Reading Comprehension as an Asset

— Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor on

Last November, the New York Times published an opinion piece titled How to Get Your Mind to Read. Since we’re all about reading here at Owl Eyes, we eagerly devoured the post. Since many of the recommendations for improving reading comprehension are an active part of our work, I’d like to relay several of the key points in the article here. Leave a comment if you have any other recommendations!

Comprehension Requires Broad Vocabulary and Factual Knowledge

At first glance, this recommendation appears obvious. Of course we need vocabulary and factual knowledge to comprehend what we read. However, the article points out that classrooms that focus almost exclusively on literacy skills to the detriment of other subject areas are not benefiting students.

The article suggests that spending more time on other subject areas—such as current events, history, science, music, etc.—will aid reading comprehension because students will not only expand their vocabulary, but they’ll also gain a broader field of factual knowledge.

This is one of the reasons why we focus so much on historical context and vocabulary annotation analysis on Owl Eyes. Many of the allusions in Jane Eyre or the philosophy of Crime and Punishment are difficult to understand without having the vocabulary or factual knowledge to follow Brontë’s and Dostoevsky’s ideas.

All Texts Have Information Gaps Readers Must Fill

Less experienced readers often expect the writer to provide them with all the knowledge they need in a given passage. This impression isn’t necessarily wrong: many tests expect students to answer questions from a text without considering the knowledge gap between writer and reader.

The writers can’t include everything for us, and so when they “write for their audience,” they are counting on readers to help decode meaning. This shows up in allusions and references, which rely on a common, shared knowledge.

At Owl Eyes, we strive to help readers gain access to these information gaps to bolster their understanding of allusions and references. As enjoyable as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is, without an understanding of Eliot’s allusions, students will find themselves reading the poem but failing to fully comprehend it.

Reading Comprehension Is More Than Just a General Skill

This claim really got me thinking about our teaching approaches. The article relates a misunderstanding with current education practices, which claim that reading comprehension should be treated “like a general skill that can be applied with equal success to all texts.” The article illustrates the impact of this misunderstanding, sharing evidence that test scores haven’t improved in 30 years. However, as discussed above, with the information gaps and broad knowledge required, reading comprehension is much more than just a simple one-size-fits-all skill.

We need to shift our attitudes from reading as a skill to reading as an asset. When we can fully accept the complexity of developing reading comprehension, our goals forward for curriculum and lessons are to focus on the relationships among texts. Reading is a skill that is in constant development, with no ceiling. We as educators need to look to present reading comprehension to students as an asset that will grow over time with thoughtful practice.

Proposed Changes in Teaching Reading Comprehension

The article concludes by proposing three significant changes in our school systems:

  • “First, [significant changes point] to decreasing the time spent on literacy instruction in early grades.”
  • “Second, understanding the importance of knowledge to reading ought to make us think differently about year-end standardized tests.”
  • “Third, the systematic building of knowledge must be a priority in curriculum design. The Common Core Standards for reading specify nearly nothing by way of content that children are supposed to know—the document valorizes reading skills.”

Owl Eyes supports these proposed changes. We hope that our annotations and analysis help students expand their vocabularies, build their knowledge bases, and draw connections among texts, all practices integral to becoming better, more conscientious readers.

So while we could blame modern technology and discreditable news sources for our poor reading, this simply ignores the main issues. The NYT article says that we should blame ignorance in failing to appropriately teach reading comprehension. I’d like to go a step further and offer that we should make changes by re-evaluating how we approach the teaching of reading comprehension.

Let’s not only focus on institutional changes in curriculum but also model this behavior ourselves. Doing so will help us all better understand how our minds comprehend what we read, and this knowledge will allow us to develop more appropriate approaches, methods, and tests for our students. Only this will help give our students the necessary tools to change their reading for the better.