Wednesday 7 September 2016

Thoughts on 'comprehension' in the primary school

I've written many times before how 'decoding' is not the same as 'reading'. In short, I've suggested that 'reading' has to be do with 'meaning' - why else would we read?

In theory, the curriculum in primary schools covers 'reading for meaning' or 'reading with meaning' or  'reading with understanding' and called it 'comprehension'. Even so, this still leaves me thinking that there's something wanting. Do we read in order to 'comprehend'? I don't think so. We probably read in the hope of comprehending, or with comprehension. But we really read because we want to 'get' something from a passage, scene, book, poem etc., don't we?

How might we call this something? The stuff we 'get' or want to 'get'?
Entertainment, enlightenment, some kind of 'truth'?
And how do we get to it?

Key to getting there is through making analogies: we compare what we are reading (or think we are reading) with moments in our lives (experience) and with other 'texts' (intertextuality). These acts of comparison are crucial in our means of understanding and getting 'value' from a text.

But what is the 'value'?

Some say, it's learning empathy. Others might want to call it 'morality' - what's fair, what's not fair, what's right, what's wrong.

But there's also something to do with abstract thought. We come out of the specifics of the text and the analogies we have made,  with generalities about, say, fear, anger, love, jealousy and how we might behave in such circumstances and/or how the protagonist(s) behaved.

We may also make generalities about the text being 'good' or 'bad' or 'saying...x' - an overall 'evaluation', then.

Also in here, we should also think more psychologically about 'compensations' and ways in which texts can appear to satisfy or support our needs, desires and anxieties.

When you look at transcripts of children responding to books - as I have, as I've been marking my students' essays - you can see very different ways in which children behave when given books and poems.

You can of course ask them questions which will 'prove' they have comprehended. These are the right/wrong answers much loved of examiners. However, these won't show that children can have 'informed opinions' or 'interpretations'.
Where do these come from?
1) Because, I the teacher, told them to have them?
2) Or because, through careful work using trigger questions, they arrived at them?
3) Or does it also come from reading for pleasure linked to open-ended discussion?
4) Is that always with the teacher guiding or sometimes with the pupils in pairs?
5) Or a combination of all of these approaches?

Somewhere in this process, too, are some micro-moments. When you read the transcripts, you can see children swapping views as they try to 'catch' or 'capture' what a particular moment in the story or poem is about or for. These often sound and feel like discoveries. You can hear the children being excited as they feel that they have revealed something about what's 'in' the story.  In those moments, it's very interesting what happens when they make analogies with their own lives or other texts they know. It is really a kind of hidden generalising. In order to do it, you have to invent a category (you may not name it) like, say, falling down, and then you talk about 'falling down' moments for a bit. That's what's been called a 'schema'. Then you may well end up talking about the dangers of 'falling down' and 'consequences' and whether people in the book and/or real life behaved well or badly when there was someone 'falling down'.

Though this doesn't look like abstract thought, it involves a form of abstraction: selecting out of the particular and generalising that experience. It may or may not end up with an abstract noun. There's a movement that starts from implicit abstraction to explicit abstraction.