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Reading comprehension: as easy as pie!

Updated: Dec 11, 2021

Listening recently to Andy Hargreaves talking about professional capital on YouTube, I was struck by his definition of the third element of this construct: decisional capital. He describes this as the capacity, that experienced teachers build-up over years of teaching, which enables them to adjust and adapt their teaching strategies to meet the learning requirements of the specific learners in front of them on a given day.

I was reminded of this recently teaching a Year 7 and then a Year 8 class. We were working through a sequence for teaching reading, when an analogy came to me that seemed useful, so I spent a bit of time explaining it to the classes. The conceptualization was that reading comprehension is like a pie chart. Complete, total (unrealistic) understanding of a text is represented by a completely filled-in, 360-degree chart. Prior to reading an unseen poem say, our understanding sits at 0 degrees. We may know something of the poet or the form it is written in, which could add one or two degrees of understanding.

However, the real comprehension only starts once the reading begins. The deciphering of the black marks on the page are necessary to reading but don’t, of themselves, help to complete a pie chart of understanding. We could ask a computer to “read” a text by using the software built into Word or Adobe PDF but I don’t think we would then claim that the PC had understood or comprehended the text in any meaningful way.

So the decoding is necessary for comprehension but is really a separate process.

The real process of meaning-making begins once the decoding has been successfully completed. Now, the symbiotic process of interaction between writer and reader that we call reading, begins.

The writer can make many things very clear in the text. For example, we know, unequivocally, where Gatsby lives. We also have a pretty clear understanding of how Nick feels about Gatsby but this requires us, the readers, to do some interpretation, to bring our own knowledge of language and relationships the bear on the text in order to add a sequence of additional understanding of our pie chart.

This is where the process gets more complex. The writer leaves gaps in the text for the reader to fill. In my analogy of the pie chart I see this as a wedge of pie that the reader has to supply from their own bank of knowledge and experience (Willingham, D The Reading Mind 2017).

The problems or interesting issues (depending on your viewpoint) occur when the reader doesn’t have the personal resources of experience or knowledge to construct a wedge of the right size to fill the gap. You can probably think of texts that you have never really got, perhaps because of a lack of relevant prior reading, an unwillingness to invest the effort required, or an antipathy to the subject matter, resulting in you being unable to construct the wedge of the right dimensions to fill the gap in a satisfactory manner. You probably didn’t finish this book!

Some authors also intentionally leave much bigger gaps for us to fill than others. The Year 7 class I was teaching when all this started, were reading Shaun Tan’s short story Broken Toys. They were keen to share their very varied ways of filling the huge gaps which Tan leaves at the end of the story. The key gap here is around the nature of the history between Mrs “Badnews” and the person in the diving suit. We are given some clues, not least the broken horse toy, but little that is conclusive. The students’ efforts to fill these gaps were very enthusiastic – they clamoured to explain what they thought was going on, which speaks to Tan’s ability to give us just enough information to get us thinking. Some of their ideas were satisfying and convincing, suggesting that the wedge-shaped piece they were providing came very close to mirroring the size and shape of the gap Tan had carefully constructed.

Others seemed less convincing. This was perhaps due to a lack of understanding of the clues provided or a lack of knowledge of the genre conventions. Magic realism of a kind Tan is writing is always going to be elusive and capable of sustaining numerous possible interpretations. In the terms of the analogy, various possible forms could be conceived which could fill the comprehension gap in a satisfactory way. When learners suggested readings based on inappropriate genre details, zombies for example, it was clear that there was something about this form of gap filling that was inappropriate and unsatisfactory.

Exploring these ideas further with a Year 8 class who had been reading the Sherlock Holmes story The Red Headed League the analogy again proved useful. We were able to discuss the very specific way writers of detective fiction construct the gaps in their texts in order to challenge the reader to fill them. The lists of rules for detective stories, drawn up by Monsignor Ronald Knox and Tzvetan Todorov (The Typology of the Detective Fiction in The Poetics of Prose, Todorov, T 1977), amongst others, are largely efforts to codify what it is fair for writers to do to readers, in order for the genre to operate in a satisfactory way.

The process of re-reading the first part of the story also helped to clarify the use of the analogy. During this more leisurely paced second reading, we spent more time discussing vocabulary and it became clear but this process was helpful to students, enabling them better to understand aspects of the text. This, in itself, enabled them to complete the gap in a more satisfactory way.

So my hope, after all this, is that I now have an additional tool, in the form of the pie chart analogy, to add to my pedagogical armoury. I think it will make me a better proactive and responsive teacher. Hopefully reading about it will also add to your decisional capital, helping develop in turn, your professional capital.

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