To the Editor:
I agree with E.D. Hirsch Jr. that “deadening comprehension strategies” do little to impart effective knowledge to students (“Reading-Comprehension Skills? What Are They Really?,” Commentary, April 26, 2006). Fortunately, I teach in a school where I can focus on best practices rather than single-skill instruction.
Comprehension is an ongoing, active dialogue between reader and writer. Teaching a student about the main idea of one passage will not transfer to comprehension of another. Having a student restore a passage’s sequence does little to effect deeper understanding.
While I am sure Mr. Hirsch’s book will provide additional insights, here are two easily implemented ways to improve students’ understanding without discarding existing curricula:
First, we need to get better at guiding students’ reading of appropriate, well-written fiction and interesting nonfiction. We must prepare them before they read, stop them often to check their comprehension, ask good questions, and teach students how to ask good questions of themselves. If they are missing the point, we must show them the sections in the text that make that point. We cannot allow students to proceed without making sure they understand.
Secondly, we need to become better at broadening students’ knowledge by reading to them often and on a wide range of topics. By being read to aloud, students learn new concepts and new content, and hear new vocabulary used in meaningful contexts. Too many collect bits of information without becoming knowledge-builders. Students must connect new information to old, or there is little long-term understanding. Reading aloud is an extraordinarily powerful way to impart knowledge.
Through meaningful discussions and reading aloud frequently, we must continue to teach students about alligators, Aristotle, and the Appalachian Trail so they will know about such things before encountering them on exams. Not only will we be preparing students for the inevitable standardized tests, but we also will be teaching them that knowledge provides the fertile terrain on which ideas grow.
A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2006 edition of Education Week as Alternative Strategies To Build Comprehension