Reading Comprehension

To mark today’s cricket world cup final, I thought it might be a good idea to quote a section from a BBC report on the semi-final match between Australia and India:

“…Australia failed to fully capitalise on the second-wicket stand of 182 between Smith and Finch, as Michael Clarke’s men were stunted by the off-breaks of Ravichandran Ashwin and a curious collective failure against back-of-a-length bowling.”

If you are reading this then you are probably an educated person. I suspect that you can decode all of the words in that quote with ease. However, I am uncertain as to whether you will have comprehended it. This will depend, I suggest, on how much you know about cricket.

What if you read through it slowly, asking yourself questions about the quote as you go along? If you struggled with the quote then try this. Does it help?

Strategies such as self-questioning do clearly lead to greater comprehension. There is little doubt about this. And interestingly, the most effective way to teach such strategies appears to be with explicit instruction, even if they do seems to resolve down to just two strategies; questioning and summarising. However, if you don’t know what an “off-break” is then you may still struggle with the cricket quote, regardless of how many times you stop to ask yourself questions.

This might not matter a great deal. I am sure that many people pass through life knowing little of cricket and caring even less. But what if the passage was about a political situation; one that affected the reader? Perhaps the reader, if well-informed, would want to use her democratic rights to protest. Yet when she reads the relevant report in the New York Times, on the BBC website or after following a Twitter link, she finds that she cannot comprehend the relevant texts because they are full of the equivalents of ‘off-breaks’ and ‘back-of-a-length’ bowling.

Is there an alternative? Yes. Instead of simply teaching comprehension strategies, we could also ensure that students leave school in possession of the bodies of knowledge that are likely to be needed to understand common sources of information; knowledge that is historical, political, scientific and literary. This is the argument of E D Hirsch. It is difficult to fault scientifically or logically; background knowledge clearly does aid comprehension.

Hirsch goes further. He argues that children from the most deprived backgrounds are the ones who are most likely to move schools frequently. These children will suffer if they end up learning about the Ancient Egyptians three times but never hear of Apartheid. And so this leads to the logic of a common curriculum, shared across schools; not a particularly radical notion in those countries with a national curriculum like the UK or Australia. Unfortunately, the idea has created the opportunity for people to misunderstand Hirsch. The charge is that he is trying to impose his view of a white, middle-class, male, European, Judeo-Christian culture on diverse groups of people.

This is far from Hirsch’s aim. He references the New York Times and asks what knowledge is required in order to comprehend it. So Hirsch takes an empirical line. If you have a beef with anyone for trying to define culture then you need to take it up with the New York Times or BBC journalists. Hirsch is not the guilty party.

But what of relevance?

Is it appropriate to teach children from diverse backgrounds about Shakespeare? He is dead, white, male and European. Perhaps a different playwright might be more contemporary and relevant? Perhaps. But if the newspapers are full of inferences and allusions that require a passing familiarity with Shakespeare then these students will be disadvantaged. And such knowledge may serve the revolutionary and the subversive well. As Sun Tzu advises us; know your enemies and know yourself.

However, I think I can sympathise with Hirsch’s critics. It seems unfair that the inequities of the past would define what we teach our students today. Teachers tend to be idealists, after all. Perhaps we can get around the requirement for background knowledge if we teach transferable comprehensions strategies. This way, when our students don’t understand a text they can apply one of these strategies and thus understand it. We would then be free to reset the clock and select content that best suited our personal views about what is most relevant to our students. We would be free from the tyranny of culture as it actually exists.

And reading comprehension strategies are promising in this regard. They clearly have some effect. There is strong evidence for this.

Although they also seem a bit dull. Would your students rather learn about the Ancient Egyptians or a strategy for asking themselves questions whilst reading prose? And what if reading scores don’t improve much? Then we’ll need more of this strategy instruction and less of other things; music or art or science.

This would be an error. It seems that instruction in reading comprehension strategies provides a boost but it is a limited one. A short course will do as much good as a long one and so these strategies probably shouldn’t be allowed to dominate the curriculum. Rather, they should be perhaps revisited from time-to-time in the context of something else; a unit on government, perhaps.

The reality is that we cannot develop a workaround for background knowledge. Perhaps we need to embrace this reality and start to celebrate the beauty that lies in knowing about our world. This might have the added benefit of raising reading comprehension levels.

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15 Comments on “Reading Comprehension”

  1. Which is why we need to teach ‘stuff’ that ‘matters’. Then we get into the argument, a different one, about who is best placed to decide what ‘stuff’ is most important to teach at a particular moment to a particular cohort in a particular area – cricket, lacrosse, polo, grouse shooting, croquet, Eton wall game, billiards, real tennis, etc. You can’t teach it all, you can teach generally so there is little depth or you can have it dictated to you to teach about grouse shooting and lacrosse or you can decide which ones to teach for your own purposes.

    You might decide ‘as they’re working class’ to teach tiddlywinks and that might raise some eyebrows…

    • gregashman says:

      A focus on ‘who decides’ is a misreading of Hirsch. He is an empiricist. He doesn’t decide. The New York Times or the BBC do. I think that it is very noble to suggest that these decisions should be made by class teachers but we have to remember that Hirsch posits a common curriculum in order to solve a specific problem; that of student mobility which is particularly pronounced for low SES students. Of course, we could suggest alternative solutions or we could decide that it is not a problem worth solving. Perhaps it is a necessary evil in order to maintain teacher independence.

      • I don’t think it is a misreading especially as I have a lot of time for what he has to say. Cultural literacy/capital whatever people want to call it is important. As both the BBC and the New York Times lose audience share it will be even more of an issue as to how to be ’empirical’ about this. I think the culture in which we take part is wider than even that of the hugely wide ranging BBC and ways into whatever it is, is important for all. I am also concerned about taste – about culture beyond these institutions- how qualitative judgements need to be shaped so that not all seen or heard on the bbc is given the same credence, some of it is shite…

        As for the argument on people moving around, this was an argument for a national curriculum in England, how much difference has it made? Which subjects are most affected? If you move a lot is it only sequencing of knowledge that means you fall back or are there other factors including social & emotional ones and can these be negated educationally to a sufficient degree by having a rigid curriculum?

        I take it you think all schools should therefore be following a national curriculum to the letter including, in the UK, free schools, academies and independent schools?

        And I ask again because I’m not sure is the French system the nearest example to the type of system you’re talking about?

      • gregashman says:

        I’m sorry but I don’t know much about the French system and I haven’t had chance to read your links.

        Yes – I am in favour of having a national curriculum.

  2. Does the French system have the most rigidly constructed curriculum by the way?

    If it’s tuesday 12th every teacher will be teaching ‘blah blah’ ? Interesting to know if it’s true and how well it equates for success in kids who move about a lot?

  3. This is fun about French teaching of french: http://www.french-property.com/guides/france/public-services/school-education/primary/curriculum/ I particularly like ‘the problem might be the language itself…’

  4. grantwiggins says:

    Enjoyed your piece. But the research suggests that while background knowledge – and experience – is necessary it is nowhere sufficient. Case in point: I read the cricket piece, didn’t understand the technical terms, but still was willing to keep reading. Will is a huge factor in mature reading, as is holding in memory what you DO understand. Just think of reading philosophy or technical papers. or lengthy NYT articles on the technology of nuclear weapons.

    When you control for mental processing ability and background knowledge, use of strategies makes a big difference. Nor do I understand why you here (and Willingham in his article on strategies) stress the idea of “short” periods of instruction. The research says quite the opposite: a long period of practice and feedback, supported by a gradual release of responsibility, yields the greatest gains.

    The “limited boost” in many studies comes from a failure to design backward from transfer – which is another day’s topic.

    • gregashman says:

      Thanks for your comment. Are you aware of any studies where strategy instruction has been designed the way that you suggest and where the limit effect has been removed? That would support your argument.

      I think the other reason for limiting strategy instruction is that it is going to be much less interesting for students than studying something like Ancient Greece with its scope for narrative.

  5. Dick Schutz says:

    “Reading Comprehension” is the Phlogiston of schooling discourse in general and of reading instruction in particular. The sentence re Cricket that you quote is a good example. Knowing diddly-squat about Cricket, reading the sentence was evidence that I’m dyslexic. Reading it closely, asking myself questions, and applying all the reading strategies touted didn’t help a bit.

    Yeah, what I lack is “background information,” but acknowledging that doesn’t help my “Reading Comprehension.” With a few minutes googling the technical terms I was able to follow the drift of the communication–“good enough” to conclude that it would take “a lot of work” for me to incorporate the Technical Lexicon of Cricket into my General Lexicon–more work than I cared to expend.

    As in any interpersonal communication mutual understanding and consensual agreement depends on the characteristics of the communicators. In written communication one of the communicators is a text, so the understanding and agreement depends upon the reader, not on an inherent “meaning” that has to be “extracted” from the text.

    There are many issues entailed in schooling in general and in reading instruction in particular that warrant untangling, but the reified construct of Reading Comprehension only adds to the tangles.

  6. […] Greg Ashman is a teacher in Australia. Supported by his school (but not necessarily representing its views), he has developed a love of educational research. Ashman is  now pursuing a PhD. This post originally appeared on his blog, Filling the Pail. […]

  7. suecowley says:

    When children learn reading comprehension strategies, they learn them through the medium of knowledge, but I think the more interested they are, the more likely they are to make the effort to comprehend it. (I’ll admit to a disinterest in Cricket.) It’s interesting that England is watering down its National Curriculum in light of its fascination with Hirsch. Who gets to choose?

    • gregashman says:

      I am not sure what you mean about ‘watering down’ the national curriculum. Perhaps you could expand. From my faraway vantage-point it seems that more rigour has gone into the curriculum but maybe I am wrong.

      I think that interest can conquer much. However, I suspect that as large a proportion of students are disinterested in politics as are disinterested in cricket. Would we wish political knowledge to be possessed only by those who grow up passionate about politics; the William Hagues of this world? Or would we wish all children to have a good grounding? I would prefer the latter but I fear a long period of prioritising student interest has led us to the former.

      • suecowley says:

        ‘watering down’ as in (a) it’s much, much shorter than it used to be (I can remember the days of chunky paper ones) and (b) it doesn’t have to be followed by non LA run schools. As far as I know, I don’t think that politics is in the curriculum in the UK, apart from maybe being briefly touched on in citizenship or if you choose to study it at A level?

  8. […] you are looking for a blog post in which I try to popularise Hirsch’s ideas then this one is a good place to […]


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