Is Reading the Wrong Way Round? Pt. 1

“Nothing is better than reading and gaining more and more knowledge.” 
Stephen Hawking


Failing to Make a Ratatouille

I love to cook. You’re unlikely to see me on Masterchef making aubergine foam or textures of carrot sixteen ways any time soon, but I’ve picked up a few skills along the way that have made me a better cook. These are a few things I’ve learned.

Preparation is key. I’ve learned to embraced mis en place. I get out every pan and utensil I need. I chop, peel, slice and dice every ingredient before I start. It means I’m not rushing around and am less likely to let things burn or boil over.

Master your tools. I’m now a dab hand with a knife. I’ve learned that chefy rocking motion, knuckles in to avoid slicing off my fingers. I can slice up a carrot or onion in seconds. I know when and how to use my stainless steel, cast iron and non-stick surfaces for the best results.

Temperature matters. I know to preheat pans before putting in oil, to preheat the oven, to take things out of the fridge half an hour earlier to bring them up to room temperature.

Master basic technique. I can sear and sauté, braise and blanch, roast and rest.

Taste and season. I taste often. A sprinkle of salt, a twist of pepper or a squeeze of lemon can turn a bland dish into  a culinary delight.

Warm plates. Nobody wants to eat food that’s gone cold.

It’s all useful stuff and has made me a better cook. But if you asked me to make osso buco or miso black cod (both dishes I love to eat) I wouldn’t know where to begin. The skills I’ve picked up along the years have improved my general cooking ability, but they tell me nothing about how to cook these specific dishes. The skills are too generic to be helpful enough. To make these dishes, I’d need to know some specifics such as the range and quantity of ingredients. I’d need to know how these ingredients should be cooked, how they react to heat, how long they need to be cooked for, at what temperatures they might burn. I’d need to know the sequence to work through the dish.

And continuing to practice my generalised cooking skills ad infinitum will never teach me how to make that osso buco.

Unfortunately, the teaching of reading in too many classrooms is like teaching children how to hold a knife correctly lesson after lesson after lesson and wondering why they can’t make that ratatouille yet.


Fava Beans and Chianti?

I showed these two sentences to a group of trainee teachers recently.

In October, Hannibal led 48,000 men over the Alps. Only 26,000 made it through.

I asked them to make infer why only 26,000 might have made it through. The first suggestion, delivered with a genuine deadpan straightness, was that they had been eaten. I calmly explained that the Hannibal in question was not Mr. Lecter. And if it were, he’d need  a lake full of chianti to wash that meal down.

If you want to make any successful inferences here, you are going to need to bring a little knowledge to the table.

Knowing a little history would be useful. Knowing that the Hannibal in question is Barca, the famed Carthaginian general. Knowing that Carthage and Rome were at the war in the second Punic War. This knowledge dates things. You might know the precise date, 218 BCE, or you might be able to give it a ball park figure, a couple of thousand years ago. Either way, you know they were on foot, which matters – it makes the journey all the more arduous. And getting the right Hannibal leads us to infer ‘soldiers’ from the more general ‘men’ – you might even know that they were attacked by Gallic tribes (first the Allobroges and then the Centrones) which might explain some of the losses.

Knowing a little geography too would be helpful too. Knowing that the Alps is a mountain range in Central Europe: crossing mountain ranges on foot is a treacherous business. Knowing something of months, seasons, hemispheres and climates: the winter months in the northern hemisphere are going to fairly inhospitable in a Central European mountain range. All of which would explain the majority of losses – desertion rather than death. Soldiers simply gave up.

You don’t need to be an ancient history buff of course, and know all of this stuff. You can make those inferences if you know a little about Hannibal and can place the events in time, know something about mountain climates and the likely weather conditions in October. But know none of this and no amount of generic inferencing skill will help you to understand, no matter how much you practised your generalised ‘what I read + what I know = what I infer’ strategy.

And inference is not a a generalised skill. There is no being good at making inferences skill that is separate from the content being read. Successfully making the inference about Hannibal and the Alps doesn’t help one jot to infer from the following sentence from Michael Bond’s A Bear Called Paddington:

The Browns were there [at the train station] to meet their daughter Judy, who was coming home from school for the holidays.

 You will infer that Judy goes to boarding school only if you already know there are schools where children learn, eat, sleep and live during school term time. If that concept is beyond your sphere of understanding, then you’ll never make the inferential leap. Every inference is bound to the content of the reading material. Spending swathes of curriculum time teaching a generic skill which simply doesn’t exist is a misguided waste of time. Our students deserve better.


A Heap of Hippopotami

Here’s the thing. Making an inference doesn’t lead to understanding; it’s a consequence of understanding. If you made the inference, you already understood. And if you don’t understand, then no amount of asking you to use your well-practised inferencing skills will help you out. What will help is to plug that knowledge gap, a gap that sits at the heart of every failed inference.

And this is true of every generic reading skill. Take this passage of from the wonderful picture book, The Tin Forest, by Helen Ward about an old man who lives in his small house amongst the discarded detritus of humanity.

Every night the old man dreamed. He dreamed he lived in a jungle full of wild forest animals. There were colourful birds, tropical trees, exotic flowers, toucans, tree frogs and tigers.

But when he awoke, his world outside was the same.

One day something caught the old man’s eye and an idea planted itself in his head.

Asking students to predict what idea has planted itself in the old man’s head won’t help them to understand the story. They’ll make a sensible prediction if they have already understood what they’ve read so far. Having understood that the man lives in rubbish tip (perhaps something in it caught his eye) and that he dreams of a jungle full of animals will lead them to predict that the old man might build a machine out of rubbish to take him to a jungle, or that he might build a jungle out of junk.

What about finding the main idea? Surely, finding the central point in a passage of text is made easier if, well,  you’ve already understood it. Take this short paragraph from the non-fiction picture book, The Blue Whale, by Jenni Desmond:

A blue whale weighs about the same as a heap of fifty-five hippopotami. Females grow bigger and heavier than males. This is because the female cares for her baby on her own and needs to be big enough to produce enough milk to feed it.

You’ll find the main idea that blue whales are very heavy if you know what a hippopotamus is, that one is heavy, and that a heap of fifty-five is going to a lot heavier still.

You might teach children the strategy of looking to the topic sentence to find the main idea, but is this a generic skill that can be applied to any passage of text? How about this passage from Wikipedia?

At the core of loop quantum gravity is a framework for nonperturbative quantisation of diffeomorphism-invariant gauge theories, which one might call loop quantisation. While originaly developed in order to quantise vacuum general relativity in 3+1 dimensions, the formalism can accommodate arbitrary spacetime dimensionalities, fermions, an arbitrary gauge group (or even quantum group), and supersymmetry, and results in the quantisation of the kinematics of the corresponding diffeomorphism-invariant gauge theory. Much work remains to be done on the dynamics, the classical limit and the correspondence principle, all of which are necessary in one way or another to make contact with experiment.

Looking at our topic sentence, You might conclude that the main idea is likely to be that loop quantisation is a framework for nonperturnative quantisation of diffeomorphism-invariant gauge theories. Has it helped your understanding? Probably not. Without having knowledge of quantum mechanics and a whole heap of domain specific vocabulary, no amount of generic skill application is going to improve your understanding. And neither will the student understand that whales are really heavy if they don’t already know that hippos are heavy too.


Reading is the Wrong Way Round

Too many reading comprehension lessons are built upon the upside down, wrong-way round notion that the continued practice of transferable reading skills improves comprehension*. Rather the opposite is true – comprehension enables reading skill. If you already understand what you are reading, you’ll predict and infer, summarise and visualise.

So this begs a couple of questions. Why are schools and teachers spending so much time teaching non-existent generic reading skills if they don’t make much of a difference to reading ability? And if practising reading skills doesn’t improve comprehension in the way we might hope, what will?

I shall explore both of these two questions in parts two and three of this series of posts.


Further Reading

A huge debt is owed to Daniel Willingham, whose ideas have been central in shaping my own about about reading in general and about the content of this post. In particular, these two articles have guided my thinking: The Usefulness of Brief Instruction in Reading Comprehension Strategies and Can Reading Comprhension Be Taught?

And do read his wonderful book, The Reading Mind.

*I will explore in the next post that spending a small time teaching these strategies is beneficial for some children, but making them the focus of comprehension teaching is a mistake.

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