To comprehend or not to comprehend

reading image

I blogged last week about what reading can do to your brain – and the importance of comprehension. That’s why it’s important when children are learning to read – all through their schooling – to talk to them about their reading – to ask them questions about the text. This can help to push and deepen your child’s understanding of what they’re reading. I’m not saying they should be grilled on every book – the idea is not to turn them off reading, and they may look at you a little impatiently if you pounce on every book they read for pleasure – but a general discussion on the book may help them to think about it more clearly.

Of course you can ask them if they know what certain words mean – writers quite often play with ‘names’ of characters as well and checking that they know what ‘arable’ means may help them understand, or even just appreciate the irony, of Mrs Arable’s name in Charlotte’s Web by EB White. How about Matilda Wormwood in Matilda by Roald Dahl – her family name is another word for bitterness. There’s a reason Frances Hodgson Burnett chose the name ‘Mary’ for her character in The Secret Garden – those with knowledge of nursery rhymes will understand: “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?”

For younger readers you may be asking questions to which the answers are obviously in the text, such as to recap the sequence of events. But then you can start looking at the inference – or as I put it to them – the secret code behind the words. These are questions which probe behind the obvious – behind what’s ‘shown’ to the reader in the text. My favourite picture books that teach inference are I Want my Hat Back by Jon Klassen – read the book and then ask the child what happened to the rabbit. Shh I Have a Plan by Chris Haughton needs careful attention to the pictures to see what’s going to happen – the text is scant. Please Mr Panda by Steve Antony doesn’t spell out why Mr Panda is so reticent to give some animals a doughnut – the clue’s in the title.

Inference questions can also lead the reader to pull out the emotion behind a scene as well as the implied consequences. Even the youngest child can do this if the book is discussed rather than just read.

To go even further with older readers, you can open it out to a full-blown discussion about reading – is the story moralistic, does it pull on a reader’s personal experience of something, does it compare to something else they have read, is it trying to say something other than just tell a story? What opinion do you have of the character’s actions, the story as a whole?

When the readers get to the age of exams and comprehensions, it can be a delightful discovery to nit-pick passages of great storytelling prose, like a mini course in studying the classics. For those involved in the #2016classicschallenge (reading classic books during 2016), looking at exam papers is like sampling a taster menu.

Going through a small extract makes the reader look carefully at the writer’s precise choice of words, not something that children usually do when they’re reading for pleasure. Reading for enjoyment tends to involve page-turning – a sumptuous ride through the pages of a plot to find out what’s going to happen next in the story – that’s natural. Most children tend to think that poetry is more suited for dissecting – for looking at the choice of words and the emotions they elicit.

But passages of prose can be equally painstakingly written. Dissecting the passage in Oliver Twist following Bill Sikes’ murder of Nancy, the reader can explore the thrill of seeking out how Dickens portrays guilt, playing beautifully with imagery of light and dark as the sun reveals the extent of the crime:

“It lighted up the room where the murdered woman lay. It did. He tried to shut it out, but it would stream in. If the sight had been a ghastly one in the dull morning, what was it, now in all that brilliant light!” (Chapter 48, Oliver Twist)

Dickens also shows Bill’s frantic state of mind, the horror of the deed, his to-ing and fro-ing, his sleeplessness, his inability to eat or drink – all implications of his guilt.

I first read Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy with a gripped delight and page-turning fury, whipping through Lyra’s compelling adventure with a hurried urgency. Yet examining a piece in detail, Northern Lights Chapter Six, shows just why it was such a gripping read. The prose sings with carefully crafted words. Pausing again over vocabulary such as ‘snicked’, juxtaposing ‘spitting’ and ‘cuddling’ in the same sentence, and the force of verbs including ‘launching’, ‘bowling’, ‘tangling’, ‘dodging,’ ‘darting’ consecutively in the extract. The words themselves are exciting, but put together they add up to something captivating and enthralling.

Once you start to delve into the book, and work out what questions it makes you ask, and how it makes you feel – a whole new appreciation and level of understanding of literature starts to emerge. And for those students preparing for comprehensions, literature exams, I hope that, as well as acing your exam, the extract you’re given spurs you into revisiting it, but this time in the book in which it was intended to sit – as part of a longer piece of outstanding storytelling.