Comprehension: What is your first thought when you see that word?
Comprehension simply means to understand. Anything that you read requires you to ‘comprehend.’ This blog will help you think about how to answer comprehension questions. There are 10 tips in the second half of this blog to help you think about how to best answer comprehension at any level.
Once a week, on my day off, I walk for several hours. This is not just for my aerobic exercise but for my mental sanity. More often than not, I walk with a friend and one staple topic of conversation is children’s ability to understand what they have read.
There is a difference between simply being able to read the text and actually being able to read between the lines to understand what the writer is inferring and to understand the mood and flavour of a text.
For sure, when I teach comprehension, I teach children to write. This skill for writing competently and cohesively is, in my opinion, massively undervalued as a transferable skill for understanding comprehension. It helps the reader pick out the nuances in the text they read.
Let us look at a few short lines from a comprehension I did recently with an English tutee. The passage is part of an adaptation of a short story called, ‘ Cockles and Mussels ’ by Susan Hill:
And, along the foreshore and up and down the narrow streets of the Lower Bay were all the most common attractions, the gift shops full of rose-painted pottery and highly varnished shells……
We discussed the sentence structure and the significance of the rose-painted pottery and why the shells might be varnished. When he read the passage independently, there was no idea of context when he explained to me the use of language in the above sentence. To him, it was simply some things being sold in a shop.
Now, this may be a simplistic example, but even after tutoring children of all ages for the last 17 or so years, it still surprises me that the connection between what the child has just read and the context is not made. In this instance, it was the connection between the seaside and those gifts and the shops.
So below are some tips to help your child with becoming adept at reading (rather than sounding words on a page) and answering questions on a given text within the context of that text.
Note: these skills are valuable whether you are 6, 16, 26 or 56. The skill is the same, it is a question of degrees.
The word comprehension means understanding (comprehend being the root word, from the Latin comprehendere)
So, let us begin:
When I was thinking about how to summarise for this blog, I thought about how I normally teach comprehension. Whilst there are common threads, I believe teaching comprehension should not be prescriptive. Before going into exactly what should be picked out in a comprehension, I have put in a short example to help with the tips a little later in this blog.
In maths, we can say that 2+2 will always equal 4 (i.e. there can only be 1 answer, it is either right or it is wrong), but an answer to a comprehension question can vary. This is because different readers will pick up and focus on different things within the text. Every reader needs to look not only at what has been written but how it has been written. A really good example of this is the following extract from Roald Dahl’s autobiography, Boy. Dahl is a master of imagery and can make the most mundane description truly interesting.
Her name was Mrs Pratchett. She was a small skinny old hag with a moustache on her upper lip and a mouth as sour as a green gooseberry. She never smiled. She never welcomed us when we went in. By far the most loathsome thing about Mrs Pratchett was the filth that clung about her. Her apron was grey and greasy. Her blouse had bits of breakfast all over it, toast-crumbs and tea stains and splotches of dried egg yolk. It was her hands, however, that disturbed us most. They were disgusting. They were black with dirt and grime. They looked as though they had been putting lumps of coal on the fire all day long. The mere sight of her grimy right hand with its black fingernails digging an ounce of Chocolate Fudge out of the jar would have caused a starving tramp to go running from the shop.
It is no accident that the passage starts with a short, sharp statement, then alternates between long and short sentences, gradually ending in one long sentence. This structure is designed to gently lead the reader into the writer’s thoughts.
Short sentences are there to make a statement or emphasise something.
Notice the abruptness of the first sentence which then leads into a description of Mrs Pratchett with a longer sentence. The description of Mrs Pratchett has literary techniques in there. The use of alliteration (small, skinny) and the simile (a mouth as sour as a green gooseberry) along with Dahl’s choice of words (hag) creates an unpleasant image of his character immediately that repulses most readers.
Consider if the first two lines read as follows instead:
Mrs Pratchett was a tiny, unpleasant woman with a hairy upper lip.
The information conveyed is exactly the same, but is much more gentle in its delivery. Does it create the same image in your head? Do you react to it in the same way as Dahl’s description? I would say not!
So, when reading a comprehension text, what should a reader look for? How should answering a comprehension be approached? Should the reader read the passage first or the questions first?
What about the words that the reader does not understand? What if it is an old-fashioned text that is difficult to read?
Whilst there is no one way of dealing with this, here are my tips on how all of the above (and more) should be approached:
The aim of any comprehension paper is to test the reader’s understanding of the text. The aim for the student is to gain maximum marks in minimum time.
Always read any information given before the start of the passage. This will often help put things in context. Very often there is information given about the passage as well as the instructions on how to answer the questions.
If the paper is multiple choice (MCQ) then eliminate the obviously incorrect answers – there are usually 2 and then go back to the text and see what information there is for the remaining answers to help you choose the correct answer.
If it is a standard paper, then answer in full sentences unless it states that one-word answers are fine.
One thing I always say to my tutees is that I should be able to work out the question from your answer. To be able to do that the answer must have the keywords from the question. This helps the reader to focus on the key points in the question.
The first read – skim-read the passage. The second read, read carefully.
Many people will say read the questions first and then simply read the passage to find your answers. This is fine for straightforward questions but when you need to work out the mood and the tone and the changes throughout the passage, then this technique will fail. It is important to skim-read (in my opinion) as you get a feel for ‘the layout’.
At this point make quick one or two-word notes on the side of the passage to help you pinpoint the main points of the passage. This will save you time later looking for which paragraph had the information.
When reading the passage remember what you are looking for in the passage. Remember, you have already skim-read it once, so you already have an idea, so now is the time to deep-dive.
If you come across words you do not recognise then look at the context and the punctuation.
Read all the questions quickly. Note where the answer is in the passage
Before reading the passage thoroughly, read the questions. This is especially important for standard (non-MCQ) papers.
Note how many marks each question is worth. Again, with MCQ one question is usually allocated 1 mark, so you do not need to worry about this for MCQ papers.
One technique that works for some students is to note where the answer is in the passage. So, for example, write a 3 next to paragraph 4 if the answer to question 3 is in paragraph 4.
Alternatively, some students find it easier to simply keep the information in their heads. This is fine for those who are confident in their reading and answering.
Put situations into context.
For example, consider the following from The adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain:
This shortly brought them to a bewitching spring, whose basin was encrusted with a frostwork of glittering crystals; it was in the midst of a cavern whose walls had been formed by the joining of great This shortly brought them to a bewitching spring, whose basin was encrusted with a frostwork of glittering crystals; it was in the midst of a cavern whose walls had been formed by the joining of great stalactites and stalagmites* together, the result of the ceaseless water-drip of centuries, together, the result of the ceaseless water-drip of centuries.
The additional information after the semicolon puts into perspective where they are. It becomes clear that the crystals are not actually crystals but ice formations (stalactites and stalagmites) and the fact that they have taken hundreds of years to form.
Things to Think About:
- When answering a question, always go back to the passage. Do not answer any question from memory. Going back to the passage will ensure you get the mark.
- When answering a question, spend time in proportion to the number of marks. So, if you have 40 minutes to answer 8 questions, then your time allocation should not be 5 minutes a question if the marks for each question vary. There are various ways in which English comprehension papers are constructed. That is a topic for another blog. Just remember that if the final question is worth 40% of the marks (for example) then 40% of your time should be spent on that question.
- As soon as you finish answering a question, read what you have written to make sure it makes sense. When we read, especially something we have just written, we often read it as we think we have written it rather than what we actually have in front of us on the page. Read what you have written carefully to make sure it makes sense and that all spellings (especially if they are in the passage) are correct.
Advanced Short Tips (Bonus)
- Make note of any time changes and changes in perspective ( 1st person/3rd Person etc)
- Look at techniques such as flashbacks, foreshadowing, pathetic fallacy, hyperbole etc
- How does something earlier in the passage influence your thoughts of you read later in the passage?
- How does the writer’s style progress or change in the passage?
- Does it match the change of mood?
- How do the tone and atmosphere change as the passage progresses?
- From where the book is the passage taken? (generally, KS2 seems to be from the start but this matters more from KS3 onwards).
- You may be interested in our blog about The GCSE English Language paper.
I have shared a little of how we teach comprehension skills at Redbridge Tuition. If you would like to find out more, please contact us.