Why Not Teach Reading Comprehension for a Change?

Teacher query: I noticed you converse not too long ago and in your definition of studying comprehension you used the time period “affordance.” How would you outline affordance as you utilize it regarding textual content?  

Shanahan’s response:

Usually, I’d simply shoot off a fast electronic mail clarification with a query like this.

However, on this case, the query affords me the chance to clarify why a lot “reading comprehension instruction” is wrongheaded and why it fails to perform its objectives of enhancing studying achievement.

I imagine that standardized studying comprehension testing has warped and distorted our conception of studying comprehension.

Instead of specializing in tips on how to allow children to make sense of the concepts expressed in textual content, we’ve tended to emphasise tips on how to reply specific sorts of questions. That treats studying much less as a course of for gaining or developing concepts based mostly on info offered by an creator by textual content and extra about exploring Bloom’s taxonomy, Question-Answer-Relationships (QAR), or some supposed set of studying expertise based mostly upon state requirements.

Let’s be clear: studying comprehension shouldn’t be the flexibility to reply specific sorts of questions.

Reading comprehension is the flexibility to make sense of concepts expressed in textual content — the flexibility to barter the linguistic and conceptual obstacles or affordances of a textual content.

In reply to your query, the time period affordance, as used right here, is drawn from the work of Eleanor Gibson, a nice psychologist who studied notion throughout the 1950s-1970s. 

According to Gibson, an affordance is a useful resource or help that the atmosphere provides an animal; the animal in flip should possess the capabilities to understand it and use it. Thus, the supply of coconuts could also be an environmental affordance as a result of coconuts may be a precious supply of safe-to-drink water — however to make the most of this affordance, animals should develop the ability of breaking or piercing the thick coconut shells.

In the atmosphere created by a textual content, an affordance is any useful resource or help the textual content provides to readers that may assist to facilitate communication or understanding. Thus, an creator may: 

  • set up a checklist of factors with bullets in order that they stand out as a sequence or in order that their unity or parallelism could also be extra apparent;
  • select to make use of “prolix” (as an alternative of “wordy” or “verbose”) to emphasise particularly that the speech being described was not simply lengthy, however unnecessarily lengthy; 
  • distinction two meanings of the phrase “dedicate” to convey a specific substantive level (as Lincoln does in his Gettysburg Address); or
  • invert the grammar of a sentence to spotlight a specific portion of a message, equivalent to with the next: So unusual was the state of affairs that I could not sleep. (Shifting emphasis from the lack of sleep to the peculiarity of the state of affairs).

Basically, all the alternatives of diction, grammatical construction, cohesive linkage, group, and different ways in which the creator chooses to current concepts are the “affordances” of a textual content.

But readers — as within the coconut metaphor — should have the capability to acknowledge and exploit these affordances.   

Reading instruction has, for too lengthy, ignored the necessity to train children tips on how to make sense of texts — tips on how to make the most of the linguistic and conceptual affordances offered by the creator and to get round and over the obstacles that will forestall this sensemaking.

When educating myself to learn French, the obvious preliminary obstacles have been the phrases themselves. Not a lot their pronunciation, however what they meant. A easy declarative sentence like the next can convey precious info, and but, if a reader lacks an understanding of the phrases’ meanings, this sentence will likely be a barrier to comprehension fairly than the affordance the creator supposed.

Je suis froide ce matin.

What did I do to barter these obstacles? Initially, I depended closely on the dictionary which helps to some extent on condition that I usually already understood the underlying ideas. In this case, a straight translation of the phrases into English was fairly efficient: I’m chilly this morning.

However, somebody proficient in French would rapidly acknowledge that my word-for-word translation misses a key thought: the truth that the speaker is feminine (in French, the spelling of adjectives reveals gender—if the author had used froid, it might have been a boy). The dictionary helped me climb over a few of these obstacles to that means — however, on this case, extra grammatical perception was wanted.

We do attempt to assist college students use and negotiate a few of these lexical affordances and obstacles. We normally attempt to broaden children’ vocabularies in order that authors’ phrase decisions will facilitate communication fairly than hindering it. And, we do train children tips on how to use dictionaries, morphology, and context to determine phrase meanings when there’s a mismatch (although I feel we may do a a lot better job of every).

We make investments significantly much less with sentence grammar when it comes to comprehension, and the identical may be mentioned about a number of different linguistic and conceptual options (e.g., cohesion, discourse construction, tone, graphics).

In school rooms, we frequently attempt to forestall college students’ lack of “prior knowledge” from being a barrier (by offering copious quantities of presumably related info earlier than studying), however we do comparatively little to coach college students to acknowledge and make the most of the affordances offered by authors who’re not often full idiots about their readers’ possible consciousness of the topic.

An simple instance of this neglect is how science textual content is normally dealt with. In Ok-12 faculties, science textual content tends to be closely dedicated to explaining ideas, which usually requires a whole lot of definition. Instead of educating children tips on how to acknowledge and use these specific definitions and examples (and what to do with these when the content material is unfamiliar), we outline the phrases for them earlier than they confront these phrases in textual content.

In different phrases, as an alternative of educating children tips on how to scale these lexical obstacles and to make the most of these affordances, we attempt to take away the obstacles themselves — which, finally, limits what children can study studying comprehension.

The similar may be mentioned for a lot of the usage of “leveled readers.” Teaching studying with texts that youngsters can already comprehend fairly effectively is extra aimed toward stopping doable miscomprehension within the quick run, than in exposing children to the complexities of textual content in order that precise educating can happen.

Instead of constructing positive that sure sorts of questions are requested about textual content, we must be educating college students tips on how to learn and interpret textual content — making the most of the affordances and negotiating the obstacles. We’re getting it mistaken as a result of we’re educating the mistaken stuff!


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