What would happen if we were to select a literate person from each of the past thirty centuries and ask that person to tell us which of the following reading comprehension skills is most important? What would they tell us?
- Identifying the main idea
- Making an inference
- Drawing conclusions
- Relating background knowledge
All but the person from the twentieth century — the person unfortunately affected by the recent human invention of a reading comprehension test — would look at this list with complete befuddlement, wondering what in the world these things are. If you were to tell them that they must not be very good readers then, having not been taught lessons on how to do these things, they’d surely laugh. (That is, until you forced them to teach within systems where reading is so taught — within several weeks, they’d be crying.)
Their befuddled laughter would come from two simple facts:
- Reading comprehension is an obfuscatory way of saying “understanding what you read;” that is literally what it means, but since we don’t call it that, we often think of it as this schoolish, complicated thing rather than the process of understanding — learning — through reading.
- Understanding what we read looks not like the discrete chunks of understanding that we try to test — finding “the main idea” or “making an inference” or “sequencing” — but rather like this very human and enjoyable thing where you now know something that you didn’t before.
And their tears from teaching lessons on “finding the main idea” or “making an inference” would come from this: understanding is far more a function of domain-specific knowledge than it is about the application of generic, very boring and confusing skills.
So, here’s a list of actual strategies that all but the twentieth century’s literate person would describe as critical for maximizing one’s understanding of a given text. People like you and I, when we read for understanding, we:
- Look up unknown words
- Dig into cited sources
- Follow links to read more on topics mentioned in the reading
- Reread difficult passages
- Ask questions
- Summarize, paraphrase, and annotate
Why do we do these things? Not because someone told us to, but because we desire to understand. We want to learn. And the more motivated we are to do the understanding, the more aggressively we’ll do the work.
(If you were to dig into our motivation, it’d come down to the five key beliefs.)
So what’s the point?
I have a few points.
First, one of many troubles with standardized reading tests is that, since they ask students questions about inferences or main ideas or sequencing, AND since such high stakes are attached to them, we start teaching toward those discrete sub-chunks of understanding, and in so doing we turn understanding into something that’s infinitely less fun and delightful and dare I say natural. So the first trick is to NOT do that.
Second, the biggest predictor of strong understanding, whether from reading or listening, is NOT some historically new (and therefore unproven by 30+ centuries of human literacy) set of reading comprehension “skills” — it’s knowledge. This is true all the way through the reading process. Think of the things you have to know when you sit down to read my article right now.
To get a basic understanding:
1) You have know English.
2) You have to know English orthography — the written, alphabetic code of English. (We call this decoding, and good decoding is a transferrable skill that is built on a foundational knowledge of the English code.)
3) You have to know about reading comprehension tests, and the frustration and anxiety that can come from teaching under their shadow.
To get a deeper understanding:
1) It helps to be familiar with the sweep of human history, so as to properly see oneself in 2019 as an inheritor of millennia of learning rather than a shiny, sparkly, rainbow unicorn who is discovering brand new things that no one has ever thought of before.
2) You have to have experience teaching kids how to understand what they read — and the more kids you’ve tried this with, the more strategies you’ve used and books you’ve read, the more you’ll understand the spirit of the article.
I could go on. And this is why measuring your comprehension against the new teacher in Montana, against the school administrator in Australia, against the fifth-year teacher in Japan is a bit of a fool’s errand, don’t you think? A bit distracting. Because the radically individual sets of knowledge that each of these folks has built and is building will shape their understanding of this blog article in all kinds of ways.
And third, in light of these things, we don’t rage against the machine — we work the problem as intelligently as we can. If I thought raging against the machine would somehow fix things for the kids I’m teaching right now or the kids I’ll teach in ten years, then I would. And surely, raging enough might help start to shape the system for the better.
But it seems to me a better approach is for us to do what we can do right now and to great effect. We know that knowledge is inseparable from comprehension — so let’s start building knowledge-rich curricula. Is it hard to do? Oh yeah! I bang my head against it every day. But the fruit of such an approach does come — whereas the fruit of a “teaching reading comprehension as a skill” approach is basically rotten. (Here’s a piece by Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist who has dedicated his career to helping teachers.)
The first, mission-critical step is ensuring that every teacher understands what reading comprehension even is. If your staff doesn’t think this way, you’ve got to have them read an article on the topic and brainstorm a list of what to START doing and what to STOP doing.