The Trouble With "Comprehension"

February 08, 2013

“Comprehension” is a word that is tossed around freely in educational and psychological circles.

         “If James paid attention more, he would comprehend better.”

 “It doesn’t matter if Eve doesn’t read all the words accurately, as long as   she is comprehending.”

“We are working on Jack’s higher order comprehension skills.”  (Jack is six.)

The fact of the matter is “comprehension,” the ability to understand and respond to text and spoken language, is affected by a myriad of factors. 

Let’s look at a few:

An Impulsive Style:  George is an “act-first think-later” type of 7 year old.  When given reading comprehension worksheets, George takes great satisfaction in being the first one done.  The fact that the child next to him is getting many more right than George, doesn’t register with him.  Hey, he beat that kid.  There’s good satisfaction in being the first one done, thinks George to himself as his teacher frowns at him.

Weak Word Awareness:  Marnie, age 9, has trouble with shades of meaning.  For example, she explains a “castle” as a “kind of house.”  When asked comprehension questions, she answers them with a literalness that shows she has trouble understanding.

A Weak “Hmmm, let me think about it,” Internal Voice:  Max, age 9, is great with factual questions, but when it comes to answering questions (not just with reading) requiring considering (thinking) before answering (e.g., most “Why” questions), he has trouble with these questions.  In other words, he has trouble with questions that require him to say, “hmmm, let me think about it.”  These usually occur when he has to infer or “read between the lines."

Decoding Problems & Strained Reading.  If reading is a laborious task and the reading is strained, than the mental effort for comprehension is greatly reduced.  Beth, age 8 can’t read large words accurately.  The problem is her teacher doesn’t know this since she believes that children should only read silently.  While Beth reads to herself she just skips the tough words and her comprehension suffers.

Weak Fund of Knowledge.  Background knowledge and word awareness are two extremely important sub-ingredients that aid comprehension.  Reading is an interactive process taking place between your brain and the ideas on the page.  The process is not one-directional as some people assume (page to brain).  Caleb, age 10, knows nothing about the Revolutionary War, so when he is asked to read a story about the war, he has trouble understanding and retaining the concepts.

Test/Text Format.  Too often I hear that the child has a “comprehension problem” when it is clear the child had trouble with the format of the text.  David, age 12, a boy I recently met had no trouble whatsoever understanding what he read, however he had lots of trouble answering questions on a worksheet that required writing full sentences to show his comprehension. Writing is not the only way to show “comprehension.”

 

Take Away Point:

Comprehension issues are complex.  These six points are just a few.  There are many more. You need to try and narrow down what is producing the “comprehension difficulty,” before assuming the child has trouble with comprehension.

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