Saturday, February 12, 2011

Context Clueless

Last week, I helped a child in primary school with homework. One task was reading four pages on South Carolina history and answering eight comprehension questions. The student, who is bright, read aloud two paragraphs quite fluently and tackled the first question, "What were two money crops early in South Carolina's history?" Here is a semi-faithful transcript:

My little friend: Export?

Me: Do you know what an export is?

MLF: No.

Me: Why did you pick it as an answer?

MLF: Because it is highlighted.

Me: Do you know what a money crop is?

MLF: No.

Me: Do you know what a crop is?

MLF: No.

I felt sorry for my friend! The paragraph included the sentence, "Two money crops important in early South Carolina history were rice and indigo." Anyone adept at thoughtless busywork could have figured out the answer without knowing what a money crop was, much less indigo. I wasn't frustrated because MLF couldn't apply a trick of logic at such a tender age. I was frustrated that such meaning-deprived work exists.

Rather than give MLF the answer, I built context. I asked what farmers in our county grow and got no answer. So, I asked what people buy at the store that a farmer might grow: "Carrots, lettuce, tomatoes." I told the student that a crop is a plant farmers grow for food or to make money. Then, I asked what a money crop might be. Eyes wide, MLF asked, "Do they grow money?" I loved how the wheels turned as the child was trying to make sense of it. I said, "Not exactly. It's a crop the farmer grows to sell and make a lot of money."

Then, I guided MLF's attention back to the paragraph. MLF blurted, "Rice!" Even though, indigo was by rice's side, the child had no idea what it was. No other information about indigo was anywhere on the page. I so wished I had my indigo purse handy and my pictures from our tour of a Colonial Era indigo processing site in El Salvador (in fact, I might just bring pictures and my souvenirs to provide a hands-on, visual experience next time). We discussed how to make natural dyes (strawberries could be red and blueberries could be purple). I told him that the only plant that makes a strong blue like the color of jeans was indigo. People paid a lot of money for this dye.

We whipped through the page about cotton. Before hitting the questions, we studied the pictures and I asked if MLF had ever seen cotton. The child smiled, "It grows in the field near my house." I asked if MLF had ever touched it, and the answer was no. So, I asked if MLF knew what cotton was for and the answer was, "Shirts!" We looked at the picture and talked about how it feels: soft and fluffy. I explained that cotton is hard to harvest because the plant had bristles that would cut your hands and wrists. Then, it took even longer to comb out the seeds. That is why farmers wanted slaves. It was hard work! After our short conversation, MLF zipped through the comprehension questions.

We hit a roadblock on the next page. The main idea of the paragraph was that cotton robbed the soil of nutrients and wore it out. When asked what cotton did to the land, MLF answered, "It made it fertile" because fertile was highlighted. Of course, I asked what fertile meant. No clue. Then, I asked about the color of dirt at home. The answer was gray. I explained, "Fertile soil is dark and black. It grows lots of crops. Cotton takes out the nutrients and the soil turns gray." MLF seemed puzzled, so I gave an analogy about how eating carrots, lettuce, and tomatoes makes our bodies strong. That would be like fertile soil. But, what would eating Cheetos all day do? MLF replied, "Make you weak." That is what cotton does to the soil. MLF answered the questions, and then we moved on.

The last two questions were about opposing views of slavery. The first letter was by the daughter of a plantation owner who didn't think slavery was wrong. That blew the mind of MLF, who read it twice to make sure MLF understood it correctly. Reading the letter by the slave girl, MLF said, "I'd be so scared," when the girl described being separated from her family. Both stories had such an emotional tug on MLF's heart, the answers were crystal clear.

Daniel Willingham's article on reading comprehension dovetails very nicely with this experience. The goal of reading is to find meaning and monitor your own comprehension. He points out that good readers monitor comprehension and seek to correct it when incomplete. When reading the pro-slavery letter, MLF assumed the girl was against slavery and reread the paragraph after realizing the mistake. Willingham discussed how you can apply logic to answer questions, even if you didn't fully understand the meaning, which is what the writer of MLF's questions wanted done.

Another way to enrich understanding is to relate the passage to what you already know, which is what I was helping MLF to do. The more background knowledge you have, the more you are able to understand. Willingham illustrated this with a paragraph on logistic regression. A good reader could infer a great deal from the text, but someone like me (a person with a background in statistics) would have a greater grasp of the text. Because my background knowledge of car mechanics is poor, I would fare poorly with a paragraph on that topic.

Willingham listed a bunch of reading strategies and then pointed out, "Knowledge of strategies is only a small part of what makes an effective reader. A good reader also decodes fluently, has a broad vocabulary, and has wide-ranging background knowledge." A writer cannot include every possible detail because nobody would want to read the text. Writers assumes what the reader knows and doesn't cover that information. If background knowledge is less than anticipated, the reader will struggle. Willingham reasoned, "An individual with background knowledge on a wide variety of subjects will less often be confused when reading than an individual with limited background knowledge." He concluded that systematic instruction and constant exposure to high quality books, films, conversations, etc. is what will broaden vocabulary and knowledge.

Anyone familiar with Charlotte Mason's principles will see the connection:
But we, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum; taking care only that all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas. Out of this conception comes our principle that,--

"Education is the Science of Relations"; that is, that a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of--
"Those first-born affinities
That fit our new existence to existing things."

In devising a SYLLABUS for a normal child, of whatever social class, three points must be considered:

(a) He requires much knowledge, for the mind needs sufficient food as much as does the body.

(b) The knowledge should be various, for sameness in mental diet does not create appetite (i.e., curiosity)

(c) Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language, because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form.

1 comment:

Di said...

This was a very interesting read - thank you :)