Saturday, August 20, 2011

Reading without Comprehension

When I was a kid some relative gave me a copy of How Green was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn. I liked it so much I read it in one long sitting. Did I truly comprehend it? Not a chance. I had never heard of Wales and I knew nothing about coal mining. As far as I was concerned the story could have been about plutonium mining on Mars. I read the entire book thinking the main character was named "Huh-wa", and his friend was "Mr. Gruff-id": I finally reached the last page, "How to pronounce Welsh names", and discovered the book was about a boy named Hugh and his friend Mr. Griffith (with a soft "th").

My grandmother had many cartoon books; at her house I was introduced to the great work of Charles Addams. She also had several Andy Capp books, which I read over and over with great interest but little comprehension. What was this world, where people used strange vocabulary like "owt", "nowt", and "summat", where the husband rolled home from the pub at 2 a.m. while the wife waited behind the door wearing a nightie, curlers, and big fluffy slippers, with an upraised rolling pin in her hand? It was a mystery to me but I kept on reading, hoping I could find the clue.

I read and enjoyed all the Little House books as a kid, but it was only when I reread them as an adult that I noticed that Laura Ingalls' family was poor, while Almanzo Wilder's family was rich. As an adult I was much better able to appreciate the story Laura Ingalls tells about her wedding. She told Almanzo she didn't want to promise to obey; he replied, " is only something that women say. I never knew one that did it, nor any decent man that wanted her to." [The year was 1885!]

We all bring varying levels of comprehension and appreciation at different points in our lives. And so what? Anything worth reading is worth being confused by.

The current hyperventilating about "comprehension" is one more way that we make reading a dreary chore. Kids don't need to comprehend everything all the time, and they especially don't need to prove their comprehension all the time. Let them be.

Overachiever's footnote: "owt", "nowt", and "summat" are examples of Yorkshire dialect. "Owt" = "anything"; "nowt" = "nothing"; "summat" = "something".


  1. From the sheffield forum:

    "see all, ear all, say nowt,
    eit all, sup all, pay nowt,
    and if ivver tha dus owt fer nowt,
    allus do it fer thissen..."

  2. From PsychMom,

    Harry Potter's Hagrid uses some of that dialect as well..I've gotten all engrossed in HP lately, again. I'm finding it's better the second and third times. Probably also a comprehension issue.

    I've noticed that the books that often get chosen for my child to read as part of assigned reading are ancient books (30 or more years old)and while I appreciate them, my daughter often does not. The book series that are popular with kids are poopooed by teachers as somehow unworthy because the children must develop some deeper level of understanding as they read..I suppose.
    But learning the basics of spelling and arithmetic tables is endorsed as a worthwhile endeavor.

    Maybe reading, in some kids anyway, needs to be repetitive and formulaic for a time for them to get to those higher levels. When those are boring to the reader, the reader will seek different stuff, when the reader is ready.

  3. AMEN! School has seemed to literally suck the joy out of reading for our 9 yr old. She used to sit for hours reading either by herself or snuggled up with us. Now her first question is, "Am I going to have to write a book report about this?". Thank goodness for the BabyMouse series which she still thinks is funny and FUN to read. I think it's smart and well-written and the graphic novel form makes it fun.

  4. Anonymous, thanks for the tip! I'll be looking for BabyMouse ...

  5. @Psychmom, we're having a Harry Potter moment at our house too. I have many thoughts about HP -- could be my next post!

  6. PsychMom says:

    And you just know I'll have something to say...
    I'm reading them in reverse order and it is really much easier to follow them that way...strangely enough.

    This time I'm attending to education oriented story bits too which is very interesting as well...

  7. I agree with this post-was just thinking about it the other day. I read a lot of stuff as a kid that I totally didn't understand most of (I remember lugging around "Mary Queen of Scots" in 4th grade)-but I was motivated to do it because I always saw reading as a fun activity, and I wasn't stressed out by not getting everything. I think that may be part of how kids learn to make inferences (although there is also content knowledge involved). If you get kids who don't see a lot of adults modelling reading for fun to believe that all good readers mysteriously a-know how every word should sound, and b-understand every last thing in the text, those kids will be frustrated before they even start. And if school isn't a place where they are encouraged to read for any reason other than testing, they likely won't ever read on their own.

  8. democracy's edge, you're singing my song.

    I've just started reading your blog, and it's very interesting. I'd like to recommend it to my readers, and I'll link to it:

    Blogging From the Edge of Democracy

    One small criticism -- I find the white text on a black background to be very tiring to read.

  9. From PsychMom:

    I took a gander...I've added Blogging From the Edge to my list. Interesting reading.