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Comprehending comprehension

The results of the most recent international report on the state of Philippine education are dismal: Filipino students cannot comprehend what they read, even when they spend long hours in school. Moreover, remote learning has not improved the situation for the underprivileged: Students from educated families are best served by online schooling, but students from less-educated families are dropping out.

In recent years, there has been some work to help students score better on reading comprehension, which is often assessed with English-language texts. In Mother Tongue Language Instruction, non-native speakers learn English as a foreign language while studying other school subjects in the language that shaped their childhood. The system, adopted throughout the world, aims to help students understand English as a language so that they are not forced to translate a text while having to discover the text’s meaning simultaneously. While it has been used for a long while in the country, it is still not leading to better scores.

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In some countries, reading comprehension is taught using topics that students like, through books that students choose, which supposedly encourages them to read on their own later. Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute says otherwise: Recent research shows that comprehension increases not when students are interested in what they read per se, but when they first have strong foundational knowledge on what they are reading. This means they need instruction on topics such as the sciences and art, contributing to what the scholar E.D. Hirsch Jr. calls “cultural literacy.”

Hirsch’s work in education is groundbreaking. His 2003 paper explained the “fourth grade slump”: In the US, researchers found that students from low-income families tended to score lower on reading comprehension tests by the time they reached the 4th grade. The difference was more than just better nutrition. Students from high-income families tended to have reading fluency (wider vocabulary and knowledge of figures of speech) and cultural literacy (stronger foundational knowledge in all the sciences). They could read speedily through texts without having to figure out the meaning of individual words or what was being talked about, which allowed them more time to unearth the text’s meaning.

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Hirsch, therefore, recommended more instruction in all sciences and art because these subjects could help students know about other cultures, enrich their knowledge and vocabulary, and therefore help them read future texts better regardless of their home environment.

This point is important because research shows that encouraging home learning also helps students make the most out of school. Students from more affluent households travel, engage in cultural activities, and discuss ideas with their likewise educated parents. However, students from less privileged families rely on school alone for learning. Pondiscio’s words are most apt here: “By limiting [students’] reading to the topics and interests they already possessed, we imposed a form of illiteracy on them.”

In short: challenge students; teach beyond their interests; let a nuanced understanding of the world help them read better.

All these possible solutions will still have to fight against a society that silences the youth and teaches them not to express disagreement.

We are a country awash in information, and our students need to know how to distinguish truth from lies, to read, and understand honestly. Unfortunately, regardless of social class, many of our students today live in families that attack them for having different ideas, order them to obey, and shoot down opportunities to discuss opinions simply. These students are increasingly relying on school alone for education and emotional support.

We see the painful results of this approach in how people behave online: they react to quote cards and headlines without reading the complete article first; they refuse to read sources shared with them to help them understand an issue; they condemn those who question.

Perhaps, our country’s problem is not only low reading comprehension. It is a society that pounds subservience into children until they forget the liberation through knowledge that school once offered.

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TAGS: comprehension skills, Reading
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