Reading is meaning
Human beings are meaning-making machines. We try to find meaning wherever we can. This is especially true when we start learning how to read. Once you learn how to read even a few words, you can’t help but retrieve their meaning whenever you see them. In fact, try NOT to pay attention to the meaning of the words you’re reading. It’s impossible!
Comprehension is the process of making meaning of what you are reading, whether that be a single word, a short paragraph, or an epic story or poem. It encompasses fiction and nonfiction, prose and verse. When you are figuring out a new word you are seeing for the first time, pondering a character’s motivation, comparing the ideas in an article to what you read in a different article, or appreciating the humor in a piece of satire, you are using comprehension skills.
Comprehension is why we read. Unfortunately, this often gets forgotten in our zeal to teach decoding and fluency. And sometimes, it just isn’t valued.
It’s all Greek to me… um, make that Hebrew
I attended Hebrew school from the time I was 8 years old until my Bat Mitzvah, on my 13th birthday. During those years, in 2 hour sessions on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, I learned how to read and write the Hebrew alphabet, and how to decode Hebrew words. I got very good at it. In fact, I once trounced my class in a speed reading contest of one of the longer and more difficult prayers that we were expected to know how to read and recite.
Unfortunately, no attempt was ever made to help me understand what I was reading.
Oh, I knew the general ideas – praising God for being great, and wonderful, and super-awesome, and for doing various cool things for Jews over the past 5,000 years or so. Jews are big into saying blessings before or after routine and special occasions, such as having meals and drinking wine. (Grape juice, if you’re a kid. Hey, it beats Manischewitz.) Repeating these prayers and blessings so often, I started to notice specific words coming up again and again. Then phrases. Then vocabulary, like the word for “bread” or “wine”. I wanted to know what the heck I was saying, so I tried to pay attention whenever I saw the Hebrew translated.
Eventually, I got good enough at reading Hebrew, and comprehending written English, that I was able to sit with the prayer book during Saturday morning services (which was 3 hours long – plenty of time to do a little linguistics) and match up the English on the lefthand side of each book-panel with the Hebrew on the right-hand side. Sometimes I was able to come up with word meanings. Often, I had to guess.
The end result was that I got really annoyed with my Hebrew school teachers and their attitude that it was more important to recite a prayer correctly than to know what the prayer actually said. It communicated to me that my understanding wasn’t important, only going through the motions was. I ended up questioning a lot of what I was taught in Hebrew school (for various reasons) but this lack of concern for my ideas or understanding definitely played a big role.
When we ask kids to read for reading’s sake, rather than for making meaning, we give them the message that their understanding doesn’t matter.
And then we’re surprised when they don’t cooperate!
Basic comprehension skills
Long before a child sits down with a Hebrew-English prayer book to decipher Hebrew phrases using translation, many many understandings about reading have become automatic.
The very first thing a new reader learns is that print carries meaning, and that specific printed letters form words that have specific meaning. Emergent readers just being introduced to print often write random letters on their drawings, then tell an elaborate story that is supposedly represented by those letters – and if you ask them about what the letters mean a few days letter, you’ll probably get an entirely different story. Meanwhile, they may turn the pages of their books and try to recite the stories from memory, or make up their own based on the pictures.
The first conceptual leap occurs when they realize that specific combinations of letters mean specific things as words. Many books for babies and toddlers have a single image with one printed word, or a few pictures that are labeled with the vocabulary. Ironically, these books might be more useful for beginning readers than they are for the infants and toddlers, who probably aren’t even registering the print at all. My son, who just turned 2, only started noticing the print in his books recently – right now he just points to letters that he knows and says their names, or says “A-B-C-D, A-B-C-D, A-B-C-D” when he doesn’t know the letter names.
Another early concept that children must learn is that books are continuous – the character on Page 1 is the same character that you see on Page 5, and again on Page 11. Then, cause and effect can become clear. What’s done and said on Page 1 affects Page 2, 3, and 4. Sequencing the events in order helps a child to understand the development of the plot.
Many children’s stories are built around a main idea or theme. If they’re fictional, often there’s a message of friendship, personal growth in the main character, or learning an important lesson. Non-fiction books are usually organized as a set of facts about a topic, as in “All About Dinosaurs” or “Things That Go”. One of the main stumbling blocks that I’ve found for comprehension is when children can’t identify the main focus of what they’re reading.
If you ask one of my students with attentional or language issues what “All About Birds” is about, you might get an answer like, “Well, birds evolved from dinosaurs.” Which is absolutely true according to current science, but represents only one small part of the overall book – maybe even only one sentence! They might then have trouble remembering other facts that they read in “All About Birds” because they misidentified the main idea.
More comprehension skills
Beyond the basics (who, what, when, where) children with more advanced comprehension begin to go deeper. Why did a character behave as he did? What was he thinking right before the big conflict happened? Why did the author decide to kill off that major character? (Looking at you, George RR Martin.) The child begins to infer, reading in between the lines, and make his or her own judgments and connections. Children also begin to understand figurative language, more complex vocabulary, and sarcasm and irony. Eventually, they realize that many of their texts contain obvious or not-so-obvious symbolism, archetypes, and story arcs that may remind them of other stories.
How are comprehension skills learned?
From reading. Lots of reading. And then talking about what you read with other people who read it.
Really. That’s the main thing. Exposure to lots and lots of books. Especially good quality ones. (What’s good quality? Depends on who you’re asking. That’s a whoooole other blog post.) I really can’t think of a substitute for actually engaging with reading material, though in school students will do “comprehension exercises” and worksheets to try to take the place of actually having the time to read. Because what school student has time to actually sit and read? Especially books they’ve chosen themselves?
I’m not a huge fan of being assigned a reading log or book report – both, I feel, are more assessments of whether comprehension happened than teaching tools to help develop comprehension. They also, in my experience, suck the joy right out of reading. When I stayed up half the night finishing the fourth book in Harry Potter, the last thing I wanted to do was write a coherent report about it! What I did want to do was talk to other people who’d read it and compare what I thought to what they thought.
Sometimes, a reader may be inspired by a book to delve deeper into a specific area, like vocabulary – for example, JK Rowling is very fond of concocting spells with Latin roots, which might trigger a thought process in a reader that notices all the strange-sounding words and wants to understand them better. Is this added experience necessary in order to understand and enjoy Harry Potter? Definitely not. It’s simply an opportunity that the reader can take, or not.
Many kids find that they like to watch the movies that go with a book, as well as reading it. I’m cool with that, but I try to talk them into reading the book first. They can then decide if the movie adaptation was faithful to the book and/or did a good job of representing the main ideas and themes that the book offered. Some movies do this better than others. I tend to hate most movies based on beloved books, so my disappointment in films is almost a given. But not everyone’s a purist.
How do YOU understand what you read?
The best way to understand comprehension is to examine your own thought processes as you read. Do you visualize as you read? Do you make connections to other stories, characters, or events in your own life? Do you refer to a map or a dictionary of terms? Do you EVER write anything down about what you read? (Or use any of the other strategies you were ever asked to as a student?)
What about when you read for information? Do you take notes, bookmark pages, use sticky notes, underline key points? What helps you process and remember and use what you read?
No person’s process is exactly like another’s, and I’ve found that it’s unproductive to try to force another reader to adopt my personal habits or thought processes as I read. On the other hand, I’m happy to share if I think the other person is receptive to hearing ideas or might find it useful.
As a child, I read a lot of material that was way over my head. I didn’t know all the vocabulary, missed key ideas, or sped through books without really processing all the emotional content or factual information that I could have gotten. And that was all completely OK. There is no “right” way to read a book. I have so many books in my house today that I’m constantly looking for new ways to store them, and I usually have 5-6 books going at the same time. I love to go back and re-read old favorites, finding that I always find something new in them. I remember a lot of what I’ve read, but not everything. Most importantly, I love reading and I hope to pass that on to my family.
What’s your favorite way to read?