Comprehension is often overlooked, but it's a fundamental English Skill. In this article, Matrix Teacher and Tutor Caitlin O'Brien discusses why comprehension skills are so important to develop.
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Students often overestimate their comprehension skills and underestimate their importance. In this article, I’ll discuss the 4 common comprehension mistakes that students make and show you how not to make the same mistakes.
Comprehension is the ability to understand something. In English, comprehension involves reading a text and understanding the plot, events, and characters. Comprehension combines your reading skills with your reasoning and critical thinking skills.
To nail comprehension, however, we need to express our understanding clearly and effectively so we can show others our understanding of a text.
In this sense, comprehension becomes more of a process than just an outcome. This is why it is a skill you can develop for when you sit exams.
Comprehension skills are tested in short answer exams such as NAPLAN’s Reading Section and the HSC Paper 1, or in comprehension questions that require students to analyse unseen texts.
Comprehension is a very important skill as it helps us understand ideas and then communicate these ideas effectively to others. In English, NESA asks students to:
“…constructively analyse and evaluate their own and others’ compositions and…articulate their response to texts and to the process and experience of composing. Students reflect on their learning, becoming aware of how they learn and identifying what they have learned, effective ways to learn and what they need to learn next.”
Comprehension is a skill that’s transferable outside of English too – in Art, we might need to comprehend why an artist has used a particular colour scheme in their artwork, and in Science we need to comprehend how glass prisms bend and separate light.
When we read newspaper articles and features articles we need to apply our comprehension skills. We need to be able to read and comprehend the key information in the articles we read and then apply our critical thinking skills to make judgements on the accuracy or authority of them.
Your studies at university, which may seem a long way off now, will build on the comprehension skills you start developing when you were much younger as you read academic articles and process their findings and arguments.
When we move into the workforce, we have to comprehend the tasks assigned to us in order to complete them.
Now that we know how important comprehension is, let’s look at four ways to improve your skills:
Active reading is different from leisurely reading – it’s more engaging than just passively reading and letting the information fall into your hands. So what happens when you don’t actively read?
Let’s take a look at a case study.
In her Year 7 Topic Test, Tabatha* skim read a poem that described how sunflowers bloom in Spring in big bundles, but wilt in winter all alone. The poem ends with the poet using the first person to address how alive they feel when they are with their friends, but how isolated they feel when they’re alone.
When Tabatha was asked the comprehension question ‘What do the sunflowers symbolise?”, she wrote that the sunflowers represent how sunflowers grow in light but die in the cold. Tabatha did not get full marks for this response.
Why not? She didn’t look beyond the literal meaning of the text.
What should she have done?
If Tabatha had actively read the poem in her exam, she might have picked up on the deeper meaning of the poem and could have received a higher mark.
To do this, she could have read the poem with a pen in her hand and annotated the poem as she read. She could have asked the following questions as she read:
Remember, if you’re watching a film or listening to an audio text, you can still ‘actively read.’
How? Write your annotations on a notepad and note down why you think that part was important. Make sure that you jot down the time stamp (the time in the film where the scene or moment occurs) so you can revisit those parts of the clip later on.
You should always read actively in exams.
In fact, in comprehension tasks, you get told what to ask yourself when you read the text!
Yes! the questions for the test are the questions you should ask while you read.
Reading a text out loud builds confidence and helps us understand parts of the text that we might have missed if we had just read the words on a page.
In my Year 8 class, Christian* wrote a T.E.E statement responding to an extract from the novel, Animal Farm (1945), which was a speech from the character Squealer the Pig:
“Comrades!’ he cried. ‘You do not imagine, I hope, that we pigs are doing this in a spirit of selfishness and privilege? Many of us actually dislike milk and apples. I dislike them myself. Our sole object in taking these things is to preserve our health. Milk and apples (this has been proved by Science, comrades) contain substances absolutely necessary to the well-being of a pig. We pigs are brainworkers. The whole management and organisation of this farm depend on us. Day and night we are watching over your welfare. It is for your sake that we drink the milk and eat those apples.”
When Christian was asked, ‘How does this extract characterise Squealer?’, Christian wrote ‘It characterises Squealer as important’.
This response lacked depth, so I asked Christian to read the extract out loud to understand it a little better.
Once Christian spoke with an exclaimed tone (as marked by the “!” in the first line) and with a motivational voice, he found the extract more engaging. Reading aloud helped him understand that Squealer would be better characterised as a motivational, convincing, and influential character in Animal Farm.
Why does this work? Performing texts enables us to better engage with the events in them.
Think about how engaging stories and texts can be when you hear someone read them out loud! You can learn so much more about a text by giving characters’ voices in their dialogue, emphasising a pause in a novel or recreating the stage directions in a play.
You can’t read your text loud in an exam. You’d get in trouble.
But that doesn’t mean that you can’t read it silently, subvocalise it, or mouth it to yourself. Even going through the motions of a performance, like a mime, will give you a good sense of the emotions and meaning bound up in a text.
Performance, even seated, stationary, and silent performance will help you get inside an unseen text in ways that just reading it won’t.
Summaries help you consider a text as a whole while exploring specific aspects of them. When making a summary, you need to make a decision about what information is important and why. Summarising also forces you to infer information from what the text you are engaging with.
Imagine someone has asked you to explain what the text you are studying is about. What would you say? You obviously wouldn’t recount the entire story word for word – you would have to summarise this information.
Summaries teach us to extract pertinent information as if we were going to convey the key points to somebody else.
So, how can we effectively summarise? Let’ look at how Ziyan developed his comprehension skills by learning to summarise.
In our Year 7 class, Ziyan* was asked to explain what the moral of the story was for The Tortoise and the Hare. Ziyan said that the Hare challenged the Tortoise to a running race because the Hare was bragging about how fast he was. Ziyan then said the Hare and the Tortoise had a running race and the Hare was winning but then the Hare took a nap and the Tortoise ended up winning because the Hare was overly confident in his skills.
Ziyan had a good understanding of the text but failed to mention what the moral of the story was. I asked Ziyan what they thought was the key message that the story was trying to tell and to say it in less than ten words.
Here, Ziyan understood that they had to summarise the text into its main idea, and said that the moral of the story was to not be selfish and conceited.
Summarising requires you to figure out what is important to the text (such as the main events, important characters or key ideas) and articulate this to another person. You can practice this with a teacher, class peer or a sibling – what matters is that the main ideas are communicated to the other person or people.
You may not have time to write a detailed summary of an unseen text in an exam, but you can make some quick dot points.
We’ve discussed active reading, already. What you must do is combine these two skills.
Asking questions doesn’t mean you’re bad at English, it means that you are engaging with the text and can identify reasons why a composer has made certain choices! Asking questions is one of the best ways of learning.
While you can’t literally ask a text questions or interrogate a book, you can pose questions about the content of the text as if you were speaking to the composer.
You can ask simple questions such as ‘what is the setting?’, but follow it with more specific questions like ‘what does this setting say about the book?’ We ask these questions because all texts are created with a purpose or meaning behind them, and it’s our job as students to pick up on a composer’s clues in order to understand their intended purpose.
Tristan’s experience is a good example of how asking questions can improve your English skills.
In our Year 7 class, we were looking at descriptive language in J.R.R. Tolkein’s famous fantasy adventure book, The Hobbit. Tristan* read out a description of one of the characters in the book, Smaug the Dragon:
There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber.
Beneath him, under all his limbs and his huge coiled tail, and about him on all sides stretching away across the unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light.
Smaug lay, with wings folded like an immeasurable bat, turned partly on one side, so that the hobbit could see his underparts and his long pale belly crusted with gems and fragments of gold from his long lying on his costly bed.
When I asked the class how this description characterises Smaug the Dragon, Tristan said that the dragon is characterised as being sleepy and red.
Whilst this was true to a degree, it wasn’t a very developed answer.
I asked Tristan, ‘what does the colour red represent?’
He noted that red represents a number of emotions, including passion, power and evil. I then told the class to ‘picture a big, red dragon lying on top of a huge pile of gold, gems and jewels. What does this say about the dragon’s relationship to this treasure?’
Tristan understood that Smaug the Dragon prized treasure and hoarded all the gold and jewels because he wanted power. We then characterised Smaug as powerful, selfish and greedy.
So, by ‘asking the text questions’, we can comprehend the meaning of the text better.
Don’t be afraid to get creative with your questions:
You might not have realised until now, but these are all comprehension questions! Here you have read and understood the text and you are testing your comprehension by asking the text questions.
If you’re reading actively and summarising as you go, you’re already on your way to developing good analysis in exam. But it can always be deeper.
When you’re sitting a test or exam, you want to take your initial responses to questions and use your findings to explore the deeper meaning in the text.
Consider asking questions about the following:
Remember, insightful responses always look beyond the superficial parts of a text.
*Names have been altered.