The longer I teach English, the more I feel that traditional approaches we have used time and time again are sometimes counterproductive and, possibly, damaging. We tell students to visualise, empathise, question, skim and scan a text so they understand it better. I like to think of myself as a better than average reader, yet I have never sat down and thought about drawing a picture as a result of my reading. I am in the process of reading ‘Middlemarch’ again, but at no point have I felt the need, desire or compulsion to draw the place Middlemarch. Neither have I stopped to think about my emotions about characters nor have I skimmed a section to find something out. In fact, those activities are micro activities that might take place; they are not the titans of reading, yet we have over the years insisted that they are the titans of reading. Oooh – you are stuck. I tell you what, draw a picture. That will help you.
So, what should be doing to help students understand complex texts? Well, I don’t think I have an easy answer. Instead, let me tell you what I do, personally. What are my titans of reading? This is how I approach reading a section of text I am unfamiliar with. Note: at no stage is a pencil used to draw.
I tend to…
Read the section again a few times.
Read the text before the section.
Read the text after the section.
Identify the word or section that is the cause of confusion.
Research the word / information causing the confusion.
Talk to someone else about the point of confusion.
That’s what I tend to do. All the visualising, empathising, questioning and skimming in the world is useless, if the meaning isn’t clear. All processes, in my opinion, are rubbish without the meaning in place. The meaning and understanding should be at the centre of any reading approach.
Now, here the crux of things: I personally think an obsession over the gist of things and glossaries hinder this reading process.
Don’t worry about understanding things; focus on getting the gist. Really? We want to promote this as an approach to reading! An approach which is based on several markers in a text and not the whole unit of meaning. I can’t read a text written in French even though I know some French words. I can’t do this, because whole text understanding and whole sentence understanding is crucial. You cannot rely on a few points of understanding and just fill in the gaps.
Sometimes, and sonnets are a good example of this, the meaning of a text depends on the meaning of one word. Miss that word out and you fail to understand the text. But, it is okay, as long as you have the gist, right? Focusing on the gist means we are promoting word blindness to students. It is actively saying to students, miss out a few words here and there, and it will be fine. Do we want to tell students that they should miss out all the difficult words in a text? Do we want students to colour in all the difficult words, because they are not going to use them? Do we heck.
Focus on the gist and you are telling students to be blind to words and phrases.
If we want to avoid word blindness, then maybe glossaries are the answer. I think, however, glossaries are problematic too and not the answer. I once spent a sunny summer in Derbyshire creating a glossary for ‘Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. Page by page, I lovely crafted this glossary booklet to help students and it was useless. Why? Well, the process then became about translating and not understanding. Having the glossary did not make students understand the text better. They knew what a word meant, but they did not understand it better. In fact, I’d be bold in saying that a glossary gives just the illusion of understanding. False understanding. Fake understanding. Understanding takes time, space, explanation and some brain processing.
This year, I have changed my approach to looking at texts based on the new GCSE specifications. Getting the gist of the text will not be enough for students. Nor will a simple glossary. Instead of going for an optimistic, word blind approach, I have started students reading unseen texts by being realistic about what they don’t understand.
I start all unseen texts by getting students to highlight the words students don’t know. How many times have I waited ages for students to come up with ideas about a text when first faced with a new piece of writing? I have almost had to coax the gist of the text out of them. It is amazing how quick students respond when you start the reading of a text with them focusing and sharing what they don’t understand. Sir, I don’t understand the word ‘wheezing’. I don’t understand ‘ruddy’. I don’t understand ‘palpable’. They bloody love it. They are talking from a point of strength. They are starting from a point that assumes they are not perfect and know everything.
The freedom this approach allows for thought and discussion is great. We are engaging with a text quickly and addressing the meaning from the start. Once, we have highlighted all the bits they don’t understand, we discuss each one. We check whether anybody in the group knows the word or phrase. We see if another word would make sense in the context. We dig out a dictionary if needed. We discuss each word or phrase. We don’t gloss over the words because the meaning is vital and integral to getting things right. Then, we read the text again with the words we now understand. The students are able to understand the whole text then. Yes, it takes time, discussion and focus, but in terms of planning it is a breeze. We even buy cheap copies of the set texts so students can write in them to pin down meanings of unfamiliar words.
You see there is this person could Matthew, and lots of people in education talk about him because he has this effect. Well, surely an explicit and honest focus on what a student doesn’t know is far better than assuming a student can cope regardless of knowledge and ability. Each child is a vessel of words. Each vessel contains different words. Matthew might have a fairly empty vessel compared to other students, but surely a process that avoids word blindness will support him and he can reduce the effect. Asking Matthew to get the gist of things and assume a position which actively forces him to be blind to words when reading. How will Matthew learn things when we promoting word blindness?
Let’s ‘man-up’ or ‘woman-up’ and hit the nail on the head: Matthew doesn’t know some words. Let’s identify the words he doesn’t understand and help him get the meaning of them. If we are going to stop Matthew wearing his ‘Effect’ t-shirt, we need to ask him: ‘What bits of the text don’t you understand?’
In the beginning there was the word, so, maybe, the beginning of reading should be the word that they don’t understand.