Each author brings an understanding of a topic to his or her work. And every reader brings prior knowledge and experiences to his or her reading and comprehension. That is why educators of every age of student debate this topic so hotly. But how do we really know, as teachers, if the message is getting through? How are we best able to determine that?</p>
WE MUST SHOW THEM HOW
When a child’s brain is given new information through reading, listening, or even viewing, it may try to associate the new information with prior knowledge that already exists. Some students don’t know how to do that. Those are the students to which we must explicitly teach comprehension strategies (such as questioning, predicting, visualizing, etc.). The age of the child and the experiences he has had also controls his ability to understand what he reads. A child who has grown up in the inner city obviously has had different experiences than one who grew up in the country. The same is true for a child who lives in poverty versus a child who comes from a wealthy home. Can we measure reading comprehension with the same tool for all children? Based on this understanding of comprehension, I say “no.”
Most teachers seek to give students new experiences and knowledge daily. When a student is unsuccessful at comprehending a text, the teacher re-teaches and formulates new ways of looking at the text to help that student comprehend the concept behind the words. Often with mathematical concepts, we are quick to find a new method of delivering the intended objective. In reading, however, we seem to think there is only one way. I prefer to think about teaching students to look at comprehension as an individualized task, one in which they choose which tool or tool works for them.
HELPING THOSE THAT STRUGGLE
Some students who are weaker in verbal skills can seemingly overcome a lack of comprehension for the sake of a reading comprehension test. The problem is that doesn’t always work. When they do succeed, they have invented an inaccurate and ineffective tool.
Look for signals that indicate problems such as differences in their decoding ability or vocabulary compared to their comprehension abilities. These students can be quite clever at answering comprehension questions correctly (or guessing which item to pick: a, b, or c) without having read or understood the passage. If we only look at a comprehension test result for those students, we might mistakenly think that they comprehend well and there are no issues.
These students are a particular challenge because, in a busy day, a teacher might overlook their shortcomings. They have developed a “coping mechanism” of associating key words or even key letters that formed those words with the prior knowledge they retain in their brain. They use deduction rather than strong comprehension skills to answer those questions and often just get a cursory understanding, only enough to answer simple questions.
COMPREHENSION CLASSROOMS (and extensions to at-home experiences)
The goal of teachers must not be for students to simply score well on standard comprehension tests. Our goal must be to continually increase their ability to comprehend more deeply any text they read. Each student needs evaluation at an individual level.
Once that is accomplished, then the differentiation of instruction mentioned earlier can target those students’ real issues. Don’t be fooled. The challenge is to determine if students simply test well or truly comprehend that which they read.
Activities that engage the reader and offer opportunities for him or her to share their personal background knowledge in a discussion forum often help students to comprehend at higher levels. If the goal of comprehension instruction is to help students gain not just a basic understanding of the text (that they can regurgitate on a test) but to think about it deeply and expand their knowledge base then, as their knowledge grows, so does their understanding of a given topic or passage. This type of comprehension also leads to additional connections and a growth in higher level thinking (such as inference, analysis, and evaluation). That is where we want to lead our students.
ARE YOU HELPING CHILDREN REACH THEIR POTENTIAL?
In that context, even if I provided you with a list of questions, I would not be able to evaluate your complete comprehension of this article. I might be able to tell if you grasped the main idea, but I would not be able to determine, by one test, how well you understood, or how well you connected what you read to your own schema.
Apply that “higher ground” to your teaching of comprehension with your students. Expand what I have given you here to meet the needs of your students that you know so well. As a result, your students will be able to better comprehend what they read.
My job, as the author, (passing along information through the written word) is finished. Now it is your turn, as the reader (gaining new information) to reach that higher level of comprehension. Once you practice this and make it a part of your own reading experience, you will be able to share more authentically that concept with students.
We must give our students not only a chance to gain knowledge from the surface (think of an image of oil floating on top of water), but an opportunity to take that knowledge and apply critical thinking skills so that their comprehension of anything (written or not) is challenging, though-provoking, and conceptual. Our aim must be toward helping them retain what they are learning in their long-term memory rather than just on the surface until the next test. Then we will know for sure if we are getting through to each student’s maximum level of comprehension.