Killing Them With Comprehension

Question Everything - Duncan Hull

Copyright Duncan Hull – Creative Commons License

Mr. Radley picked up students that irked him, transported them across the room dangling over his shoulder and dumped them in the trash. He plastered his bulletin boards with MTV posters, reeked like cigarettes AND somewhere between September and June he taught me to love literature.

Mr. Radley read books that had me hanging on every word uttered from under his handlebar moustache: My Bother Sam is Dead and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH figure heavily in my memory.

Interestingly, he didn’t ask a single comprehension question… ever. It was like going to the theater: soak in the performance, reflect if you want to… or don’t. This was my entry point to valuing literature.

Sure, I knew how to read. But I didn’t love it; and I don’t know that I would have learned it from Mr. Radley if he had concluded every chapter with an interrogation that progressed though the gamut of Bloom’s Taxonomy while addressing the Common Core Standards.

Maybe he slept through his undergrad literacy classes and didn’t know better. But I suspect that he consciously skipped compression questions to impart something about literacy that is all to often lost in reading instruction: pleasure.

This is the doorway to literacy for many children. Of late it has been buried under a mountain of curricular objectives and the crushing pressures of high stakes assessment. But the best teachers I know resist the political tides to open their students’ minds to the love of literature: just like Mr. Radley did.

So maybe, from time to time, teachers should transport comprehension questions dangling across the room and dump them in the trash in the name of literacy.

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9 thoughts on “Killing Them With Comprehension

  1. This is something I have found. As a Homeschool student, I don’t remember ever being asked comprehension questions. My mom or dad would ask me what my book was about, and I’d either tell them, or just say “oh, well, you know…” and keep on reading. It kind of depended on how interested I was in the book. My parents didn’t have a required reading list either. No list and no questions?! Sounds like anarchy to some, but I strongly believe that is how you cultivate a love of reading. It worked for me, and I think it would work for most children, if their educators would just let them love learning.

    Sorry, kind of a soap-box of mine. πŸ™‚

    • I totally agree! This would work for many kids; but testing pressure has greatly diminished this kind of teaching. There is a place for comprehension questions. (And I actually enjoy using them to push kids toward higher order thinking skills.) But questioning doesn’t have to be on the back end of every chapter & book.

  2. what a great post. come to think of it, I was allowed to enjoy reading for years and years before I was forced to over-analyze it in middle/high school. this allowed me to seek out better & better literature on my own, instead of relying on the core set of Western-centric novels that predominate reading lists in most classrooms.

    • Thanks you! It seems that very few people fall in love with literature due to their teachers’ ability to dissect it. Meanwhile if you just let kids enjoy some good books, they go head over heals and read on their own. I’m glad you had the opportunity!

  3. I don’t know how Mr. Radley did it. How was he able to go through so many books, read so many great stories, and tell them so tell in a way that captured my imagination and made them so memorable, even to this day?

    The book I remember him reading include:

    My Brother Sam Is Dead
    Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
    The Silver Crown
    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
    James and the Giant Peach
    Z for Zachariah
    The Bridge to Terabithia
    From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
    Across Five Aprils

    • I’m pretty sure he read for 30 minutes a day (sometimes more). BTW: Your memory is way better than mime. Now that you name some of the other books, I go, “Oh yeah, he read that one too!”

  4. Oh, I love this post, I love it! Like you, I fell in love with books partly because of one teacher. She taught fifth grade, and she read out loud every day. I remember “Amos Fortune” and “Johnny Tremain”. I read aloud now, every day, to my fifth grade students, and I have to force myself to stop for those damn questions. And the kids often beg me, before read aloud time, “Can we just listen today, please? Can you PLEASE not stop?” I read City of Ember out loud, and three of my reluctant readers went on to read the rest of the series on their own.

    • Thanks! I know how your (and my) students feel when they ask you not to stop! Read Alouds peppered with questions are like going to a movie theater but stopping the film every 5 minutes to make sure the audience understand the setting, conflict, characters… blaa, blaa, blaa. I know my students are thinking, “Shut up and get back to the story!”

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