Curriculum and reading comprehension

An effective school curriculum is one that centres on comprehension. 

Wanting to understand the world around us is possibly the strongest driver of education. Comprehension is defined as the capacity of the mind to perceive and understand the information it receives, and it is irrefutable that the implications for poor comprehension are severe. In the modern curriculum, the dominant mediums for delivering information (teacher) include speaking and writing, which for the receiver (student), becomes listening and reading. Reading comprehension then is one of the most important skills for any subject, and yet, unless there are clear and obvious issues with reading, in most settings, its development is often ignored, assumed to be the remit of the English team. I believe that a large opportunity is missed when reading comprehension is not a continuous school wide focus. 

Recently Anthony Radice posited understandably that the GCSE English Language exam is an invalid test, as it doesn’t achieve what it intends: a measurement of competent comprehension of typical language use. The reason for the invalidity stems around the idea of ‘what is typical’, which has two points of contention: firstly, students are disadvantaged if some of the vocabulary within the text chosen is ‘not’ typical to them, but unknown, and secondly, even if they know the meaning of a word, if they don’t have sufficient domain knowledge (context) connected to the word they again are disadvantaged from comprehending the text completely. The comprehension then ostensibly appears compromised, and is punished by the grade it then attracts. Has the test then achieved its purpose? Can we say that the poor result is because of poor comprehension? It seems doubtful.

The first issue can be alleviated with a glossary: 

Take for example this sentence: The rudder was destroyed, and they knew what that meant for them. Now, without knowing what ‘rudder’ means, a student is faced with ambiguity. She could infer that there is impending danger, or that is it a celebratory moment, as though an enemy is defeated. Providing the definition would help enormously. *

The second issue however, needs general knowledge of the world the word is connected to. Take as an example this sentence: They looked at each other as the sun slowly set on the moors. Not knowing what the moors are detracts significantly from the meaning of the sentence. Initially, the reader may believe it is a romantic setting, provided they had previous exposure to the idea of sunsets being linked to romance. The ambiguity isn’t really relieved if they are told the meaning of moor: open overgrown wastelands. The reader needs to understand the context of such an environment to really appreciate the situation. Having the context or domain knowledge tells us the characters could be exposed to dangerous animals, or more likely, they will be exposed to seriously low temperatures due to the high altitude of a moor. The characters would thus be worried. A glossary simply can’t provide the amount of necessary background clues. The domain knowledge is lacking and prevents an accurate interpretation of the sentence, but the consequence again is an invalid conclusion about a student’s comprehension – it’s more that we can establish that the student has never heard of the moors before.  Importantly then, as David Didaustates, this should prevent the natural assumption that the poor response reflects on the intelligence of the student.

So what is the answer? Will boards of education remove the exam? It is unlikely at this stage. So what can schools do to improve the domain knowledge and vocabulary of its students to reduce the possibility that they won’t understand the meaning of sentences in English exams? The answer relies on a school’s commitment to the role comprehension plays in every subject and not just English. Currently many schools employ a school wide literacy strategy that impinges on other subjects, but they often appear to be primarily for the sake of boosting English GSCE scores. However, as described in the introduction, every subject relies on good reading comprehension, and with the ubiquitous move to end of course exams, even in vocational subjects, it has perhaps never been more pertinent. 

With the benefits being clear, it would seem like good practice for ALL subjects to embed a reading comprehension element in most lessons, thereby exposing students to as much reading and checking for understanding as possible in all of their subjects, throughout all of their secondary schooling. Hirsch suggests ‘An ideal language program is a knowledge program. It is a program that anchors and consolidates word meaning in the students’ minds by virtue of their knowing what the words actually refer to.’ He continues ‘We should immerse students for extended periods in the sorts of coherent language experiences that are most conducive to efficient vocabulary learning.’

This does not simply mean personal reading, such as the in vogue ‘Drop Everything and Read’ strategy. Whilst some domain knowledge can be inferred, pragmatically, in a reduced time context, domain knowledge really needs to be explicitly taught. Students could be given a 10 minute reading task every 2ndlesson based on the relevant subject. The text would take 5 minutes to read and discuss (on board so no paper needed), and 5 minutes to answer 3 – 4 questions. The discussion would be crucial in explaining domain knowledge and key vocabulary. Designing the tasks needn’t be an exhausting or intrusive (on the syllabus) process, with teachers basing texts on lesson content. Many subjects already probably do this, but may only require a slight adjustment in focus that deliberately extends vocabulary and general knowledge. 

Solomon Kingsnorth shares a well thought out explanation as to why he is changing his school’s approach to reading comprehension here.

Doug Lemov has some good ideas about developing vocabulary within your questioning. Say you’ve just read a text on the environment in science. A suitable challenging question could be: 

  • If someone was adamant about helping the environment, what’s something they might do? This type of question embeds high-level vocab whilst checking for understanding of the text. The vocab would be explicitly discussed before the question is answered. Ideally, the word would be used again in a few lessons’ time to strengthen the memory of its use. 
  • History: what were some causes of Hitler’s imperiousviews?
  • PSHE: If a classmate was described as ‘easily influenced‘ would that be a compliment? Why or why not?

The EEF has some strategies for teachers to use in strengthening comprehension here.

Over time, the number of topics read would be extraordinary in number, considering how many lessons in a week students could be exposed to information.

The cultural capital gained from this school wide approach would significantly improve students general domain knowledge, and therefore their reading comprehension, and as a by-product, significantly reduce the possibility that students taking English Language GCSE exams would be unable to understand a text based on a particular context; they would have likely had some exposure to it at some point in time. This coupled with providing a glossary for vocabulary in texts would help to make the exams more valid.  

Of course, if students read for pleasure outside of school, most of the issues would disappear. In the modern world however, this ideal unfortunately appears to be moving closer to utopia than reality. The imperative for schools to provide the opportunities for students to read have never been more important.

* Simply providing a glossary however also has issues, primarily related to the extra cognitive load required in processing the new information. This of course detracts from the fluency of the reading, and ultimately takes longer for the student to engage with the meaning.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me @edmerger

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