Comprehension of Literacy Materials:

March 26, 2020

One of the most perplexing problems I have encountered in my lectures on literacy acquisition for individuals with intellectual disabilities has been the topic of “Comprehension.” I have been asked basically, “How do I or we know that these students are really comprehending the material that they are vocally reading, and are not simply parroting the words without comprehension?”

There may not be a simple answer to this, but there are many (perhaps, controversial and debatable) aspects to the very concepts of what comprehension can be determined to be.

I think comprehension is essentially interpretation, understanding, opinion, and it is very personal.

A teacher of reading may ask students during or after a reading to exhibit their knowledge of what they have read, through oral class discussion or through essays, and the teacher may get a variety of responses from as basic as a simple retelling of the sequential aspects of the story, to more and more complex and varying degrees of analysis regarding some or all of the moral or instructional aspects of what the author may have intended.

What is not so odd or unusual is that all students will bring to their reading encounters their own personal experiential histories which play the major role in “Comprehension” (judging, guessing, interpreting, opining, determining) regarding the material that is read.

Though teachers may initially request that students be as creative with their interpretations and comprehensions as possible, while promoting, accepting, and encouraging them all, the teacher does in fact “hold the grade book,” and through class discussions and oral consensus a unified and basically monolithic understanding is very often the end product “set in stone” with a “this is how this work is in fact understood”; and diverse and unusual interpretations may not often receive the deferential tolerance that they should receive.

In reviewing online academic journal articles on interpretations of such works such as The Cat and the Hat and Charlotte’s Web, there are many scholarly articles that go into great length determining the various “correct” ways to interpret and comprehend these works (seriously, I have some here).

Regarding the works of Shakespeare (and there is still much debate as to who actually wrote the works), we only have the plays and the sonnets without any author discussion of the meanings of any of these few pieces. However we have thousands of academic texts and articles by Shakespearean scholars discussing what the real meanings are in these works, all of them backed by their publishers who have invested thousands of dollars in the publishing and subsequent endorsements, regardless of how varying these interpretations and comprehensions may be.

Regarding comprehension for those who are labeled intellectually disabled and who are in the early stages of literacy acquisition, it is common knowledge that receptive skills (reading and listening) are actually somewhere between 2 and 3 years behind expressive skills (speaking and writing) developmentally, initially. It may be best to consider that reading at about a fourth grade level will be at that first verifiable level of achievement that will produce meaningful expressions of judgment for those who are involved in this process of literacy acquisition.

Also, for those who are labeled with intellectual disabilities, they must be allowed to provide their experiential knowledge of the world to be considered very valid, however splintered and diverse it may be (an analogy: If I were to give a reading of the life and work of John Brown to southern whites who are descended from slave owners and also give the same works to read to northern inner city descendants of the Black Panther movement, two very different sets of comprehensions and interpretations will arise from their readings (guaranteed).

In like manner, I will never be able to address the personal experiences of those who are intellectually disabled in this country as I have zero ability to relate to their experiential history. I simply do not share their perspectives. As such I would be making an horrendous mistake ever determining “correct” interpretations or comprehensions that they may have regarding any readings, until such times as their reading levels get to a place where we may have in-depth two way discussions on the works, and are able to share experiences expressed so that “we are on the same page” experientially and can really discuss the works being read. Until such time as that I will simply need to teach the basic skills of reading and leave all interpretations and comprehensions up to the students doing the reading. They’ve been judged enough by others continuously and perpetually whereby I will not double down on that form of inquisition. Testing for their comprehension might permanently close a door that I am trying desperately to open and keep open. I’m helping them, not challenging them.

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