It’s easy to believe a child “gets it” when he answers a question using the exact words he just heard or read. Actually, all that proves is a good memory. I used questions from a study guide for discussion of a book I hadn’t read, and, at first, wasn’t sure whether or not the student I was tutoring was quoting the book. His answer to the third question, however, seemed unusual. I asked what he meant by “erratic.” He then confessed that he had no idea what the word meant, but that’s what the book said (and he was right). Even after using a dictionary to find its meaning, he could not explain how it fit the context.
So, what is comprehension? We consider something understood when a person is able to explain it in his own words and apply it to other situations. Ultimately, that requires a combination of vocabulary, memory, and experience. In the situation above, the boy insisted that the book was boring. However, after he re-read the first three chapters using a dictionary, he decided it was the “best book ever.” Vocabulary had been the simple solution because memory and experience were already in place.
On the other hand, when I first bought a computer, learning a new vocabulary wasn’t enough. I needed to try what I read directly on my computer a little at a time in order to make sense of it all. This accumulated experience, frequently referred to as background, was necessary before real comprehension could occur. A child might be able to read the word elephant, but he cannot explain what it is in his own words unless he can picture it in his mind. He draws on his memory of seeing the animal in a zoo or on T.V. or from a photograph or illustration. It’s very difficult to build a mental picture if you’ve only read or heard a description. In those cases, it’s usually necessary to add comparisons to the description.
While tutoring children in history, I realized that in spite of all my leading questions, they were unable to figure out why a culture wanted to go to all the effort of making iron swords since none of the neighboring peoples used them. In fact, they were losing interest fast. So I asked if they’d ever seen a sword fight where someone’s sword was broken by his opponent’s. Suddenly their eyes got bright as they talked about a scene in a recent movie. They practically shouted in unison, “Oh! They wanted iron swords to win their battles!”
But, you may ask, I do take my kids on field trips, have them watch videos, and do projects, so why do some of my kids “get it,” but not all? In fact, you may feel as if you are continually in the position where you are “leading a horse to water, but can’t make him drink.” Kids whose minds wander frequently, and those with poor short or long term memories have spotty results when it comes to comprehension. In these cases, one-on-one sessions are necessary. The teacher must help the child focus, interacting with him to be certain of his understanding.
Repetition is usually necessary as well, especially when memory is weak. In these situations, it is especially important to choose activities and resources that are as close as possible to real-life. For example, if a science book has an illustration of a flower with parts labeled, a real flower should be dissected and parts matched to those in the illustration. If a story refers to a hunting dog, a book with photographs or realistic drawings should be used as a reference.
All kids benefit from building a vocabulary from pictures. Don’t stop just because they are in junior or senior high. Next to the handy standard dictionary, line up books with labeled photographs or realistic drawings of various subjects: buildings and their parts (what is a thatched roof? a spire? a turret? a cornice? a pediment?), various types of transportation, inventions, the human body, and so on. Eyewitness Visual Dictionaries (Dorling Kindersley books) serve this purpose well.
For children with severe difficulties with memory, I suggest getting help through Essential Learning Institute (phone 1-800-285-9089). After testing, specific practice is prescribed to aid in building memory. Those who have difficulty forming even simple mental pictures can be helped through Lindamood-Bell resources www.LindamoodBell.com (diagnostic evaluation 1-800-300-1818, home office 1-800-233-1819) or IdeaChain from MindPrime www.mindprime.com (phone 1-800-460-8484).
Sometimes, it’s just a case of our thinking the children are making connections during an experience when they are not. For example, they may have seen a bust on a mantle or pedestal, whether on a field trip or watching a video. However, if no one pointed it out as a bust, when they read the word later, they will not recall that image because no connection was made between the object and its name. Or perhaps we feel confident that because students have mastered certain computation skills, they can apply those same skills (make the connection) to word problems, especially if all the words are familiar. If, instead, they become utterly confused, it may be due to a lack of experience with the type of reasoning necessary to work through to a solution.
Once we recognize all that is involved in real comprehension, we can interact with our children to find out what they do and don’t know. We can supplement studies, go off on tangents to fill in gaps, give them extra, guided practice—whatever it takes.
The great advantage of homeschooling is the freedom to work at our child’s pace—the freedom to take as much time as he needs to build a background that will ultimately contribute to his later learning. Whatever extra time and effort it takes will be well worth it. After all, we are giving them the tools they need to succeed.