Friday, January 27, 2012

An Epidemic of Poor Comprehension

This week, at a teacher training for using conversation to lift student comprehension, an exasperated teacher raised her hand and asked, “I’m concerned because my students seem able to have really thoughtful conversations about books but when I turn around and give them a “test question” about it, they bomb!”

This question set me thinking—a lot.  

Is the problem the topic of the conversations students are having?  Is it that their conversations aren’t going deep enough?  Do their ideas dance around the periphery of the real meaning of the text?  Or is the problem something different all together?  Is it an issue of vocabulary?  Or careful reading or interpretation of the questions themselves?  The fact of the matter is this: when this teacher asked this question, I had no idea how to respond because it felt like the answer rested with  any one of a series of infinite possibilities. 

But here’s the good news.  As a follow-up to this training, I have started visiting classrooms in this district and together with the teachers who echoed the same sentiment voiced by this exasperated teacher, we’ve begun to take a close look at this lack of transference. While the jury still seems to be out on the absolute answer to this question, the observations we have made have been fascinating. 

One behavior that we saw time and again was the inclination to make snap judgments. Test questions require that we fully absorb all aspects of what is being asked.  They require that we not only read the text closely and carefully, but also that we take the time to fully reason and consider what a question is really asking.  What we saw were students who seemed to be skimming the questions and answering according to what they knew instead of using the information provided in the text.  For example, when we asked the question “What does the word prise mean in the first paragraph of “The Great Mouse Plot” from Roald Dahl’s Boy, many children saw the word knife and immediately concluded that the best definition for this word would be cut.  When we asked a question about Roald Dahl’s relationship with his friends, they saw the word truthful in the line that read “When writing about oneself, one must strive to be truthful,” and immediately thought that their relationship was based on honesty. When asked how Roald Dahl felt when he was placing the mouse in the jar, students said “proud” in spite of the fact that at the point when he places the mouse in the jar the text says his “heart was thumping like mad” and his “hands had gone all sweaty.” Instead of honoring those words,  they keyed into the last sentence that read it was marvelous to be so popular and called it a day.

Instead of reading closely and carefully, the students we looked at read lightly and literally.  And what I’m wondering is why?

When I was first introduced to the Common Core State Standards, specifically the idea of being able to read increasingly complex text through close readings that emphasized text-based questions, I was somewhat skeptical.  When I heard David Coleman speak about it, I felt that he was disparaging strategy instruction and as a teacher whose entire career has reflected the ideas espoused by Ellin Oliver Keene’s Mosaic of Thought and Harvey and Goudvis’ Strategies that Work, this felt a little blasphemous (amazon affiliate links).  However, what I have observed in the last few days is enough to convince me that aspects of our strategy instruction may well be counterproductive.  I sense that we may overemphasize things like making connections and predictions and underemphasize things like synthesis and determining importance.  And in so doing, students’ thinking dances around the periphery of the text never quite making it to the core.  And as a result, we’ve got kids who answer test questions based on what they think as opposed to what they know from the text they are reading—and you know what that means: bad scores.  But what’s worse than that is this: We’re grappling with an epidemic of poor comprehension and that’s a bigger problem. 

The question now is what can we do it about it?  I know that’s what I’ll be thinking about in the coming days but I’d love to know what you’re thinking, too.  What are you doing to help students achieve “close, careful analysis” of text?


pgread said...

Thank you for beginning this blog- we recently began this discussion after looking carefully at the sample elementary model of a close read and what that means for instruction. I do think that you have pinpointed what Commissioner King and Coleman are saying - we need less of what we think and feel and more of what the author is really saying with his words, looking carefully back in the text and also looking at vocabulary choice. I questioned the idea of handing a text to a reader with no background building, but after listening to Coleman explain how the author "sets the table," that idea began to make sense. I think we have all experienced feeling a bit uncomfortable at the beginning of a book and then slowly developing our understanding and becoming caught in the story. As we do so much preparing to read for students, perhaps we do not allow them this feeling.

Kim Yaris said...

I know exactly what you mean about the work that we've become accustomed to doing in preparation for the text. This idea of "leveling the playing field" by keeping students within the text may well be a stroke of brilliance that will provide a necessary framework for the next generation of comprehension instruction. Coleman talks about "surrendering" to the text and the satisfaction that comes from overcoming our cognitive dissonance. If we do too much of the work, that won't happen for students and I fear, that has become our habit as educators.

Definitely stayed tuned for next week's post because as our work in the classroom has continued, more a-has have emerged. In the meantime, be sure to share your epiphanies as well!

PattiC said...

Hey Kim....we are also grappling with this. Several of us are reading To Understand by Ellin Oliver Keene. She grappled with this as well and the book is fantastic. I am seeing the same flippant responses when in actuality we are looking for deeper meaning. I can't put it down. I look forward to reading more responses to get a better idea of where to go with this.

Kim Yaris said...

Patti, To Understand IS a great book to shed light on this conversation. My study group read it a couple of years ago and I find myself returning to it often these days to help me reconsider some of my old ideas...

Pattic said...

Keene just makes you really think about what it is we are asking kids to think about. She also relates it in a way that you can connect to. Heinemann just sent an e-mail sharing a DVD companion to it. It is cheap so I will be picking it up for some of the teachers exploring deeper thinking.