Reading Comprehension: The Key
Jan 29, 2012 Reading 2040 Views
There are many solutions being promoted for improving reading comprehension: memorization gimmicks, word association, "speed reading," context clues, selecting out main ideas, drinking coffee, and so on. Of course, anything that works for an individual is valid, but sometimes within a towering stack of ideas the most important gems of wisdom get squashed or lost. Often, some of the simplest or most obvious ideas are the most powerful. They get overlooked or minimized because they are "too simple." Could this be the case in the area of reading comprehension?
First, let's make an analogy to mathematics. Suppose John Doe is adding up a column of 10 numbers. If John omits or changes just one of those numbers, will he get the right answer? What if he omits or changes more than one number? A sentence is not composed of numbers but of words. If one "adds up" the words correctly, he achieves comprehension. Is this too simple? If every third word spoken to John Doe were spoken in an unknown foreign language, how well would John comprehend? This is fairly easy to grasp, right? One can't expect a person to comprehend spoken or written language if that person doesn't understand the individual words used in that language. Everyone knows this, right?
I encourage you to make an experiment that I have made many times. Ask a student (elementary school, middle school, or high school) the meanings of some of the words of the Pledge of Allegiance. I have found it excruciatingly rare to find students who could pass the test (less than 5%)-yet the students have typically recited the Pledge hundreds of times over a period of years. These are some common words that are not understood:
Pledge: to make a promise [Example sentence: They pledge that they will pay back the money within a month.]
Allegiance: loyalty; staying true to someone or something. [Example sentence: People should keep their allegiance to their spouse and not cheat on them. Or: The traitor did not keep his allegiance to the country.]
Republic: A republic is a country with a particular form of government. In a republic, the general population doesn't directly participate in government or in voting on laws; however, they have the power to participate by electing individuals (including the president) who will represent them in government. [Example sentence: The United States of America is a republic.]
Indivisible: not able to be divided; united together. [Example sentence: That music band is indivisible; the members always stick together.]
Liberty: freedom; the ability to think and act as one chooses. [Example sentence: The king wouldn't give everyone the liberty to vote.]
Justice: fair treatment that follows what is right or that follows the law; punishment or reward that is fair. [Example sentence: There was no justice when the innocent person was put in jail for a crime that she didn't commit.]
After clearing up the vocabulary that they didn't understand, students might typically say, "Oh, so I am promising to be loyal to the flag and to the republic that the flag stands for." They often had no idea that-with their words-they were promising anything. Their pronunciation may have been perfect, but their comprehension wasn't. Further, such students could have recited (or read) the Pledge of Allegiance more slowly, they could have taken notes, they could have looked for context clues, and they could have tried double espresso coffee-but these would not have significantly improved their comprehension. Such actions would not have directly addressed the fundamental issue: the students didn't know the meanings of individual words.
When I have cleared up these misunderstood words with students, it has only taken a matter of minutes. In the rush to move forward, students (and sometimes educators) mistakenly omit clearing up the meanings of words. This may appear to save time in the short run; however, the fact is that it ends up tacking on enormous amounts of time and trouble. The bigger the pile of misunderstood words weighing down on a student, the more "fog" and confusion is generated, the harder it is to learn, and the longer becomes the amount of time needed for remedial efforts.
Misunderstood words blocking comprehension is pervasive. Take the term pi in math. Here is another word students have often spoken and read for months (or even years) but have never really understood. A student might say that pi is "3.14"-but 3.14 what? Cookies? And was this number just pulled out of a hat by a mathematician? What does it stand for? With regard to the definition of pi, the following simple basics are often not understood.
Suppose one were to draw a perfect circle. Suppose the diameter of the circle were 1 inch. [Diameter: the distance of a straight line from one point on the boundary of a circle, through the center, to another point on the boundary of the circle.] If one measured the circumference of the circle [the length of the outside boundary of the circle], they would find it to be about 3.14 inches. Any circle with a diameter of 1 inch will have a circumference of about 3.14 inches. Any circle with a diameter of 1 foot will have a circumference of about 3.14 feet. Any circle with a diameter of 1 mile will have a circumference of about 3.14 miles. That is just the way circles are. If the diameter of a circle were 2 miles, then the circumference would be 6.28 miles. The word pi actually doesn't just refer to one quantity (3.14). The word pi is actually referring to the fact that in any circle, for every 1 unit of diameter there will be about 3.14 units of circumference. Pi is the ratio (unchanging relationship) between the circumference and diameter of any circle: 3.14 units of circumference to every 1 unit of diameter.
Sometimes the very term used to describe a subject (or set of subjects) isn't understood. For example, some students don't know what "social studies" means. Social studies is merely "a class in school"...or social studies is "history." Such students don't understand that the word "social" refers to society or people-and that social studies are those studies that deal with how people function in society. Social studies can include geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, economics, religion, and other subjects pertaining to society and how it functions. Social studies could involve any one of these subjects or any mixture of them-and it could be taught in one single class or in a variety of classes. The purpose of social studies is to integrate study of the above-mentioned topics so as to help students to better understand society and to more ably and responsibly carry out their role as citizens.
Clear up and understand the meanings of the words. This principle is "too simple," but let's still understand and apply it. True comprehension of written and spoken language depends on an understanding of the individual words.