Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Reading Comprehension

What does comprehension require? Broad vocabulary, obviously. Equally important, but more subtle, is the role played by factual knowledge.

All prose has factual gaps that must be filled by the reader. Consider

“I promised not to play with it, but Mum still wouldn’t let me bring my Rubik’s Cube to the library.” 

The author has omitted three facts vital to comprehension: 
  1. you must be quiet in a library; 
  2. Rubik’s Cubes make noise; 
  3. kids don’t resist tempting toys very well. 
If you don’t know these facts, you might understand the literal meaning of the sentence, but you’ll miss why Mum forbade the toy in the library.

In one experiment, pupils — some identified by a reading test as good readers, some as poor — were asked to read a passage about football. The poor readers who knew a lot about football were three times as likely to make accurate inferences about the passage as the good readers who didn’t know much about the game.

Current education practices show that reading comprehension may be misunderstood. It’s treated like a general skill that can be applied with equal success to all texts. Rather, comprehension is intimately intertwined with knowledge. That suggests three significant changes in schooling.

  1. Look at decreasing the time spent on literacy instruction in early years. Early in Primary pupils can spend 56 percent of their time on literacy activities but 6 percent each on science and social studies. This disproportionate emphasis on literacy backfires later  when children’s lack of subject matter knowledge impedes comprehension. Another positive step would be to use high-information texts earlier - historically, they have been light in content.
  2. Second, understanding the importance of knowledge to reading ought to make us think differently about year-end standardized tests. If a child has studied New Zealand, she ought to be good at reading and thinking about passages on New Zealand. Why test her reading with a passage about spiders, or the Titanic? If topics are random, the test weights knowledge learned outside the classroom — knowledge that wealthy children have greater opportunity to pick up.
  3. Knowledge needs to be deliberately built into the curriculum. What are the key facts and understanding that we want pupils to have acquired and how are we planning to deliberately cover it?

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