Some see ‘comprehension’ as an old fashioned term that has lost its relevance in the ‘digital age’. I don’t see it this way. Helping children to comprehend better involves helping them to remember, understand, enjoy, learn from and critique what they read (or see, hear or experience for that matter). It is a term that recognizes that the creators of literature, non-fiction books, film, video games, performance and so on, have meaning intent and purpose in mind when they have done so. In a previous post (here) I said:
“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.”
As well as having written previously on this blog in more general terms about the way parents and teachers can encourage and improve comprehension, I’ve also written extensively about comprehension in my various books (for example here and here) and in articles in academic journals. Before I get to the strategies here’s a quick comment on ‘deep reading’.
One of aims as supporters of children’s reading is to encourage ‘deep’ reading of any book. For example, with the reading of literature we want children not only to be able to read the words and follow a basic narrative plot, we want them to be able to read ‘deeply’. We want them to grasp the richness of characterization, the devices the author uses to create mood and tension, the intent and purpose of the writer and the language devices employed; all the while being moved by the text and able to reflect and respond critically to it. For the teachers reading this blog there are many different traditions that have said similar things to what I’m saying here (but from different beginning points) including ‘critical theory’, ‘reader response’ theory, ‘critical literacy’, ‘deep reading’ and even more recently ‘slow reading’. I can say more on this later if people want.
Bill Corcoran (in Corcoran & Evans, 1987) offers one example of a useful framework that reflects one of these traditions. It is a helpful way to pursue ‘deeper’ reading of text (he didn’t call it this).
Corcoran identifies four basic types of mental activity that relate to the reading of literature:
Picturing and imaging - a rich mental picture.So how do you help children to become deep readers? I thought I’d do a series of practical posts on comprehension strategies that work for children aged 7+. All are ideas that I’ve used with children. I’ll focus on one strategy at a time and will build the list up over time. You can find many of them in my book ‘Teaching Reading Comprehension: Meaning Makers at Work’ (1990) which while out of print is still in university libraries and used copies are available in many places on the web (e.g. here). I also intend to produce a new book in the next year or so that covers the same ground soon.
Anticipating and restrospecting - about upcoming events, or reflecting on the ideas in the book.
Engagement and construction – becoming emotionally involved in the text, identifying with characters and situations.
Valuing and evaluating - making judgements about a text and its worth, as well as applying their own value judgements to the events and situations that unfold.
A Strategy that Works
‘Sketch to Stretch’ (Cairney, 1990) is essentially a strategy that involves asking children to sketch in response to reading, hearing or even viewing a story. It was first developed and researched by Marjorie Siegel (see Harste, Pierce & Cairney, 1985), and requires the reader to use drawing to 'stretch' or enhance the meaning as they are reading. This can occur during and after reading (there is even a place for drawing as an ‘advance organizer’ before reading but that’s another post). It can involve varied directions including:
Draw a picture to show what just happened.The sketches at the beginning of this post and below (all taken from my book 'Teaching Reading Comprehension'), show just some of the responses from a group of 10 year-old children I had been teaching. I had interrupted a reading of the graphic novel ‘The Wedding Ghost’ (1985) written by Leon Garfield and illustrated by Charles Keeping.
Draw a picture to show what he/she [insert character name] did, lost, saw, heard etc.
Draw a picture that shows what might happen next.
Draw a picture of [insert character].
The book is set in the late 19th century, in a small village in Hertfordshire in the East Region of England. Like all of Garfield’s books it is rich in historical detail and a depth of language and mastery of storytelling that few children’s authors have ever achieved. The book tells the story of a young couple (Gillian and Jack) who are about to be married. It follows the normal sequence of events for a wedding in the 19th century, beginning with the invitation, preparations, then the rehearsal, present opening, more preparations and eventually the wedding.
Much of the story centres on a journey taken by Jack after he opens an unusual gift addressed only to him. This is the first moment of intrigue. Jack sets off armed with an old map sent by an unknown person, and the events and discoveries that lead ultimately to the dramatic events of the wedding and the outcome.
On the occasion that sketches above were drawn (a class of 10 year old children), I introduced the book by sharing the title, showing the cover and then explaining a little about the author. I told the class that Leon Garfield usually wrote what is known as historical fiction, and that this is the writing of fictional stories that are inspired by real events, setting and characters. The class was also told that Garfield spends a great deal of time making sure the details of life in different times and places are accurate.
I interrupted my oral reading after a few minutes at a point where Jack is to open the mysterious present. This is just a few pages in and the guests are gathered around watching the groom to be. People are making jokes and speculating about the gift and why it might just have his name on it.
I asked my students to quickly sketch what the gift might be. As you can see from the sample of the sketches, the responses varied greatly and included a ghost, map (an uncanny prediction), book, hourglass (suggesting time), genie’s lamp letter and so. The sketches give an insight into the level and depth of children’s comprehension of this complex picture book up to this point. As well, they illustrate that they are trying to make sense of what’s going on, where the story might go next and the extent to which they are picking up on the themes in Garfield’s book. As well, they show something of their literary history and the background knowledge that they bring to the reading and the sketching.
Even when children drew the same object there was great diversity. For example, a number of students drew ghosts presumably basing their prediction upon the book's title (there had been nothing explicit in the text to suggest this); and yet, the drawings showed a diverse range of ghosts. One student drew a genie type 'ghost' emerging from lamps, several drew 'Casper like' ghosts and others drew ghosts more human in form. Each reflected different literary histories and background knowledge.
Sketch to Stretch does do as its name implies, it stretches children’s understanding, and their knowledge of and appreciation of literature. It also offers an alternative to word-based strategies for heightening engagement. Each response whether it is written, spoken, drawn or displayed in any form, helps children to read more ‘deeply’. The sketches also help us to understand how our children are empathizing with characters, evaluating the text, what they are predicting will come next, how they are reflecting upon earlier events, how they are connecting with life situations and so on. This gives us greater insight into our children’s comprehension as they read and it helps us to enrich the mental journey children are making as they read a book.
Previous posts on 'Text Sets' (here)
Previous posts that relate to 'Graphic Novels' (here)