Do I really understand? Comprehension monitoring – the next step in cognitive self-regulation

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We’ve already looked at how we help children learn to take in information (see the diagram below). The first part of cognitive self-regulation was helping children be systematic and focus their attention on one thing at a time. The next step was to help them figure out and focus on just the most important information. Then we helped them look for things that can guide their responses, using signals, clues, and models.

Next, we moved on to helping them put the information together. They learn strategies for ‘constructing meaning’ from information they hear.

This time we’re looking at the second major part of putting ideas together  – comprehension monitoring. It involves checking to make sure they understand what’s going on. If a teacher gives an instruction, the child needs to check to make sure they know what to do. Did they hear everything? Can they remember what was said? Do they understand the words and terms the teacher used? These are all part of monitoring comprehension.

Comprehension monitoring isn’t talked about a lot except in teaching reading. But, I’ve worked with too many children who let information just wash over them. They don’t know they should be checking to make sure they understand.

Picture a typical classroom. Children are chatting and moving around. Messages are broadcast from the office. Buzzers are sounding. The teacher is trying to keep the children’s attention. It all can be too much. This is why we work on taking in information first. We need to help children learn what to focus on and what to ignore. Now we need to help them figure out when they understand, when they need help, and how to get it.

Comprehension monitoring is a lot of fun to work on. The easiest way to start is to miss out key words in an instruction. Make up or find a list of simple directions (I’ve attached one for you to use). Read them out one at a time. Don’t say a key word. For example, “Say your first ___.” Cough, make a noise, or just swallow the key word so your child can’t hear it. Then let them try to do the task. Ask, “Are you sure you know what to do?” In the beginning, lots of children will do something even when they don’t know all the key information. This is when having a written list is helpful. Some children won’t believe you. You’ll have to show them the sentence you read. Once you’ve established not all key information was given, ask “What can you do to help yourself?” Prompt them to ask you to repeat the instructions – “Can you say that again, please?”.

Another approach is to use words you know they don’t know. You might give an instruction like “Color the tree cerise.”, “Make the car chartreuse.” or “Find the marsupial.”. The idea is to get your child to stop and check if they understand what you’re talking about. Ask, “Are you sure you know what to do?” Prompt them, “You can say, “What’s a marsupial?” That’s a smart thing to do. Not everyone knows what that means.” It’s important to let them know it’s meant to be a challenging task.

Another way to work on comprehension monitoring is to give a hugely long instruction. The idea is to help your child know that it’s okay to ask someone to repeat what they said. Try giving a direction like, “Stand up, turn around three times, find a yellow cup, put it on the table, and then say your first name.” Let the child try to do what you said. If they have difficulty, prompt them with “If you’re not sure, you can ask me to repeat it. That’s the smart thing to do.”

As with all activities, let children take on the role of teacher. Let them give directions and have you follow them and monitor your own comprehension. It’s a lot of fun and let’s children be in the driver’s seat every once in a while.

All executive functions are needed when working on comprehension monitoring:

  • Inhibitory control – making sure they take the time to listen and check their understanding and not just leap ahead with whatever they think you might have said. 
  • Planning and organization – managing the incoming information and check if it makes sense.
  • Working memory – keeping information in their working memory while they check if they understand it.
  • Self-monitoring – checking to make sure they understand the information and then are following a direction correctly.
  • Cognitive flexibility – as they check their understanding, children may have to change their ideas about the meaning.

You’ll learn much more about how to work on Cognitive Self-Regulation skills in The Autistic Child’s Guide books about spark* and spark*EL presented on this site.

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