Understanding is not comprehending and ‘comprehension skills’ are a myth
Understanding is not comprehending and ‘comprehension skills’ are a myth

Understanding is not comprehending and ‘comprehension skills’ are a myth

Every time I prepare to teach a new text, I find myself thinking about, and exploring, the differences and the intersection of understanding and comprehension. The vocabulary knowledge required to access the text, the knowledge required to understand the text and the comprehension to explore and analyse the text.

Over the past five years, my confidence in the notion of ‘reading or comprehension skills,’ has dwindled, to be replaced by a growing commitment to fostering pupil’s knowledge, predominantly vocabulary, content and contextual knowledge. These knowledge categories then, I believe, underpin understanding and aid comprehension.

Second, I would argue, that these two learning terms are all too often used interchangeably, ‘understanding and comprehension,’ that is, and that they are not the same and we should not treat these two impostors just the same.

Understanding is not the same as comprehending

Knowing ‘that’ is different from knowing ‘how’

Dylan Wiliam (2007)

Comprehension is to know the meaning or intent of something AND or itself significance. When you comprehend something, you not only understand, you also have spare capacity to explore the significance, intricacies, interrelationships and implications of what you understand. We not only process this information, we work with it, we turn it into knowledge, potentially we assimilate it with our existing knowledge framework, connecting the dots, reforming and revising it, potentially into a more connected and coherent representation.

To understand is to grasp the meaning or intent of something. Understanding often involves surface-level processing of information, more the essentials rather than delving into the significance, intricacies, interrelationships and implications, more often without the assimilation, without revising and reforming what we already know.

Now that I hope I have established the distinctions between the two, let me go on to explain why I believe ‘comprehension skills’ are a myth. As would significance, intricacies, interrelationships and implications skills? Whilst we are at it, for the same reason I would suggest creative skills are a myth also. Comprehension is knowledge explored and applied.

What I am basically suggesting is this. Once pupils can read independently, weaker readers are not missing what good readers do. They are missing what good readers know. Hence they are not able to simultaneously extract and construct meaning as they read. To level the playing field, I need to teach them what the good readers already know.

What has this got to do with preparing to teach a new text?

I have just prepared two new texts to teach next term, in both cases, I knew little of the content or the context or the author, however I was aware of the sensitivities around each of the texts – The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe and The Boy in Striped Pyjamas.

When preparing a text I am thinking:

  1. What do pupils already know before we start reading?
  2. What vocabulary impedes their access and therefore their understanding of the text as we read? (That is an easy fix).
    • What do they need to know (vocab, content, context) to understand, to be able to comprehend the text.
  3. What will pupils need to understand and have comprehended, the significance, intricacies, interrelationships and implications, so that the time we invest reading, discussing and analysing the text, was time well spent (beyond enjoying reading of course and any other activity we could have chosen).
    • Where do I need to place my signposts (look here) so that pupils notice the important
    • What information or cues need explicitly sign-posting.*

I am thinking, what information do we unconsciously assimilate or infer as more knowledgeable, ‘expert’ readers, that enables us to comprehend rather than simply understand?

*I prefer a quizzing approach over class questioning. If I were to use questioning, I would probably head down the mini-whiteboard route. All-aboard.

Why comprehension skills are a myth

Comprehension skills have typically been taught through pithy “skim and scan,” “find the main idea,” “make a prediction,” type approaches, taught and practiced in order to gain automaticity. Success remains largely improbable all the time the reader does not understand the meaning of the words, or the content or the context. Skim and scan all you like, search for the main idea, make predictions all you like… However, whether you are Hirschean or not, chief among the factors influencing reading comprehension is ‘background knowledge.’ It is a frame of reference, an anchor, that keeps us on the scent of understanding. It is critical in connecting the new, with the old, to construct an initial understanding of what we are reading, with what we already know. Now we are ready to comprehend. Applied knowledge and far from being a skill.

Here is what I propose:

Identify the words from the text that the pupils need to know to access and understand the text, then explicitly teach that vocabulary – build the word knowledge.

Signpost and make explicit the content and context knowledge pupils need to know to understand the text. Design questions or prompts that signpost pupils to think hard about key aspects of the text, so that pupils explore the invisible boundaries of comprehension.

How many pupils in Year 7 will know the meaning of

Exasperation (adj)A feeling of intense irritation or annoyance.03Vocab 1Bruno

When were you last left feeling exasperated? Why is Bruno exasperated? Who might he feel exasperated with?

Who will Bruno miss when he moves away from Berlin?Karl, Daniel and Martin

If not signposted, would pupils pay any attention to this casual reference? to Bruno’s friends? Bruno’s dwindling memory of his trio friends acts as a chronological marker for him leaving Berlin. To the point he cannot remember their names later on.

To understand ‘exasperation’ opens up the opportunity to comprehend Bruno’s relationship with his sister and his apparent lack of understanding of what is going on around him at ‘Out With.’ Let’s be efficient with class time. Teach the meaning of words or set learning the meaning of words as homework. Use class time to think hard and for comprehending the importance of the author’s vocabulary selection. Use class time to explore the significance, intricacies, interrelationships and implications or words employed. And if you know ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas,’ ‘exploration’ is critical knowledge.

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