March 23, 2017

Reading Comprehension

Early on in my homeschooling career, I had an ISP leader who was interested in helping parents become better teachers for their children. He pointed out to us rookies that the two most important areas that were essential to learning were listening comprehension, followed by reading comprehension.  He explained that this is how we receive most of the information in life and the areas that should be developed.

That makes perfect sense to me, but what continues NOT to make sense is the artificial way that reading comprehension is measured by standardized testing. This was made clear to me when speaking recently to a concerned mom.  She said that her son who had begun reading at the age of four, no longer liked to read.  He hadn’t been doing well on his “timed comprehension tests” and she was beginning to think that he might have some sort of learning disability, and needed to be tested.

Now, I ask you:  When other than during a standardized test is anyone required to read a selection (taken out of context) and expected to come up with “right” answers out of a multiple choice grouping?  This is hardly a skill that translates into real life. While it purports to identify those who are reading well and those who aren’t, I submit it actually produces non-thinking individuals who aren’t given time to stop and consider the veracity of what they read and whether or not there are other possible answers than the ones provided.

An example:

I randomly picked the following paragraph from Chapter 6 of the children’s book Bell Mountain. This is the sort of paragraph that might appear in a reading comprehension test.

“In all his life Jack had never been more than a mile or two away from his hometown and had never been taught about maps and geography.  He could see the mountain from his own backyard. All he had to do, he thought, was to keep on walking toward it until he got there, and then somehow climb it. He thought it might take a day or two to get there and maybe another day for the climb. Had he been left alone to act on such notions, he surely would have come to grief.”

Next come the questions, devised by some educator to determine if a student understands the material.  Keep in mind that the selection itself poses more questions than it does answers.  Nevertheless, the questions might read something like this:

1. What does it mean to come to grief?
a)  arrive at a destination     b) become sad    c) become worried    d) become discouraged

2. What notions might cause Jack to come to grief?
a) hunger          b) lack of sleep    c) walking to the mountain    d) inability to read a map

3. How long did Jack think it would take to climb the mountain?
a)  3 days     b) 1 day   c) 2 days    d) none of the above

Consider the anxiety this sort of exercise may produce.  The student has a limited amount of time to “get the right answer.”  Since the selection is taken out of context, it is likely that the student will begin to imagine things about Jack and where he lives etc.  But, the student doesn’t have time for this.  He must attempt to figure out what “they” want. (This is the proverbial “they” who seem to show up everywhere!) So, now, without context he has to conclude things that may or may not be accurate according to the actual story – just according the test author.  Is it any wonder that some children end up with a dislike for reading?  Is it any wonder that grades end up being the real end of learning rather than comprehension?

My point isn’t that all children are unable do tackle such questions. Some can, and do quite well at it.  But the question remains: Are they learning how to understand what they read and interact with the material, or are they being conditioned to accept limited choices, some of which aren’t good ones?  (I challenge you ask others to take this reading test.  You will discover that people who can read quite well might have differing answers – answers they will debate given the opportunity.  Sadly, most test takers don’t even get a chance to justify their answers.)

Standardized testing is used to measure the effectiveness of teaching and the acquisition of knowledge.  Since it would be difficult for a teacher in a classroom setting to take time with all students to ascertain their reading comprehension, this method overlooks that some very intelligent and imaginative children will recoil against these constraints.  That is why one-on-one learning is the most effective and productive way to teach and to learn.

The homeschooling setting, with the parent/teacher having first-hand knowledge and experience with her child can find more personalized ways to determine how well her student comprehends the material. Additionally, she can pose questions for thought and discussion that don’t have to be crammed into a multiple choice format and can discover if there are real impediments in the child’s ability to learn.

Just as the high incidence of dyslexia and ADD can be attributed to failing to teach children how to read with a dedicated phonetic approach, so, too, can the use of such artificial measurements to determine comprehension.  Unfortunately, few parents properly assign the cause of their children’s problems and end up having them labeled with a disability or, worse yet, put on drugs.

Expose children to worthwhile material – either reading to them aloud or providing them with good books to read themselves – and you will see their desire to learn become greater rather than less.  Could it be that homeschooling is so effective (despite the fact that few homeschooling moms have a teaching credential) precisely because it doesn’t have to rely on contrived means to discover if children are learning?  That will become obvious as they hunger and thirst for more.

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