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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Once they can decode ...

Once students can sound out words, the next step is teaching comprehension, writes Matt Bardin on The 74. Once a middle and high school English teacher, he's worked as a tutor for 25 years. He sees many 11th-graders prepping for the SAT or ACT who can't understand complex texts. They guess.

Students need vocabulary and background knowledge, Bardin writes. It's no help to read "free" and "markets," if the reader doesn't know what "free markets" are.

He also teaches "conscious reading" by "turning words into images and meanings."

When Zora Neal Hurston writes, “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board,” students can picture the ships, but most need help with "every man's wish." Bardin has "seen more than a few students" skip over "wishes" and conclude that "Hurston is talking about a bunch of men on ships."

Once students start consciously forming images and meanings as they read, they must follow punctuation, pronouns and transitions to continuously track what the author wanted them to understand. Here’s the full Hurston quote: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time.” If you understood, you did so because your mind tracked the contrast implied by “for some” and “for others” and got that “they” meant “ships,” and that “some” and “others” meant “some men” and “other men.”

"Most people, particularly school-aged children, need explicit instruction and practice to achieve such facility," Bardin writes.

I once tutored a sixth-grade girl, an immigrant from Guatemala, who read a story about Helen Keller without realizing she was blind and deaf. When I told her, the girl was astounded. We went back to a passage in which Helen felt the floorboards move as her family prepared for her new teacher's arrival. My student's eyes lit up. It felt like pumping water on her and signing "water."

Robert Pondiscio calls for a science of reading comprehension movement, citing a statement by the Knowledge Matters campaign on the need to build on foundational skills, such as decoding:

Foundational skills are literally meaningless unless readers can make sense of words and texts. This sense-making requires knowledge that must be systematically built (not just activated!) through instructional experiences and curricula that evoke curiosity and the desire to learn more.

When Pondiscio taught fifth grade in a low-performing South Bronx school, most of his students could decode but struggled with comprehension," he writes. "The issue was not lack of student engagement, culturally relevant pedagogy,' or our failure to get students to fall in love with books, which New Yorker writer Jessica Winter eviscerates as "vibes-based literacy." It was the inevitable result of an education that was, as I’ve written elsewhere, all mirrors and no windows."

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Dec 06, 2022

Hurston's passage is lovely, but for most readers it is so allusive as to represent the most difficult type of challenge in comprehension. I would settle for students being able to understand a daily newspaper or the instructions on how to use a household cleaning product.


Dec 02, 2022

So, I'm not sure about "teaching comprehension." I think the core knowledge folks have it right --- teach content rich curriculum, and encourage beginning readers to sound out words and say them out loud and read with expression while reading to them from things about their reading level The comprehension comes along with the ability to sound things out, if they have knowledge. And teach them to use a dictionary. At higher grades I tell my kids that if they are approaching an unfamiliar subject, they should read a children's book on it first, just to learn the vocab and the broad picture of things. It's a great hack for middle and high school kids. And finally, MAGIC TREE HOUSE. Seriously.…


Dec 02, 2022

Yes, the Zora Neal Hurston analogy is very dated and will be hard for anyone born after 1950 to really feel without a lot of work. Even then it is a poor analogy. And I say that as someone who went to see and can viscerally feel themselves on board one of those ships.

Many things is old writings are now lost to in the modern experience. Consider this about the horse culture of 1900 (written in 1950) and think of how a student born in 1980 might fathom such a reality when reading a story with horse and buggy travel:

But horses were everywhere, pulling surreys, democrats, buggies, cabs, delivery wagons of every sort on Main Street, and pulling…
Dec 02, 2022
Replying to

Lovely, but there was also the oppressive stench of horse manure and urine everywhere.

Ann in L.A.

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