Saturday, August 6, 2011

Reading vs. Comprehension, take 2

Some time ago I wrote a post called Reading without Comprehending? in which I expressed my skepticism that schools are overrun with kids who can read fluently but don't "comprehend" what they read.

Lo and behold, I just found a post with a very similar sentiment on kitchen table math: palisadesk on the Great Decoders. I'm not alone!


  1. So I have students like this, and perhaps I can shed a little light on the issue. Kids who have this problem really have one of a few problems:
    1-their vocabulary is way below grade level. That sometimes means that they're being expected to read text that is 50% words they don't understand. You can imagine not comprehending in that case.
    2-they've been through heavy doses of phonics only instruction, which is often targeted at struggling readers. This means that their classes have emphasize being able to decode words effectively out loud-sometimes they don't realize that that's not the primary mark of a good reader.
    3-when you read a lot, you create sort of a mental rubric in your head, which helps you understand which parts of a text are important or not important. You know which parts you need to pay attention to. To a struggling reader, all parts appear equally important-and in the struggle to remember everything, he or she tends not to get what's going on.
    4-Finally-and this is really important-you need a lot of background knowledge to understand what you read. Take a look even at a newspaper and you'll realize how true this is. Schools are providing poor kids (like my students) with less and less content knowledge in the form of science, history and the arts, but they're expected to read texts that depend on grade level knowledge in those areas. Lots of their parents are not well educated, they live in poverty, they don't get to go to places like zoos and museums, and so even if they understand most of the words, they aren't really getting what's going on. Try it-pick up a newspaper, read an article while imagining that a-you're not really sure what Congress does or who is there, b-you don't know that countries as well as people can be in debt, c-you don't know what a conservative is, d-you don't know the difference between the two major parties, e-you're not sure what tax money is used for, f-you don't know what powers the president has and doesn't have, g-you don't know that there are state and federal governments, h-you don't know what the Supreme Court does or that there is more than one court system, etc, etc. It's next to impossible. My students are plenty smart, but they haven't been given access to information like that, and it does impact their comprehension skills.

  2. Someone just gave me a good analogy on this-think about trying to read a computer programming manual. Do you feel like you comprehend what you're reading(if you're not a programmer)? Or, better yet, the tax code, if you're not an accountant. Notoriously hard to comprehend, right? Because you don't have the background knowledge to get it. To my students, most texts are like the tax code is to me or you.

  3. Democracy's Edge, I see your point. How do you help your students increase their vocabulary and content knowledge so they can understand more of what they read?

    What I see of the whole "comprehension" issue is that teachers ask kids questions like "what do you think will happen next?" and "what does the book jacket tell you about the story?" There's a million reasons why a child might not answer those questions to the teacher's satisfaction, even if they understood the reading well.

    Also, the constant prodding the kids to prove their comprehension makes reading much less pleasurable. This seems to me like a serious deficit. Even if comprehension was improved (which is debatable), it's not worth it if kids are turned off to reading.

    Surely it's better for kids to just read widely, whether they understand everything or not. When I was a kid, I read plenty of books that went right over my head. I still gained something from reading them.

  4. Ugh... recently I've found it difficult to read, because I feel as if I must comprehend every word so that if someone were to test me on it, I would get 100%. I blame this on standardised tests- I am a perfectionist, and I have never gotten a perfect mark in the reading section of the standardised test (or the writing section, but I suppose that I should be angrier that they turned my lovely narrative in which the main character learns that standardised tests are pointless into a dot on my report). Nowadays, reading is a vicious cycle for me: I can't understand anything because I panic, and I panic because I don't understand anything. It's terrible, made even more so by the fact that doing the test that did this to me wasn't my choice- it was a choice made by someone who doesn't even know me at all.

  5. Suburban Chicken FarmerAugust 13, 2011 at 2:16 PM

    democracy's edge, well written, easy to understand, and true. Willingham has a wonderful video illustrating this issue.

    Background knowledge trumps decoding, fluency, and even desire.

    Hienuri, read stuff you know you won't be tested on, that'll show um!

  6. Fedupmom: I agree-it is much better for kids to read widely and have access to books. It's also true that kids do sometimes understand what they're reading, but not in the way the test or the teacher understands it (which is why I think test writers should be giving some serious thought to what their questions are actually testing). The problem is that the emphasis on reading as a skill, and the punitive parts of NCLB, are really militating against poor kids getting in school resources to read for enjoyment (i.e., the federal government cut all support for school libraries, CA is firing librarians left and right). I feel like my students come to me with lots of gaps that needed to be remedied by just reading a lot, and having the chance to read a lot, for no particular purpose or test, but the school system is set up so that that rarely happens unless you come from a home where reading is emphasized and modeled.

  7. as for increasing content and students unfortunately are not with me for as long as regular students, because my class is about studying for the reading GED. Once they pass that, they move on to the next subject. But I try to talk a lot about roots and taking words apart/comparing them to words you already know that might be similar, and I try to find readings that place familiar situations in unfamiliar contexts...sometimes if I feel like a particular set of content is causing trouble (i.e., victorian society, which appears a lot on the GED), we take time out and read about that topic. I always wish I had them for longer, but I guess thems the breaks:-/

  8. Democracy's edge, have you seen these books?

    Vocabulary from Classical Roots

    I'm currently working through the first one with Older Daughter.

    It's a mystery to me why this stuff isn't taught at every school. It's extremely useful, and interesting, at least to me. If you know the roots you can figure out words you've never seen before.