Saturday, September 24, 2011

"Comprehension" is a Boondoggle

The issue of "comprehension" is a boondoggle that educators use to make what they do look much more complicated than it actually is, and to justify bad curricula that don't teach comprehension or rote learning or anything at all.

For instance, confronted with a 6th-grader who can't add two fractions with large denominators (because she can't conveniently draw the pie chart), educators say "that's OK, the important thing is that she has deep conceptual understanding." (And how is the pie chart any deeper than the standard algorithm for adding fractions?)

Similarly, confronted with a 7-year-old who can't read because she thinks she should be able to guess everything from context, educators say, "that's OK, the important thing is that she WANTS to read, and she understands a great deal when you read out loud." (That's pretty much what Younger Daughter's first-grade teacher told us at Natural Friends!)

In both reading and math, educators (often, unfortunately, those who train the next generation of teachers) use the issue of "comprehension" to distract attention from the point that their methods don't work; then they promote false dichotomies in an effort to sound "progressive".

In math, the false dichotomy is between "rote learning" and "conceptual understanding"; in reading, the false dichotomy is between "word-calling" and "comprehension".

Now, it might happen that a child could have technical skills without deep comprehension. For instance, she might be able to perform long division without understanding why it works, or she might be able to read a word off a page without understanding its meaning or context ("Mom, what's a carriage return?")

But the opposite doesn't hold. You can't have deep understanding without technical skills. If a kid can't read a word off the page, or add two fractions, that doesn't magically prove that she has deep understanding instead.

Ideally, skills and comprehension should march together hand in hand. Kids should acquire skills and also understand how and why they work. This might be a gradual process; comprehension can deepen over time. Often, comprehension is the result of continued practice of technical skills (one more reason to teach the skills first.)


  1. Reading and math are not really analogous in this area. I can see the validity of what you're saying about math. How can a child be said to have comprehension of a math problem she can't solve? Just because she understands the concept of one digit subtraction doesn't mean she understands place value, for instance, which leads to problems with 2 digit subtraction. (I had this exact problem with my son and subtraction.)

    But a child can certainly understand vocabulary (and literature) she can't read. Dyslexic children usually do. It doesn't matter as far as your important point is concerned. The child still needs to learn to read!

  2. I understand your point, and I've seen the same thing: my daughter can comprehend literature that is read to her which is WAY beyond her ability to read.

    The funny thing is that, even though the subjects aren't really analogous, the teaching methods are. In both subjects, "comprehension" has been puffed up to be much more of a problem than it really is, to the detriment of teaching actual skills.

  3. FedUpMom, I think you may be touching on a class issue here. Those of us who're either at poverty-level schools or looking at poverty-level schools know there's a problem with comprehending reading.
    Many low-socio-economic elementary schools have raised their standardized test scores by teaching the students a lot of test prep, and limiting instruction to what the schools know will be on the state test (teaching to the test) in lieu of art, music, history, social studies. Later on, the kids find themselves in high school without background knowledge necessary to be truly great readers or really, great learners. (By the way, I realize, a dearth of background knowledge is big problem many of the poor kids come to school with from the beginning) We've got a decade of NCLB, and SAT scores consistently falling- even after correcting for more minority students taking them-

    In your daughter's case, it may be the talk about comprehension, is really to recognize, "Hey, we've got a bright kid here, she is just in the process of cracking the code."

  4. Well, I wouldn't be surprised if it's a class issue. Everything else is.

    SCF, I can see that too much test prep, and too much emphasis on bog-level skills, would also be a problem.

    Where I live, I see the opposite -- the schools are so airy-fairy that parents are left scrambling to teach their kids phonics and basic math algorithms. A lot of the airy-fairy stuff doesn't actually help comprehension, either -- it's just a waste of time.

    Somewhere, there's a balance, where kids are ensured of learning their basic skills, but without getting stuck on the basic level, and then they can move on to more challenging, interesting material. But it's a hard to find a school that has the right balance --