Photo of young boy sitting and laughing on a bench with an open book on his kneesOnce a student has learned to decode (e.g. read the actual printed words on the page or screen), then reading teachers (and remedial teachers) launch into an enterprise called ”reading comprehension.” Taken at face value, this really just means being able to understand what you are reading.  There are rare cases of individuals who are ”hyperlexic” and can decode the most difficult words, even read the encyclopedia at age three, and not understand at all what they are reading.  One can certainly agree that there’s no point in going through all that work to learn decoding if you’re not going to be able to get anything out of what you’re reading.  So reading comprehension, in that context, is a must.

Beyond that, however, reading comprehension becomes a minefield for the beginning reader.  Reading teachers (both regular and remedial) have fragmented the ability to comprehend text into scores of small splinter skills, including some of the following:  summarizing, sequencing, making inferences, comparing and contrasting (that’s a big one), drawing conclusions, problem-solving, relating background information, and finding the main idea. And that’s just for starters.

If you consult the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for Language Arts (click here), you’ll find many more reading comprehension skills.  Here are a couple of examples from the CCSS:

  • ”Compare and contrast the point of view from which different stories are narrated, including the difference between first- and third-person narrations”
  • Describe the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or  information in a text or part of a text.

Now I’m going to say something that might shock some of you, and confuse others.  Here’s what I believe: we should take all those reading comprehension skills, booklets, pamphlets, study cards, and tests and toss them into the nearest bog.  We don’t need to teach reading comprehension, at least not in this way.  This has been a problem with education in general.  They take something that is real and whole, and then rip it into hundreds of tiny ”skills” and ”tasks” and ”categories.”  Then they focus on teaching the tiny stuff and forget about the whole.  So there are lots of reading materials that focus on these bits and pieces.  Booklets on finding the main idea.  Pamphlets on making inferences.  Practice books on summarizing.  Tests on comparing and contrasting.  Educators somehow believe that if you take reading apart and teach the small ”skills” one at a time, that you will somehow create good readers.  But what you’ve really done is develop good reading comprehension test takers while leaving the human act of reading far behind.

The best way to teach reading comprehension is through conversations and discussions dealing with actual reading material (e.g. novels, poems, plays, pamphlets, newspaper articles etc.).  That’s all you have to do!  And not in a quizzing manner (”now class, what’s the main idea of this story?”).  I mean in a cozy group discussion or a one-to-one conversation where the focus is not to ”teaching reading comprehension” but to help students interact with, penetrate, and derive meaningful experiences from the reading.

So let’s say that the text is the poem ”In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, written in 1915.  The text could be read in different configurations:  silently for each student, out loud as a whole group, out loud in pairs, and so forth.  Then, the teacher might ask:  ”What did you think of it?”’ Now, this question is considered persona non grata in current reading circles, because, as Common Core co-creator David Coleman once said to a group of New York educators:  ”Nobody gives a shit about what you think or feel.” And so, the students’ first impressions of the poem are to be totally invalidated in this view.  However, first impressions can provide a whole treasure chest full of insights, questions, confusions, and more.  One student might say:  ”The poem says ‘we are the dead’ – so a dead person must have been the one who wrote it – but how is that possible?”  Another student might wonder:  ”I didn’t understand what that ”torch” was that was being handed off.  It sounded to me like a relay race!” A further student might say: ”I couldn’t tell from the poem whether the poet thought that war was a good or a bad thing.”  The point is, all of these responses, and many many more besides, would be appropriate for a discussion about the poem.  And in engaging in dialogue, teacher to student, student to teacher, and student to student, a web of understanding is being constructed where one can find woven into the woof and weft all these splinter skills that educators try to teach individually one-at-time.  But here we are keeping the wholeness of reading intact while also helping these students become better readers, interpreters, and reflectors on the material.

Another thing that really bothers me about teaching ”reading comprehension” as a set of skills, is that it implies that there are better ways to read and poorer ways to read, and that a student’s reading comprehension can be put on a graph (which it very frequently is), and compared with other students.  But the ethos of a holistic approach to reading comprehension is that ”there is never a dumb question.” All questions can lead to greater comprehension.  Moreover, there is never 100% understanding, particularly with fictional text.  All too often, the teacher takes on the role of the one who ”knows it all” and the students are the underlings who must make guesses about what the teacher wants them to know about the text (somehow the image of a marine world employee feeding leaping fish comes to me).

But real reading comprehension pedagogy is always a case of ongoing interpretation, digging deeper and deeper, coming across timeless but inexplicable questions about what the author meant, fashioning a pedagogical hermeneutics (sorry for the big word, but it means the art and science of interpretation).  Nobody has the right answer.  No one can even really know what the author intended.  But we can become better at asking questions, posing hypotheses, making connections, seeing patterns, and reflecting on our own personal responses to texts.  But we need to do this in the context of actual reading and conversing, not in answering multiple choice questions about comparing and contrasting.  We need to ask ourselves, do we really want to produce kids who can score 100% on all their reading comprehension tests but end up hating reading, or do we want students who may fail reading comprehension exams but because of the warm and wonderful interactions they had with classmates and the teacher around compelling texts, ended up having a love affair with reading for the rest of their lives?

For more on making reading a compelling and authentic experience (plus ideas for creating better decoders of the English language), see my book The Multiple Intelligences of Reading and Writing: Making the Words Come Alive

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I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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