Why don’t we teach reading comprehension like we teach mathematics?


Let’s imagine that we ask a 6-year-old child to perform “contained” subtraction for the first time, without having explained to him how it is done. It is evident that he could not do it, since to solve this operation it is necessary that someone teach him how to perform it. The concept of carrying is explained, then simple examples are shown where the steps to follow are explained and modeled and, then, you are asked to solve operations of increasing difficulty until you are able to solve them autonomously.

Let’s imagine another situation: a child, who we have not even taught to detect the main idea of ​​a text, is asked to make a summary. How would he do it? This situation does not seem as obvious as the previous one but the truth is that, in the same way, we would be asking the student for something that we have not taught him. Therefore, it is expected that his response will not be appropriate.

While no one would think of asking a child to perform subtraction or a square root without having been taught it first, in reading comprehension we ask him or her to choose the summary that best explains a text or to detect information that is not explicit in the text. the text (make inferences) without having explained what a summary is or how that implicit information is deduced.

The approach of the Language book

This occurs in part due to the treatment of the topic proposed by almost all Language textbooks. In each teaching unit or topic, a part is dedicated to reading comprehension, in most cases it consists of presenting a text and some questions about it. Therefore, the child who has understood the text will answer them well and the child who has not understood it will not be able to answer them. In short, understanding is not taught, but understanding is evaluated.

In addition, Language textbooks usually have the following problems:

  1. Use and abuse of literal questions that induce students to carry out a superficial reading since the answer appears explicitly in the text.
  2. Most narrative type texts when research highlights the importance of teaching the structure of expository texts because they are much more complex.
  3. High percentage of questions that appear in the reading comprehension section that are not even related to said skill. For example, the activity “point out the words in the text that are written with b- or v-” can help if we want to improve spelling, but what relationship does it have with reading comprehension? What skill are you teaching that will help you better understand the text?

A skill that can be taught

But this teaching approach is not unique to textbooks; Many materials supposedly aimed at improving reading comprehension follow this same orientation of a text with questions. I invite the reader to do a quick search on the Internet about “activities to improve reading comprehension” and you will be able to verify that the materials you find have a similar structure.

With this teaching approach, do we expect our students to understand well what they are reading? While it is true that there is a percentage of students who develop comprehension strategies spontaneously, another group of children needs to be taught. Specifically in Spain, data from reports such as PIRLS show that 25% of Spanish students have a low or very low level (25th percentile or lower) in reading comprehension; In the Latin American countries that have participated in the report, Argentina and Chile, they are 83% and 87% respectively. The data for other European countries is 27% in France or 25% in Portugal. In contrast, some Nordic countries, such as Finland, show 16%.

On the other hand, in my experience in dealing with active Primary Education teachers, they agree that almost 50% of their students do not understand well what they read.

What can we do?

We must begin by eliminating erroneous ideas such as that to improve inferential capacity it is enough to ask them to answer some inferential questions or that to work on the summary they have to make one from a text. Let’s remember, that is assessing understanding, not teaching it.

To improve reading comprehension, it is essential to teach strategies in such a way as to:

  1. Systematics: it is necessary to include it regularly in our teaching practice. If you work in isolation and without continuity it will not have any effect on the students. It must be part of the programming of each course.
  2. Explicit: from the first moment we must make explicit what objective we are pursuing (for example: today we are going to learn to distinguish the main ideas from the secondary ones) and, in addition, it must be made explicit the procedure to follow.
  3. Evidence-based: the contents of the strategies must be those that the research indicates are related to the comprehension problems. Among the most important are making inferences, monitoring or controlling comprehension, the structures of expository texts, vocabulary and detecting the main idea.

And how should we implement them? To answer this question we just have to think about how we teach any mathematical concept: square roots, the least common multiple, operations with fractions… Let’s analyze what we do:

  1. The teacher explains the objective that we are going to learn today and offers conceptual knowledge about it.
  2. Make an example for all students where you explain the steps to follow to solve the activity.
  3. Provides students with a summary step-by-step guide to support them during the learning process.
  4. The students begin to solve an example of the same complexity that the teacher has done.
  5. The teacher corrects and helps to resolve the errors that have been observed.
  6. The difficulty of the activities is increased and the process is supervised until the student is autonomous.

Practical case

This procedure would be identical for teaching comprehension strategies. Let’s see an example with inferential questions:

  1. We explain that we are going to learn to understand what the texts want to tell us but that the author has not written. You can introduce the concept of inferences and explain what they are with examples.
  2. The teacher reads a short text where there is inferential information and presents the contrast between a literal and an inferential question. He explains the procedure to be able to answer it by looking for clues that appear in other places in the text.
  3. The teacher offers a summary that will remain visible in class of what literal questions and inferential questions are and how we can look for clues to answer them.
  4. Another text of similar difficulty is read aloud and students have to, first, classify the questions into literal and inferential; second, identify the clues that lead them to answer the inferences; and third, answer the inferential questions.
  5. The teacher supervises and corrects errors and difficulties that arise in the group.
  6. After a few sessions, the complexity of the texts and the necessary inference will increase until the skill is consolidated.

Although many boys and girls have problems understanding what they read, the good news is that that can change; Research has given us the keys to know what is and what is not effective.

We need to stop testing reading comprehension. without first teaching it through strategies that affect the fundamental contents.

Author Bio: Grace Jimenez Fernandez is a University Professor in the Department of Evolutionary and Educational Psychology at the University of Granada