Wednesday 8 June 2016

The bits of understanding that 'Comprehension' doesn't reach

It's easy to think that 'comprehension' is what is done in comprehension texts. A close examination of these - or indeed a quick scan of the 'theory' of what's in them - tells us that it's a very narrow band of understanding being tested, and this may well overlook important understandings that children or school students are making.

As most people reading this will know, at the primary level, the three dominant things being tested are 'retrieval' , 'inference' and 'sequencing/chronology'. This ignores the fact that when we read we do something more 'global' than that which will draw on these three things, which is 'interpretation'.  There is no time sequence in which we first do retrieval, inference and chronology and only after that do 'interpretation'. We are doing these things simultaneously. However, because comprehension tests have to have right/wrong answers, there is no room for 'interpretation' as children and all readers will diverge on what texts mean, signify and tell us.

This wouldn't be a problem other than that with high stakes testing, of course teachers have to prepare children for the tests and so 'interpretation' takes a back seat, while greater emphasis is put on retrieval, inference and sequencing. This is allied with a strange and absurd line of work requiring children to invent what's going on in the author's mind in answer to questions like 'Explain the use of descriptive words'. Here, the child is supposed to know why an author has chosen these words. This too is allied with that all-encompassing, non-existent person 'the reader' as if all readers are the same, all texts have the same effect on all people, and - because the passage being examined is self-defined as 'good'- the text will be 'effective'. In other words, there is no room for the reader actually doing the exam to think the text is not effective. I made that mistake in an exam in about 1960  when I said that I thought a Robert Frost poem was 'sentimental'. Zero marks of course.

Interpretation, we know, thrives in open-ended dialogue with or without a teacher present. Aidan Chambers' book 'Tell Me' is a useful blueprint for how to engender this kind of conversation and writing. Nowadays, I fear, it can only thrive when the students and children are out of reach of the high stakes testing.

However, there is another area that is worth mentioning. One response we have to story of all kinds - whether that's a story in a book, a piece of non-fiction narrative, a film, a TV programme, a song, a poem, a comic strip - is to relate some other story or part of a story. In fact, it's embedded in high prestige criticism when people like Mark Kermode, say, allude to other films when he talks about the film that he's critiquing. We also do in conversations. I tell you that I fell over. You tell me that you fell over. This is often thought of as trivial.

Let's think about that. If I tell you how I fell over and you tell me how fell over, you have instantly created a category. You have made a classification in your head that we are doing falling over stories. If I told you I fell over a very small step, you could of course tell me a story about building steps in your back yard, in which case your category would be different, it would be 'steps'.

This is a form of abstract thought. We may not put names to the abstract in question, and we may not put a name to the kind of categorisation we're doing. We just pick out elements in each other's stories and relate one from within that element.

It is also a form of comprehension when applied to stories that we give children. It is a deep and important form of comprehension because it involves picking out something that we think is interesting or important in the story and relating it to something we know (or invent, if we make up a story in reply).  It is narrative-sharing as comprehension.

In summary, I would say:

"If, when you tell a child a story and the child tells you a story back, the chances are that the child has made an analogy between two or more aspects of the stories. This is the serious matter of creating categories or sets. It's hidden abstract thought. We need to give it space to flourish and dignify it with our pleasure and approval."