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Comprehending Comprehension

Comprehending Comprehension

At a time when textbooks and curricula are under critical scrutiny, customers hear much about teaching "thinking" and "comprehension." Virtually all textbook publishers claim that their materials help students to comprehend the subject matter. But how can a home educator determine whether the claim is valid? The answer lies first in ascertaining the publishers' definition of comprehension and then in deciding whether the definition suits the parents' goals for educating their child.

Comprehension is not a single, observable skill, but rather a group of skills that a person uses to relate language to meaning. The ability to comprehend takes place on four levels: literal (recognizing and remembering statements); interpretive (inferring and eliciting information from statements); critical (evaluating and making judgments about statements); and creative (appreciating and responding emotionally to statements). Taken together, these four levels constitute total comprehension, meaning not that a student knows everything about a subject but that he understands what he has read. Not every sentence of a textbook has to require a student to demonstrate all four levels in order to validate the publishers' claim for teaching thinking. But if a teacher examines a book with total comprehension of his course material in mind, he will discern the levels of comprehension--not just look for "how" and "why"--in the review questions, unit summaries, and exercises.

Several experts in the area of reading instruction have analyzed the reading process and divided it into steps of increasing maturity. These schemes, or taxonomies, help the teacher sort out the different kinds of thinking his student needs to do in order to comprehend material.

Bloom's taxonomy, probably the best known of the three, uses the word comprehension to describe the literal aspect of total comprehension. Home school parents need to understand the difference between the broad and narrow uses of this word, because it is the point at which publishing companies and their definitions part ways.

Does a curriculum emphasize "comprehension" by requiring a student to retain and repeat information or to pronounce words accurately? Or does it require the student to use information in real-life situations (application)? Break down information into a simpler form (analysis)? Put information together with other facts to form conclusions (synthesis)? Pass judgment on the validity of ideas (evaluation)? All of these activities make up total comprehension--relating language, the printed material on the page, to meaning.

A good test for these concepts of comprehension is a nonsense test, such as Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky":

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were borogoves,
And the momeraths outgrabe.

After a student reads this first stanza, the teacher can ask him, "What did the slithy toves do in the wabe?" "Fill in the blank: 'The borogoves were _____.'" "What things were outgrabing?" The student may answer all of the questions correctly, but has he comprehended the material? In the limited literal sense, yes, because he has accurately retained and repeated the information. To find out whether he has related language to meaning, the teacher would ask questions such as, "How can you help your teacher be mimsy tomorrow?" (application); "Explain how a tove becomes slithy" (analysis); "Which is better, outgrabing or gimbling?" (evaluation); "Did the poem make you feel brillig? Why or why not?" (appreciation). The student cannot answer any of these questions, because he has not related the language of the poem to any meaning. Therefore, he has not truly comprehended the material.

Home school parents must decide whether the narrow or the broad definition of comprehension supports their own philosophy of education. Parents who want their child to read eloquently at an early age, to memorize math facts, and to recite dates in history stress performance over understanding; their curriculum will reflect the narrow definition of comprehension--literal level only. Parents who want their child to know not only how to read but also what he is reading, to see the concepts as well as the facts in math, and to discern and apply the lessons of history stress understanding over performance; their curriculum will be designed with total comprehension as the goal.

There is, to be sure, a lot of complicated talk about "thinking" and comprehension going on in educational circles. By virtue of being teachers, home school parents have entered those "circles" themselves; thus, they must think about thinking too. By determining their own educational philosophy first and then examining the curricula available, parents can more wisely choose the one that helps them achieve the kind of education they are working for.

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