In his analysis of reading teaching and testing, E D Hirsch laments the tedious and ineffective focus on building ‘comprehension strategies’ that has developed over recent decades. It is based on the idea that there such as a thing as a formal, abstract skill of comprehension which can be learned in isolation from subject matter. Hirsch points out that once pupils have fluent decoding skills, their comprehension skills are not based on any such mythical skill, but on their general knowledge. The ability to understand a broad range of texts, such as those in American SAT tests, and in the new English Language GCSE, is based on general knowledge. The conclusion is obvious. We improve comprehension by improving knowledge, not by repeatedly doing tedious exercises in comprehension: ‘if you cannot predict a valid reading test, how can you prepare for it? You can’t, and therefore you shouldn’t try. You should prepare for a reading test indirectly, by becoming a good reader of a broad range of texts — an ability that requires broad general knowledge.’ (The Knowledge Deficit, p102).
Would that this were understood and applied by primary teachers and English teachers across the land. Then they, and their pupils, could be liberated from the curse of endless comprehension worksheets, and could instead spend their time on actually learning something.
But thanks to mistaken ideas about transferrable skills, pupils are subjected to random squibs of fiction and non-fiction and asked fiddly questions about them. Over and over and over again. Their exercise books fill up with laborious answers and great big piles of lovely marking are generated, so that the earnest and conscientious teacher can write all over it about how wrong their answers are. Again. And put some motivational stickers in there too, in the hope that that will magically enable them to understand better next time.
But they won’t understand better next time, because their precious time is being wasted. They are not working on the one thing that genuinely does improve general reading comprehension: proper, coherent subject knowledge.
Comprehension worksheets are an anti-educational bane. They waste countless hours of pupils’ and teachers’ time, giving the impression that lots of work is being done. But precious little is being learned. Hirsch points out that pupils develop knowledge and vocabulary, the two elements needed for good comprehension, far more effectively when there is a consistent focus for a period of time on one area of study (see The Knowledge Deficit, p79). Another dire effect of the comprehension worksheet cult is that it breaks up reading into countless little bits of unrelated material. Typical English language textbooks do the same thing.
So bin the worksheets and the dreary, fragmentary and formalist textbooks, and spend time reading a decent book, or studying a coherent body of subject knowledge. If you want the subject knowledge to be Englishy, why not start introducing pupils to an outline history of English literature? Why should our children be deprived of the knowledge of who Chaucer is, or Austen or Dickens? The sooner they start finding out about this glorious heritage, the better. If you can’t quite remember when Chaucer was born, then find out and get it memorised! It will be a wonderfully enriching experience for you too.
You’ll find that your pupils are very happy that English lessons have ceased to be a vague and irritating abstract puzzle, and have turned into classes where they are actually learning something. And the more they know, the better they will read. I’ll leave you with Hirsch’s wise words:
Those who develop language arts programs at the school level or in publishing houses need to understand that the skills they wish to impart are in fact knowledge-drenched and knowledge-constituted. The happy consequence will be reading programs that are much more absorbing, enjoyable, and interesting than the disjointed, pedestrian programs offered to students today. (The Knowledge Deficit, p79)