Can We Go Beyond Comprehension?


Janice Silva, academic services head at the bilingual school Colegio Inglés in Nuevo León, Mexico, reflects on whether reading comprehension should be the end goal of reading instruction.

On going beyond comprehension with informational textsAs of 2011, teachers in Mexico, where my bilingual, preK–9 school is located, are required by the secretary of education to evaluate each student’s Spanish reading comprehension proficiency three times annually. Our English language arts program also recommends periodic assessments in English. The implication seems to be that comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading instruction.

Comprehension is important; in my recent article in Educational Leadership’s issue on informational text, “Preparing English Language Learners for Complex Reading,” I describe how our teachers scaffolded students’ reading of English texts by giving the pros and cons of current topics so Spanish-speaking students could dig deeply into these texts. However, it’s worth asking—Does comprehension of information guarantee an engaging, rewarding reading experience?

In his webinar “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past,” Sam Wineburg, executive director of the Stanford History Education Group, compares the approaches that an advanced placement history student and a professional historian take when reading a diary entry dated April 19, 1775. The entry is written by a British officer who describes his troops’ involvement in the Battle of Lexington. The history student—using context clues, prediction, inference, imagery, and hypothesis—skillfully implements these strategies to satisfactorily comprehend the text.

The professional historian, however, approaches the document differently. He first notices the document’s date and uses it to evaluate the piece’s accuracy. From the date, he infers that the weather was cold at the time of the battle and, imagining the materials used in making military uniforms at that time, remarks on the soldiers’ probable discomfort. He mentally locates the battle’s geographic position and comments on the physical features that may have affected the troops.

Finally, but significantly, the historian questions the author’s motivation for writing the entry. He suggests that the passage may actually have been entered into the diary at a later date. The entry mentions that the colonial militia fired first on the British soldiers, who returned the fire “without any orders.” The historian proposes that the entry may have had a strategic purpose—to serve as evidence that the author did not order his troops to fire on the colonists should he be called to testify at an inquest of the incident. I can imagine a historian, or a student reading like a historian, being motivated to further research this event in pursuit of historical truth.

It’s not surprising that a historian’s reading of this document was deeper and broader than that of the student. But I can’t help wondering: Shouldn’t our goal for reading instruction be to help our students also participate in substantial, insightful, and motivating reading experiences? Might our expectations for mere comprehension of informational texts be denying students the opportunity to engage with these texts with the passion, inquisitiveness, and imagination of professionals in the disciplines they study?