What Can You Say
About a Book?

Ideas and Inspiration for Improving Book Talk
and Book Reviews

by Steve Peha

Comprehending Comprehension

When I was in school, I thought reading comprehension was being able to answer questions in a workbook or on a test. Even today, 30 years later, I still see kids filling out dittos, working through workbooks, and answering questions on tests after they finish a book or a chapter.

But isnít this silly?

Do your parents answer questions in a workbook after reading an article in the newspaper? Do you see people filling out dittos in the doctorís office after they read a magazine? When you go to the library and see people reading books of all kinds, do you also see them carrying around number two pencils so they can fill in the bubbles on a multiple choice test? Did your copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix come with a vocabulary test after each chapter?

I think not!

The purpose of reading is to extract meaning from text. This is reading comprehension. Answering questions in dittos and workbooks, or filling out multiple choice tests, has little or nothing to do with it.

According to Dictionary.com, to comprehend something is to ďgrasp the meaning, nature, or importanceĒ of it.

I donít want to throw out comprehension questioning, just traditional comprehension questions. How about trying questions like these instead the next time you read a passage that seems difficult to understand:

What is its meaning? Can you explain it? Does it make sense? Is there more to understand here than simply the words on the page? Sometimes words mean exactly what they say, sometimes they mean something else.

What is its nature? How does the text work to produce meaning? How did you figure it out? Why do you think it means what it means? Sometimes we know exactly how a text works. At other times, we only have a hunch.

What is its importance? What value does it have? How can it be used? How does it relate to other parts of the text and to the text as a whole? Some parts are more important than others. These are the parts that are worth spending time on.

From Comprehension to Comprehending

Even with a definition to work with, comprehension is a tough thing to define in a practical way that we can apply in our own reading. Thereís also some disagreement among experts about what comprehension really looks like. So rather than focusing on comprehension as a product of reading, I like to look at comprehending as a process of reading.

To give kids a sense of the experience of comprehending in an explicit way, I use a strategy called Say-Think-Feel-Mean. I ask kids to find a short passage that they really like a lot and then I take them through this process:

Say. What does it say? What are the words in the passage? Try to read every one of them as accurately as possible. One of the biggest problems young readers have is frequent misreading. Donít be afraid to read a difficult passage several times.

Think. What does it make you think about? Some of your thoughts will be directly related to the text. Others will come from your life or from other books youíve read. All are helpful as long we know which are which and where they all come from. A problem some readers have is confusing something from the text with something from their lives or from another book.

Feel. How do you feel? The emotional content of a passage is one of the best clues to its meaning. This may not be obvious to every reader in every situation. Another thing to watch for is when the feelings in a text are implied rather than being literally stated.

Mean. What does it mean? This is, of course, open to endless speculation. However, for the sake of practicality, you can imagine that a text can have meaning in three different ways: (1) It means exactly what it says ó literal; (2) Itís an example of something ó implied or figurative; (3) Itís the opposite of what it says ó irony.

Say-Think-Feel-Mean is a close approximation of what successful readers do when faced with extremely challenging texts. Even when we donít understand every word, or the ideas seem too complex, we can still muddle through and extract useful information if we engage actively in comprehending.

Getting Started

How do you comprehend? What set of steps to do you go through to make sense of a text? Is it the same set of steps every time or does it change? Share your process of comprehending with another reader and compare it with what he or she does.