Saturday, October 25, 2008

Teaching and Supporting Children’s Comprehension


Why a post on comprehension? First, because there is no more important literacy topic than helping children to understand and interpret what they read, view, hear and experience. Second, because this is one area of literacy that it is so badly supported by many teachers and parents. Third, because it has been a topic neglected by researchers and teacher educators in recent years. I may do a series of posts but first a simple introduction.

What is comprehension?

I'll offer you my own definition:
Comprehension is the ability to understand, interpret, appreciate and critique written and spoken language, images and film.
Traditionally, the term comprehension was used primarily to describe the ability to understand written and spoken language, but in recent times teachers and researchers have increasingly stressed the need to include new media as we move towards more digital and visual communication in our world. Some have even argued that the written word is no longer as important as it once was. I don’t agree with this view (see my post here on "Writing, communication and technology"), but I do believe that we have a responsibility to help children learn to comprehend more than just the written word. Unfortunately, in the debate about new ways to create meaning and communicate, terms like comprehension have been neglected.

Comprehension is an important term because it recognizes that the authors of texts, and hence the texts themselves, have intent and purpose. They are not just words that we use to construct anything we want. This seems self evident when we talk about comprehending a timetable or a set of IKEA instructions, but even novels and poetry have been written by authors with purposes, audiences and contexts that have shaped their texts. We could say the same of images and film. As we move from factual to poetic forms, or from instructions to art, there is a greater sense of openness to interpretation, but nonetheless, every text, image, film etc has been created with an intended meaning and purpose. To assume otherwise is the folly of extreme relativism, where the relativist assumes that one thing (e.g. meaning of a poem, values, beauty of art, knowledge of something) is relative to one's particular framework or standpoint. In its most extreme form, there is no truth; no single intended meaning, no true judgment of quality and worth and so on. The relativist would claim that the meaning of a text depends on what one brings to it. They would claim the same of images (art, advertising, cartoons etc), recorded words and sounds, music, video images and multimodal texts that we see increasingly in our world, especially when using the Internet. I think the term comprehension still has great relevance because it is a reminder that as readers, viewers and web surfers we need to be able to understand, interpret, appreciate and critique what we read, view, hear and even experience.

The foundations of comprehension in the first 5 years of life

There is much that parents and preschool teachers can do to encourage children’s comprehension. Here are 9 simple tips.
  • Read regularly (at least daily) to your children and talk about the things that you read.
  • Try to read the book with emotion, with invented sound effects, with different voices for characters and the narrator, changes in voice volume and tone - much meaning is communicated this way.
  • Support their emerging understanding of what they read or hear by encouraging them to look at pictures and images and relate these to the words that you read. Emphasise key words or repetitive patterns in the book “But don’t forget the bacon”, “But where is the Green Sheep?”
  • Encourage them to relate ideas, language and knowledge that a book introduces to other areas of learning or life – “You’ve got a teddy too”, “His puppy is like Darren’s puppy”, “We saw an elephant like this one at the zoo”.
  • Encourage them to draw, sing, talk about, act out, make things, dress up and so on, in response to the things that you read to them or they read themselves.
  • Encourage them to memorise and learn things from the books they read or listen to. You can’t read “Wombat Stew” without reciting over and over again “Wombat stew, Wombat stew, Gooey, brewy, Yummy, chewy, Wombat stew!”
  • Encourage them to make connections between the things they read, view and experience – “This story is like in Shaun the Sheep when he…..”.
  • Read varied books – different story types, factual books as well as fiction, poetry and prose, different forms of illustrations and so on.
  • Watch TV shows, videos and movies with your children and talk about them, explain things, try to make connections with stories they have read, encourage response with art, drawing, play dough, puppets, dressing up, acting out and so on.

“Texts teach what readers learn”

Simple strategies like the above actually encourage comprehension by teaching children about language, texts and the purposes of such texts. An English colleague of mine Margaret Meek (Meek, 1987) puts it this way – “Texts teach what readers learn”. She argues that children learn a great deal about written language and how texts work as part of the experience of using written language, and in particular, “by becoming involved in what they read”. Meek argues that children’s early experiences of reading and being read literature can teach them many things. Interaction with adults as they encounter books is vital to this early learning.

Meek recognises that one of the most powerful parts of the early experiences of literature for the very young is the interaction that takes place between an adult and child as part of the reading of a text (the earlier post that I did on 'Guiding Children's Learning' is of relevance here too). Many things about language, discourse and the world are learned as children engage with books, videos, music etc. They can learn simple things like vocabulary and gain knowledge of simple and complex things. Some of the more complex things they learn require them to begin to interpret, understand, appreciate and critique.

For example, how does a child learn to distinguish the hero from the villain in a story? Between real and imaginary? How do children first realise the difference in characters from one text to another? When do they first learn that a bear isn’t necessarily just a cuddly friend but a potentially dangerous animal? Let me illustrate this point. My first grandchild Jacob (who was 15 months old at the time, about the age in the photo below) learned this during a reading of Brenda Parkes simple predictable picture book titled “Who’s in the Shed”. The book has a simple plot. A truck arrives at a farm and an animal is unloaded and placed in a shed. We don’t see what is unloaded but as we turn each page a small part of the animal is revealed through a window. On each page the refrain is “Who’s in the shed?” and a little more is revealed. When the final page is reached the full image of a grizzly brown bear appears behind a barred window. Showing claws and big teeth it is fierce. On the first two readings Jacob’s interest didn’t allow us to reach the end of the story. But by the third reading I growled (loudly and dramatically) as the bear was revealed. Jacob jumped slightly and then said “again”, meaning of course he wanted it read again.

On the second reading when the final page was reached and I growled again, he jumped and ran to the door of the room looking back at the picture. The next few visits to our house he would enter my study and move tentatively towards the book (still on a coffee table), open several pages then retreat to a safe distance and make a growling noise. What had Jacob learned? First, that not all bears are cute and cuddly. Second, that books have the power to shift the emotions, to evoke emotional responses. Third, that authors have the habit of revealing their most significant insight near the end of the story. Fourth, that author’s structure and layer their meanings to tell their story. Fifth, that word and pictures have a relationship.

Books for many children offer opportunities to consider for the first time major issues such as life and death (see my recent post on this here), pain and suffering, joy and sadness, fear and frustration, truth and falsehood. As children grow older and encounter more and more language, new aspects of the human condition are brought into focus, language devices are discovered, literary devices for plot development and characterisation are observed and understood for the first time. Encounters between readers and texts have great potential to develop reading comprehension and the key is active engagement and discussion between an adult and child, as they encounter books, films, pictures, music, firsthand experiences and so on.


Teachers and educators can read a full paper on some of the issues raised above as well as discussion about technology, literacy and the challenges of multimodal texts on my website (here).


JACOB is Six today!! Happy birthday Jake.


Prue said...

Great post Trevor. I am never sure what level of comprehension I should expect from my almost 5 year old son. He watches DVDs such as Shaun the Sheep over and over and keeps asking "But why did that happen?"

Yesterday his uncle sent him some magazines on aeroplanes (one of his favourite things) and he got me to read an article on the first passenger flight of the A380 (one of his favourite planes). It was a long article which took at least 15 minutes to read to him. Afterwards I asked him what it was about. The A380. Lufthansa. I wonder if it was just that it was so long that he lost the meaning of it all. But he still enjoyed it, and that's the main thing. The next time we read it it might sink in a little more. I guess that's part of comprehension too.

Sorry, that was a long comment!

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Prue, sounds like your son has more than adequate comprehension at this stage and that you're doing all the right things. Don't assume that he didn't understand much about the topic just because he didn't say much. If texts like the magazine are too hard then I'd suggest focussing more on the pictures, the diagrams etc and just talking about them. You shouldn't be frightened to stop after a paragraph and do your own paraphrasing, for example: "That's interesting, the A380 has two decks, it can have up to 853 people in it..." You should also make good use of other media. He might draw the planes, you could look up appropriate websites, print a picture and write something on it that he dictates (or let him write it himself). Anyway, it sounds like you're doing great stuff with him. Trevor

Prue said...

Oh, we know all the kids websites on planes (one great one where they pick up pieces of the plane, put it in the right place and it explains what each bit is for as you do it), he has lots of model planes, we go to the airport to see planes. I know so much more about planes than I ever imagined!

Thanks for the ideas though. I always learn a lot from you!