Students are given a reading passage and are asked to fix the grammar. This can happen many different ways. They could be asked to pick the incorrect word in a sentence or to add or remove punctuation.

Pictured-Cued Task-This task appeared at the perceptual level. Now it is more complicated. For example, the students might be required to read statements and label a diagram appropriately, such as the human body or aspects of geography.

Gap-Filling Task-Students read a sentence and complete it appropriately

Other Examples-Includes multiple-choice and matching. The multiple-choice may focus on grammar, vocabulary, etc. Matching attempts to assess a students ability to pair similar items.


Reading assessment can take many forms. The examples here provide ways to deal with this for students who are still highly immature in their reading abilities. As fluency develops more complex measures can be used to determine a students reading capability.

Types of Reading in ESL

Reading for comprehension involves two forms of processing which are bottom-up and top-down. Bottom-up processing involves pulling letters together to make words, words to make sentences, etc. This is most commonly seen as students sounding out words when they read. The goal is primarily to just read the word.

Top-down processing is the use of prior knowledge, usually organized as schemas in the mind to understand what is being read. For example, after a student reads the word “cat” using bottom-up processing they then use top-down processing of what they know about cats such as their appearance, diet, habits, etc.

These two processes work together in order for us to read. Generally, they happen simultaneously as we are frequently reading and using our background knowledge to understand what we are reading.

In the context of reading, there are four types of reading from simplest to most complex and they are

  • Perceptive
  • Selective
  • Interactive
  • Extensive

We will now look at each in detail


Perceptive reading is focused primarily on bottom-processing. In other words, if a teacher is trying to assess this type of reading they simply want to know if the student can read or not. The ability to understand or comprehend the text is not the primary goal at this.


Selective reading involves looking a reader’s ability to recognize grammar, discourse features, etc. This is done with brief paragraphs and short reading passages. Assessment involves standard assessment items such as multiple-choice, short answer, true/false, etc.

In order to be successful at this level, the student needs to use both bottom-up and top-down processing.  Charts and graphs can also be employed


Interactive reading involves deriving meaning from the text. This places even more emphasis on top-down processing. Readings are often chosen from genres that employ implied main ideas rather than stated. The readings are also more authentic in nature and can include announcements, directions, recipes, etc.

Students who lack background knowledge will struggle with this type of reading regardless of their language ability. In addition, inability to think critically will impair performance even if the student can read the text.


Extensive is reading large amounts of information and being able to understand the “big picture”. The student needs to be able to separate the details from the main ideas. Many students struggle with this in their native language. As such, this is even more difficult when students are trying to digest large amounts of information in a second language.


Reading is a combination of making sense of the words and using prior knowledge to comprehend text. The levels of reading vary in their difficulty. In order to have success at reading, students need to be exposed to many different experiences in order to have the background knowledge they need that they can call on when reading something new.

Teaching Vocabulary to ESL Students

Language acquisition  requires the acquisition of thousands of words for fluent communication. This is a daunting task for the most talented and eager student. Fortunately, there are some basic concepts to keep in mind when teaching students vocabulary. This post will share some suggestion and helping students to develop there vocabulary in the target language.

Learn Vocabulary in Context

A common technique for teaching vocabulary in language classrooms is out of context memorization. Students are given a long and often boring list of words to memorize. There is little immediate use of these words and they are quickly forgotten after the quiz.

Instead, it is better to teach new words within a framework in which they will be used. For example, students learn business terms through role play at a bank or store rather than through a stack of index cards. The context of the bank connects the words to a real-world setting, which is critical for retention in the long-term memory.

Reduce Reliance on Bilingual Dictionaries

This may seem as a surprise, however, the proliferation of bilingual dictionaries provides the definition to a word but does not normally help with memorization and  the future use of the word. If the goal is communication then bilingual dictionaries will slow a student’s ability to achieve mastery.

Children learn language much faster do in part to the immense effort it takes to learn what new words mean without the easy answer of a dictionary. The effort leads to memorization which allows for the use of the language. This serves as a valuable lesson for adults who prefer the easy route of bilingual dictionaries.

Set Aside Class Time to Deal with Vocabulary

The teacher should have a systematic plan for helping students to develop relevant vocabulary. This can be done through activities as well as the teaching of context clues. Vocabulary development needs to be intentional, which means there must be a systematic plan for supporting students in this.

However, there are also times were unplanned vocabulary teaching can take place. For example, while the students are reading together they become puzzled over a word you thought they knew (this is common). When this happens a break with explanation can be helpful. This is especially true if you let the students work together without dictionaries to try and determining the meaning of the word.


Vocabulary is a necessary element to language learning. It would be nice to ignores this but normally this is impossible.  As such, teachers need to support students in their vocabulary development.

Discourse Markers and ESL

Discourse markers are used in writing to help organize ideas. They are often those “little words” that native speakers use effortlessly as they communicate but are misunderstood by ESL speakers. This post will provide examples of various discourse markers.

Logical Sequence

Logical sequence discourse markers are used to place ideas in an order that is comprehensible to the listener/reader. They can be summative for concluding a longer section or resultative which is used to indicate the effect of something.

Examples of summative discourse markers includes

  • overall, to summarize, therefore, so far

An example of summarize discourse markers is below. The bold word is the marker.

Smoking causes cancer. Studies show that people who smoke have higher rates of lung, esophagus, and larynx. Therefore, it is dangerous to smoke.

The paragraph is clear. The marker “Therefore” is summarizing what was said in the prior two sentences.

Examples of resultative discourse markers includes the following

  • so, consequently, therefore, as a result

An example of resultative discourse markers is below. The bold word is the marker.

Bob smoked cigarettes for 20 years. As a result,he developed lung cancer

Again, the second sentence with the marker “As a result” explain the consequence of smoking for 20 years.


Constrastive markers are words that  indicate that the next idea is the opposite of the previous idea. There are three ways that this can be done. Replacive share an alternative idea, antithetic markers share ideas in opposition to the previous one. Lastly, concessive markers share unexpected information given the context.

Below are several words and or phrases that are replacive markers

  • alternatively, on  the other hand, rather

Below is an example of a replacive contrast marker used in a short paragraph. Bold word is the replacive

Smoking is a deadly lifestyle choice. This bad habit has killed millions of people. On the other hand, a vegetarian lifestyle has been found to be beneficial to the health of many people

Antithetic markers include the following

  • conversely, instead, by contrast

Below is an example of antithetic marker used in a paragraph

A long and healthy life is unusually for those who choose to smoke. Instead, people who smoke live lives that are shorter and more full of disease and sickness.

Concsessive markers includes some of the words below

  • In spite of, nevertheless, anyway, anyhow

Below is an example of a concessive marker used in a paragraph

Bob smoked for 20 years. In spite of this, he was an elite athlete and had perfect health.


Discourse markers play a critical role in communicating the  finer points of ideas hat are used in communication. Understanding how these words are used can help ESL students in comprehending what they hear and read.

Developing Purpose to Improve Reading Comprehension

Many of us are familiar with the experience of being able to read almost anything but perhaps not being able to understand what it is that we read. As the ability to sound out words becomes automatic there is not always a corresponding increase in being able to comprehend text.

It is common, especially in school, for students to be required to read something without much explanation. For more mature readers, what is often needed is a sense of purpose for reading. In this post, we will look at ways to develop a sense of purpose in reading.

Purpose Provides Motivation

Students who know why they are reading know what the are looking for while reading. The natural result of this is that students are less likely to get distract by information that is not useful for them.

For example, if the teacher tells their students to read “the passage and identifying all of the animals in it and be ready to share tomorrow.” Students know what they are suppose to do (identifying all animals in the passage) and why they need to do it (share tomorrow). the clear directions prevent students from getting distracted by other information in the reading.

Providing purpose doesn’t necessarily require the students love and enjoy the rational but it is helpful if a teacher can provide a purpose that is motivating.

Different Ways to Instill Purpose

In addition to the example above there are several quick ways to provide purpose.

  • Provide vocabulary list-Having the students search for the meaning of specific words provides a clear sense of purpose and provides a context in which the words appear naturally. However, students often get bogged down with the minutia of the definitions and completely miss the overall meaning of the reading passage. This approach is great for beginning and low intermediate readers.
  • Identifying the main ideas in the reading-This is a great way to gets students to see the “big picture” of a reading. It is especially useful for short to moderately long readings such as articles and perhaps chapters and useful for intermediate to advanced readers in particular.
  •  Let students develop their own questions about the text-By fair my most favorite strategy. Students will initial skim the passage to get an idea of what it is about. After this, they develop several questions about the passage that they want to find the answer too. While reading the passage, the students answer their own questions. This approach provides opportunities for metacognition as well developing autonomous learning skills. This strategy is for advanced readers who are comfortable with vocabulary and summarizing text.


Students, like most people,  need a raison de faire (reason to do) something. The teacher can provide this, which has benefits. Another approach would be to allow the students to develop their own purpose. How this is done depends on the philosophy of the teacher as well as the abilities and tendencies of the students

Levels of Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension is a key academic skill. To comprehend a reading text means to understand what the author was trying to communicate and to share the author’s intentions along with, if possible, your own perspective on the text. Doing this is not easy at all.

In general, there are three levels of reading comprehension and they are.

  1. Decoding
  2. Critical literacy
  3. Dynamic literacy

This post will discuss each of these three levels of reading comprehension.


Decoding is the most basic level of reading comprehension. At this level, a person breaking down words into there component syllables and “sounding them out.” He or she blends the words together and reads the text. This is the experience of many people who are learning to read. The focus is on learning to read and not reading to learn.

There is a minimal amount of reading comprehension at this level. The reader can recall what they read based on memory but there is often an inability to think and comprehend at a deeper level beyond memory.

For teaching, teaching decoding normal happens either with ESL students or with native speakers in early the early primary grades. This can be taught using a phonics based approach, whole reading approach or some other method.

Critical Literacy

Critical literacy assumes that decoding has already happen. At this level, the reader is actively trying to develop a deeper understanding of the text. This happens through analyzing, comparing, contrasting, synthesizing, and or evaluating. The reader is engaged in a dialog with the text in trying to understand it.

Developing critical literacy in students requires employing teaching and learning strategies from the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Leading discussions that require higher level thinking and or writing assignments are some ways to accomplish this.

It is important to remember that readers should have already mastered decoding before attempting critical literacy. It is easy to cause cognitive overload by trying to have a reader decode text while trying to discuss the deeper meaning of the content. As such, critical literacy strategies should be avoid until upper primary school.

Dynamic Literacy

Dynamic literacy assumes mastery of decoding and some mastery of critical literacy. Dynamic literacy goes beyond analysis to relating the content of the text to other knowledge. If critical literacy is focused only on the text, dynamic literacy is focused on how the current text of the reading relates to other books.

For example, a reader who is reading a book about language acquisition may look for connections between acquisition of a language and grammar. Or they may be more creative and look for connections between language acquisition and music. This inter-disciplinary focus is unique to what is currently considered the highest level of reading comprehension.

A more practical approach to doing this would be to compare what several authors say about the same subject. Again, the focus is on going beyond just one book or one subject to going across different books and or viewpoints. In general, dynamic literacy is probably not possible before high school or even college.


Many people never move beyond decoding. They are content with reading a text and knowing what happen but never thinking deeper beyond that. However, for some, higher levels of reading comprehension is not a goal. For many, reading the newspaper in English is all they want to do and they have no desire for a more complex reading experience.  The challenge for a teacher is to move readers from one level to the next while keeping in mind the goals of the students

Understanding Fallacies

Fallacies are errors in reasoning. They happen in speech and in writing. The danger of fallacies is that they can deceive people into accept false ideas and claims that can lead to serious consequences. In this post we will look at several types of fallacies with examples.

Hasty Generalization

A hasty generalization happens when an individual makes a broad claim on a few instances. Below is an example

Throughout American history, military leaders who become president are terrible leaders. Consider the examples of Ulysses Grant and James Buchanan..

The problem with the reasoning in this fallacy is that it is not always true. There are many examples of military leaders who became excellent presidents. Examples include George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Dwight Eisenhower.

False Cause 

A false cause fallacy is claiming that A caused B when there is no real connection. Below is an example.

When ice cream sales increase there is also an increase in homicide rates. Therefore, if we want to reduce homicides we need to reduce ice cream sales.

On the surface, such an argument makes sense. However, correlation is not causation. There are other factors that lead to homicide in addition to ice cream sales.

Invalid Analogy

An analogy is the comparison of two concepts or things for the purpose of explanation. An invalid analogy is the inappropriate comparison of two concepts. Below is an example.

  In America, the school-year is from September to May. Since this schedule works in America it will surely work in Thailand

This analogy is comparing the American and Thailand with the idea that they can both have the same academic calendar. The problem is that both countries are radical different in terms of facilities. Most American classrooms are temperature control while many in Thailand are not. Since there is a lack of air conditioning in many Thai schools the calendar has been adjusted so that teaching does not take place during the hottest time of the year.


A bandwagon fallacy is based on the premise that since so many people are doing A it serves as evidence that everyone should do it. Children are often victims of this fallacy when they try to justify why they did something. Below is an example.

 The action of the administration is appropriate. The reason being because is that 70% of the faculty support the decision of coed dormitories.

The fact that the majority support something is not the only indication of whether it is right or wrong. Other factors such as religious beliefs and even culture may need to be considered as well.


Fallacies can serve as a major tool for confusing people on different topics and ideas. The examples in this post only serve to show some of the few ways that fallacies manifest themselves. It is important for consumer of information to be able to identify fallacies when they are apparent.

Extensive and Intensive Reading

Most teachers are trying to get their students to read more. The question to ask is what kind of reading are teachers trying to get students to do. In general, there are two common ways in which students read and they are extensive reading and intensive reading.

Extensive Reading

Extensive reading is having students read broadly for the sake of reading in a pleasurable way. Doing so improves students word recognition and builds overall reading ability. For many students, including adult ESL, you cannot just turn them loose and say read. Rather, it is important to develop some sort of guidelines for extensive reading.

  • The books students choose to read extensively should be at their reading level so that comprehension is the primary goal.
  • The teacher needs to provide motivation. This can be done through the use of assignments, group work, or other activities related to the books the students are reading.
  • There must be some mechanism in which students are required to report their opinion about a book they have read.

Extensive reading is often done outside of class or as a small part of the school day. If it happens outside of class it requires the students to have some discipline to complete an assignment on their own. If it happens in class it is often used as a cool-down after an exciting activity.

Intensive Reading

Intensive reading is serious focused reading for the purpose of achieving a study goal. A common example is reading a chapter to answer questions. This requires a slightly different scaffolding in order to have success. Below are some principles to keep in mind when having students read intensively.

  • Students must know why they are reading and for how long. This helps with goal-setting and self-regulation.
  • There must be some sort of way for students to provide feedback about what they learned. It can something as simple as a discussion, or as complex as developing a presentation.
  • When a discussion takes place, students must refer to the text while discussing to demonstrate their familiarity with it.

Intensive reading is often done in class. One challenge with intensive reading is vocabulary. Students often see too many words that they do not know the answer too. The constant use of dictionaries uses up all the time set aside for reading. As such, teachers need to monitor dictionary use so that they do not impede the goal of reading the text.


Reading is a skill that most would agree that students need to develop. Extensive and intensive reading provide different ways in which students can develop reading skills. Reading for pleasure or purpose is some of the primary ways in which adults read. As such, extensive and intensive reading are excellent strategies for supporting students in the development of their reading abilities.

The Difference Between Facts and Opinions

One aspect of reading that my students seem to struggle with consistently is telling the difference between facts and opinions. This post will attempt to explain the often subtle difference between these two components of reading.


A fact is something that can be verified as true by someone else. This truth can be tested through observation, experimentation, experience or some other means. Below is an example of a fact.

The average temperature of the human body is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit

To test this fact, we can simply take the temperature of several individuals and see if the average temperature is the same. If our experiment matches the statement then the statement is a fact.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The opposite of a fact is not an opinion. The opposite of a fact is incorrect information. If I said that the average temperature of the body was 78 degrees Fahrenheit. Your analysis would disprove this and show that the information was incorrect. This confusion over facts and incorrect information is a common misconception of even university students.


Opinions are statements people make about their beliefs and or judgments. They cannot be tested and verified as facts can. Below is an example of an opinion.

I believe that America is the best place to study English.

There is no real way to verify this opinion. There are many English speaking countries all over the world where a student can study English. Determining how one is better than the other is highly subjective.

One problem with the opinion statement  is the word “best.” How do you judge what is best? Another problem is the phrase “I believe.” What one person believes is different from what another person believes. How do we test this?

Since opinions cannot be verified they can only be supported with additional explanation and facts. An author can build a persuasive case for their opinion through providing evidence that supports their belief. Consider the following example

I believe that America is the best place to study English. A study done by Researcher’s Anonymous found that people who study English in America learn twice as fast as those who study in other countries. In another study conducted by Student University, it was found that people who study English in America have a higher proficiency in the four skills of a language when compared internationally. Therefore, not only do people learn English faster in America, they also develop a higher proficiency from studying in that country. 

In this fictitious example, the author shares their opinion that America is the best place to study English. He follows this by sharing to facts about English. The study by Researcher’s Anonymous and the study at Student University. The results of these two studies are “facts” in this example because they can be verified. The facts the author uses provide support for their opinion.

You cannot prove an opinion but you can indicate how reasonable an opinion is through the use of facts. Based on the two facts of the study, it appears that America might be a good place to study English.


Students struggle with facts and opinions. They often accept everything an author shares in a book as the truth when in reality the author is sharing a great deal of well-defended opinion. Understanding facts and opinions are critical in analyzing the strength of an individual’s argument.

Writing Patterns II

In this post, we conclude our discussion on writing patterns by looking at two more types. The two types of writing patterns for this post are cause and effect and comparison.

Cause and Effect

Causes are reasons and effects are the results of the reason. Causes have an effect on something or somebody. A paragraph that uses this writing pattern indicates the reason something happen and how it has an impact. Below are some common phrases and clues that indicate cause and effect writing pattern was employed.

Cause                Effect

the reason(s)     thus

the cause(s)       the result(s)  as a consequence

because, since  the effect(s)  on that account

is due to [cause]  the outcome  [effect] is/was caused by

Here is an example paragraph using this writing pattern, The cause is bold and the effect is underline.

Dogs make good pets. Since they are friendly dogs cause people happy.  In addition, because dogs love being around humans, the consequence is people often begin to love dogs.

In this paragraph, there were two cause and effect moments. The second and third sentence were both cause and effect. As you looked at the paragraph, you may have noticed that in the first example the effect came before the cause. This is common and normal in writing. The second example shares the cause before the effect. Either approach is acceptable. The goal of cause and effect or effect and cause is to show how one thing leads to another.

To determine cause and effect consider the following questions

  • What causes the “effect”? (The answer to this will be the cause.)
  • Why does “effect” happen? (The answer for this will be the cause.)
  • What is the reason for the effect? (The answer will be the cause.)
  • How can the “effect” be explained? (The answer will be the cause.)
  • What does the “cause” lead to? (The answer to this question will be the effect.)

From this list, you can see that it is more common to identify the effect first and then the cause. However, this is not always the case.


This identifies similarities, difference, or both in two or more things/concepts. Below are common words and phrases associated with compare/contrast writing pattern.

Comparison          Contrast

similarly                  in contrast  some; others

likewise                   however  nonetheless

both                         as opposed to     

same; alike              whereas

Here is an example comparison words are bold and contrast words are underlined.

Dogs are similar to cats.  Both have four legs and a tail.  However, dogs and cats are different in their behavior.  Dogs are much friendlier than cats are with people.  Though they are different both dogs and cats make good pets.

There is not much to explain. The different words employed indicate how dogs and cats are similar and different. Paragraphs can employ this mixed approach or focus completely on comparing or contrasting. What’ is best depends on the context.


Writing patterns provide ways in which to communicate ideas. There is no reason an other will limit themselves to such fix approaches when expressing their ideas. These patterns are for helping students to see how an author is trying to express themselves.

Writing Patterns I

An author’s writing pattern is how they organize the information they are sharing with the reader. There are many different patterns but we will only talk about three today. The writing patterns are list, sequence, and definition.

List Pattern

In the list pattern, the author shares a group of items in a way in which the order does not matter. Some clues that the paragraph is a list pattern includes the following, such as the use of such words and phrases as also, too, another, moreover, besides and the use of such signals as a, b,c …,  bullets (•), and asterisks (*). Below is an example paragraph using the list pattern.

There are three things you need to know about dogs

–They are cute

–They are friendly

–They are loyal

These are some of the reasons you should own a dog

Instead of using dashes we could have used bullets or a, b, c, or any other host of ways to indicate a list.

Sequence Pattern

The sequence pattern is the same as the list. The only difference is that the order of items matters. Some of the signal phrases/words are first, second, third…, now, then, next, finally and some other forms include 1, 2, 3, or a, b, c. Below is an example of a paragraph using the sequence pattern.

There are three steps to buying a dog.

–First decide which kind of dog is best for your environment.

–Second, consider how much it will cost to buy the dog.

–Third, find a nearby dealer who can provide the dog.

Here, the order matters in order to buy the dog.

Definition Pattern

In this pattern, the author describes or explains a term. Common signal phrases.words includes is defined as,  by this we mean, means  or (preceding a synonym), in other words , is, is known as. In the example below, the author attempts to describe dogs by defining their characteristics.

Dogs are one of the many types of pets people can own.  The are unique in that they  are much friendlier than other types of animals.  In addition, they are always loyal and will not often leave a good master.  People need to know that dogs make good pets.


Different writing patterns are useful for sharing information in an appropriate way. The examples here provide some idea for determining how an other is trying to share information with a reader. Knowing the pattern can help in seeing the “big picture” of a reading passage. It helps in understanding what the writer is trying to say to his audience. As such, this is a valuable skill to develop.

Finding the Implied Main Idea

There are at least two types of main ideas. The stated main idea, which was already discussed, is an idea that the author supplies in the paragraph. The topic of this post is the implied main idea.

An implied main idea is stated indirectly. The reader has to develop it based on the information in the paragraph. The author never provides that one single sentence that states the “point” of the paragraph. T

There are several ways to find the implied main idea. Below are just some of many strategies.

  • Strategy 1: Add necessary information (normally the topic) to a sentence in the paragraph that almost shares the main idea.
  • Strategy 2: Combine  two separate sentences in a paragraph into a one sentence to develop the main idea.
  • Strategy 3: Summarize supporting details into one general sentence to serve as the main idea.

Below is an example and explanation of each strategy

Strategy 1: Add Needed Information

Many times, the main idea is present but the topic is replaced with another noun or pronoun. Look at the example paragraph. The implied main idea is underlined and bold for you.

–Dogs are friendly. Dogs love to play. Dogs like to eat food and run. Everyone should own one.

The topic of this paragraph is dogs. The last sentence in the paragraph above is the main idea. However, the word dog is not used in the last paragraph. The author replaces the word dog with the noun one. The word one means dog in this context. In order to develop the main idea, the reader would need to know to replace the noun one with dog.

Strategy 2: Combining Separate Sentences

Sometimes them main idea is spread over two sentences. In this case, the sentences need to be combined in order to develop the main idea. Look at the example paragraph. The implied main idea is underlined and bold for you.

–It is important that people own dogs. It is also important that people love their dogs. Consider that dogs are friendly. They love to play. Finally, dogs like to eat food and run.

This paragraph has two main points in two sentence as shown above. In order to create an implied main idea, we combine these two sentences into one. Below is the answer

It is important that people own and love their dogs.

The rest of the paragraph  is supporting details that explain why people should own and love dogs.

Strategy 3: Summarize Supporting Details

In some instances, an author will develop a paragraph that is only supporting details. The author never shares nor even implies a main idea. The reader must derive the point by examining the details. Below is an example. Nothing is bold or underline because there is no answer anywhere in the paragraph.

–Dogs are cute. Dogs are funny. Dogs love to play. Dog like to eat. Why would anyone not want a dog?

In order to develop the main idea, we have to find a way to summarize this information. There are many different answers. One potential answer would be to count the number of supporting details and determine what they have in common. Look at the following potential answer.

There are at least four reasons why people should want a dog.

If you look at the paragraph there are five sentences, four sentences talk about great things about dogs. The last sentence is a question. Main ideas can never be questions but this sentence provides a clue about what the author was trying to tell us. Instead of giving us the main idea, the author gives the answers to a question and then provides the question at the end of the paragraph. Turn the question into a statement and this is one way to get the main idea.

Again, this is not the only answer. Someone might see something different in the text and derive a slightly different answer. The goals is to try to determine what you think the author is trying to say.


The implied main idea must be derived by the reader. This requires knowing the different strategies to do this. These strategies are particularly useful for people who are struggling with their reading.

NOTE TO WRITERS: In most research settings it is unwise to imply the main idea. Teachers want to know what the point is and they often do not have the patience to try and guess what you are saying. It is better to state the main idea when writing academic papers. Being coy and indirect will usually harm your grade. One major exception is writing in the English department.

Searching for Supporting Details

A paragraph consists mostly of three components

The supporting details are examples, explanation, proofs, statistics, etc. that support and illustrate the point being made by the main idea of a paragraph. They are supporting because they lift up the main idea and help to make it clearer through providing a deeper explanation of the author’s main point.

In order to find the supporting details, a reader needs to find the main idea and turn it into a question. The aspects of the paragraph that answers these questions are the supporting details. Let’s look at an example.


There are several reasons why smoking is bad for you. First, smoking waste a lot of money that can be used for other activities. Second, smoking harms your health. Lastly, smoking is a bad example for children.

Here is a breakdown of the paragraph. We know that the first sentence is the main idea.

Topic: Smoking

Main idea: There are several reasons why smoking is bad for you.

Supporting Details: First, smoking waste a lot of money that can be used for other activities.
Second, smoking harms your health.
Lastly, smoking is a bad example for children.

Perhaps you noticed that most of the time, everything that is not the main idea is normally a supporting detail but there are exceptions to this.

As stated earlier, in order to identify the supporting details, a reader needs to turn the main idea into a question(s). Below is an example.

Topic: Smoking

Main idea: There are several reasons why smoking is bad for you.
Conversion of the main idea into a question: What are the reasons that smoking is bad for you?

Supporting Details: First, smoking waste a lot of money that can be used for other activities.
Second, smoking harms your health.
Lastly, smoking is a bad example for children.
Conversion of supporting
details into an answer: 
First, smoking waste a lot of money that can be used for other activities.
Second, smoking harms your health.
Lastly, smoking is a bad example for children.

Clues for Finding Main Ideas

In addition to turning the main idea into a question, there are three clues for finding supporting details.

  1. Supporting details often appear as a list of bullets, as a set of numbers, or lettered list.
  2. After the first supporting detail, additional details are introduced by words and phrases such as In addition, also, moreover, another, next, then, first, second, last, finally, etc.
  3. The main idea sentence itself often provides hints about the number or type of supporting details. Such words and phrases such as four reasons, two kinds, six types, certain ways, three categories, etc.

We will take the previous paragraph and provide examples of each.

Clue 1 List

There are several reasons why smoking is bad for you.

  • It wastes a lot of money that can be used for other activities.
  • It harms your health.
  • It is a bad example for children.

This is not much of paragraph but it provides reasons for the main idea.

Clue 2 Introductory Phrases

There are several reasons why smoking is bad for you. First, smoking waste a lot of money that can be used for other activities. In addition, smoking harms your health. Lastly, smoking is a bad example for children.

In this example, the introductory phrases are bold and it shows the addition of another supporting detail.

Clue 3 Main Idea Clue

There are several reasons why smoking is bad for you. First, smoking waste a lot of money that can be used for other activities. Second, smoking harms your health. Lastly, smoking is a bad example for children.

This example highlights how the main idea can provide the clue. The phrase “several reasons” in bold is a signal to a reader that there should be several supporting details that explain the main idea about smoking.


As you can see several clues can be used to find the supporting details in the same paragraph. It does not matter how you find the main idea as long as you separate the point from the details. For writers, it is important that there is consistency between the main idea and supporting details. Many times, writers will only have details and no main idea or the say that they have several reasons and only provide one. Understanding the importance of supporting details and their role in reading and writing will enhance reading comprehension and writing clarity.

Finding the Main Idea

After determining the topic of a reading passage. The student needs to figure out what the main idea is. The main idea is the most important statement the writer makes about the topic. There are three common characteristics of main ideas.

  • Must always have the topic (the word, name, or phrase that tells who or what the paragraph is about)
  • Must always be a complete sentence by itself (even if you were not able to read the rest of the paragraph)
  • Must be a sentence that summarizes the details of the paragraph

IMPORTANT NOTE: In many ways, the main idea and the thesis statement can be the same thing. A thesis statement is the main idea of an entire paper whereas a regular main idea is the most important statement about the topic in a particular paragraph. In other words, there are different levels of main ideas from ones that cover an entire paper to ones that only cover a paragraph. This applies to the concept of topics as well.

The main idea of a paragraph can be in one of three places.

  • The beginning
  • The middle
  • The end

We will now look at examples of each.

Main Idea at the Beginning

The main idea at the beginning is often the easiest to understand. The first sentence states clearly what the rest of the paragraph is about. The reader never has to wonder why the author is saying something because the author tells them from the beginning. Below is an example. The main idea is underlined and in bold

Dogs are good pets to have.  Dogs are fun to play with and are friendly to everyone.  Dogs are also very close to their master and obey them.  Dogs even love children and will protect the family.

Dogs are good pets to have is the main idea. The rest of the paragraph provides reasons and evidence for why dogs are good pets. This is deductive reasoning in which is going from a general principle (the main idea) to specific examples (the rest of the paragraph.

Main Idea at the End

The next most common place to put the main idea is at the end.

Have you ever had a dog for a pet?  Dogs are fun to play with and are friendly to everyone.  Dogs are also very close to their master and obey them.  Dogs even love children and will protect the family.  Dogs are good pets to have.

The writer starts with a question (a question can never be the main idea). They supply reasons for having a dog and the summarize by sharing that dogs are good pets to have. This is inductive reasoning in which the author goes from specific examples (the beginning of the paragraph) to a general principle (the main idea).

Main Idea in the Middle

The worst place to put the main idea is in the middle. This approach is neither deductive or inductive it is just confusing for many academic disciplines. Below is an example.

–Have you ever had a dog for a pet?  Dogs are fun to play with and are friendly to everyone.  Dogs are also very close to their master and obey them. Everyone should own a dog.  Dogs even love children and will protect the family.

The question to ask is “why” provide another example after sharing the main idea?” This is why this approach is not always the clearest.


When reading it is important to determine what is the point and to answer why is the writer writing about this. The answer to these questions is the main idea. It is the most important idea about the topic. The main idea is what the writer wants a student to remember after he or she finishes reading. The placement of the main idea can be anywhere in the paragraph. Finding the main idea will help a student to see the big picture of what the writer was trying to say.

IMPORTANT NOTE FOR WRITERS: In an academic writing, it is almost always best to put the main idea at the beginning. A student wants the reader, which is often a professor, to know exactly where the student is taking them in their text immediately. If a teacher has to try and figure what a student has to say, the teacher can often become frustrated and this could cost a student points. Scholars want to know what the point is right away, they want to see the big picture and check details as necessary. Therefore, students should tell them in the first sentence or as soon as possible what the main idea is. There are exceptions depending on discipline but this is a very safe rule for most circumstances.

The next best place to put the main idea is at the end. As mentioned, this is a sort of inductive reasoning approach. The reader wonders what the student is talking about but the get the point at the end. It’s frustrating but eventually, they get the punchline. The worst place is the middle. A student gives examples, state the point, and give more examples. This is totally confusing in many disciplines. Remember, the main idea should be first whenever possible, last if necessary, and never in the middle.

Determining the Topic

The first step for a student to understand what they are reading is to know the topic of what they are reading. The topic is simple what the author is writing about. This sounds ridiculous but for students, especially those who are reading in a second language, it is not always easy to determine what the topic of a reading passage is. Below is a list of common characteristics of a topic.

  • The “something” an author is writing about is the topic.
  • The topic is the who or what that the author writes about.
  • The topic is always a word, a phrase, or a name and it is never written as a sentence.

In addition to these characteristics above, there are four common clues that can be used to identify the topic. Below is the list and each will be explained with an example.

  1. Look for a heading or title.
  2. Look for words in special print, such as bold, italics, or color—or some combination, such as bold italics.
  3. Look for repeated words in a paragraph.
  4. Look for something mentioned at the beginning of the paragraph and then referred to throughout the paragraph by pronouns or by other words.

Clue 1: Find the Heading

The example below gives the topic of the passage in the title. This is an obvious example, however, students often skip the title to begin reading and never know what they are reading about. This is one reason that students must be taught to read the title first, if it is available, as it provides a framework for reading the details.

Somewhere University

Somewhere University is a school in Southeast Asia. It has about 300 students. The school offers several majors that focus mainly on humanitarian service. Somewhere University also has a diverse faculty with teachers from all over the world.

The title tells you what the topic is. This passage was about “Somewhere University.”

Clue 2: Look for Special Print 

Sometimes the topic is in the text and the writer uses special print or color to identify it. Again students run right to pass such obvious information. Below is the example. The topic is in bold and italics within the paragraph.

Somewhere University is a school in Southeast Asia. It has about 300 students. The school offers several majors that focus mainly on humanitarian service. Somewhere University also has a diverse faculty with teacher from all over the world.

In this example, the text is bold and in red. This is a common approach in textbooks.

Clue 3: Look for Repeated Words or Phrases

Many times the topic can be found by looking for words and phrases that are repeated continuously within a reading passage. The more often a word or phrase is used the more likely it is the topic. Below is an example. Count how many times the word “Somewhere University” is used.

Somewhere University is a school in Southeast Asia. It has about 300 students. Somewhere University offers several majors that focus mainly on humanitarian service. Somewhere University  also has a diverse faculty with teacher from all over the world.

The noun Somewhere University is in every sentence as the subject. As such, it is the topic of this paragraph.

Clue 4: Find a Word or Phrase Mentioned at the Beginning and Throughout the Passage by a Pronoun

After mentioning the topic by name, many authors will refer to it by other names or pronouns. This can be especially confusing for people new to the language as they may not have mastery of the various pronouns and synonyms appropriate for the topic. Below is an example.

Somewhere University is a school in Southeast Asia. It has about 300 students. The school offers several majors that focus mainly on humanitarian service. The Institute also has a diverse faculty with teacher from all over the world.

In the paragraph above, Somewhere University was referred to by the following words

  • It (2nd sentence)
  • The school (3rd sentence)
  • The Institute (4th sentence)

Remember this can be very confusing for many students when one word is referred to by several different other words.


These are some tools to help students to figure out what they are reading about. Are there other ways to do this? If so please respond in the comments section.

Part II of Without a Dictionary: Finding the Meaning of Unknown Words

In the last post, we discuss the first three clues that a person can use to finding the meaning of unknown words. In this post, we conclude our discussion by looking at the last two rules, which are

  • General sense of the sentence
  • Clues from another sentence

General Sense of the Sentence

This clue is really not a clue. In other words, there is nothing in the sentence that provides a hint as to what the unknown word is. Instead, the student uses their prior knowledge and personal life experience to determine the meaning of an unknown word. An example sentence is below. Keep in mind that there is no signal word or phrase for this type of clue. The unknown word is the word clumsy.

The drunken man was staggering, falling all over the place, and looked really clumsy.

Assuming a student does not know what the word clumsy means he can call on his experience to figure the word out at least partially. For example, many students know how intoxicated people act. It is not a secret that drunken people at not very careful and the sentence indicates that the person was falling down. Therefore, the word clumsy means someone who has poor control of their body.

Clues from Another Sentence

At times, the meaning of a word is not in the sentence that you find it. For many students, they stop reading until they figure out what the word means. This is often a mistake because many times the meaning of the unknown word is in the next sentence or beyond. In other words, sometimes a student needs to keep read.

Below is an example. Remember that there are no signal words or phrases for this clue.  The unknown word is the word convoluted.

  • This book is convoluted. I cannot understand it because it is so complicated

Notice how the first sentence had the unknown word but no meaning. It is in the second sentence that the definition of the word can be extracted.


The clues shared here are only to help a student. They are not intended to replace a dictionary. There are times, however, when students cannot use dictionaries such as during a test or when one is not available. It is in the context such as these that these clues for finding the meaning of unknown words can be helpful.

Without a Dictionary: Finding the Meaning of Unknown Words

A common problem for students, from elementary to grad school, is figuring out the meaning of a word they do not know. Understanding the words in a reading passage is important for comprehension. Fortunately, there are several ways of determining the meaning of these unknown words. These approaches are called context clues because the context or environment in which the words are used help to explain their meaning. In this post, we will look at three context clues and they are Definition or synonym clues, Contrast clues, and Example Clues.

Definition or Synonym Clues

The definition clue is the easiest way to determine what the meaning of an unknown word is. In this approach, the author tells the reader the meaning of

the word. Below are some signals that the author uses to define the unknown word. A sentence using the signal is provided for each one and the signal is in bold. The unknown word for each sentence is the word convoluted.

–phrases such as the term, is defined as, means, is known as

  • The word convoluted is defined as something that is complex
  • The word convoluted means something that is complex

–a definition following a comma, colon, or dash, or enclosed in parentheses, brackets or dashes

  • The text is convoluted (complicated) so the students complained about reading it
  • The text is convoluted-really complicated-so the students complained about reading it

–synonyms introduced by or, in other words, that is, is also known as, by this we mean, etc.

  • The book is convoluted or complicated
  • The book is convoluted and by this we mean it is complicated.

Of course there are other ways that author defines words but this serves the purpose of providing a foundation for knowing when this happens.

Contrast Clues

Contrast clues define unknown words by providing a word that has the opposite meaning of the unknown word. Below is a list of signals with examples and the signal is in bold when possible. The unknown word again is convoluted.

–Words such as but, however, on the other hand, nevertheless, yet, in contrast, and some . . .others

  • Women are convoluted but men are simple.
  • Women are convoluted, however, men are simple.

–Opposite words (e.g., men and women; Democrats and Republicans; ancient and modern)

  • Women are convoluted and men are simple

Example Clues

An example clue illustrates a word through providing examples. Below is a list of signals with examples and the signal is in bold when possible. The unknown word again is convoluted.

–Examples are typically introduced by  for example, to illustrate, for instance, and such as

  • There are many examples of convoluted machines in nature such as the human body
  • For example, a convoluted machine would be the human body.

There are several other ways to define unknown words that have not been discussed yet. In the next post, we will look at the last two clues for determining the meaning of unknown words.