TURNING POINT: Teaching Reading Comprehension

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (MindaNews/ 9 December)–The Philippines scored the lowest in reading comprehension among 79 participating countries in the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), says a report released recently.

The information prompted an engaging conversation among academics and literacy groups attributing the miserable rating to the ineptness of teachers, poor or lack of reading materials in many schools across the country and the students’ low socio-economic status. No one talks or raise the question: Is reading comprehension ever taught in our schools?

My teachers in the grade school taught me the basics of reading and writing. Writing would start with knowing the letters of the alphabet and the combination of letters to form a word, the combination of words to form a sentence and the combination of thought-related sentences to form a paragraph. Reading follows a similar sequence. I read the words that were combined of letters, the sentences that formed from the logical arrangement of words and the paragraphs that resulted from the string of logically related sentences. I, however, could not remember that I was taught how to digest or process and understand what I would read.

In first year high school though, I remember that we were given regularly an exercise known as reading comprehension in my English grammar and composition class. We were to read for 10 minutes a short article of some five or six short paragraphs, about a page in a booklet, then were subjected to a test thereafter. The questions asked were often about who, what, where and when. I could not remember there ever was a question on why and how. The exercise was focused on the retention of facts or bits of information not so much on determining our understanding how the facts made an event which I thought reading comprehension should be all about.

The exercise as called was reading comprehension but I felt it does not teach or cover the whole facets of reading comprehension, and that the test was not comprehensive enough to measure reading comprehension. The intention though of the whole thing appeared to be about it.

Indeed, while reading was taught in school, understanding what we read was not. It was likely presumed that your brain will automatically do the processing and understanding of what you are reading. Thus, there was no need to teach your brain how to understand. It understands by itself.

Since no two individuals have the same brains, there would always be a difference in the speed of thought, the processing of perception and understanding of information, such as their retention and recall. Hence, always, the results of any mental test like that of PISA vary among individuals.

But the brain, we all know, can be taught; that is, its capacity to process things can be enhanced or facilitated. Even a wounded brain where some neurons or brain cells were disabled or killed by, say a stroke, can be taught to learn the functions lost with the death of the neurons responsible for the task from the birth and development of an individual. The neighboring brain cells will take over the unattended task by repetitious urging or teaching. For this reason, some stroke survivors can walk again after undergoing physical therapy, a repetitious physical exercise or activity to “rewire the body”— to reconnect the brain to the nerves and the muscles in the affected side of the body. This is known in neuroscience as neuroplasticity.

From personal experience, my reading comprehension greatly improved once I went into writing. The more I write and the more improved my writing, the greater my facility of understanding what I read.

My love for writing was developed when my teacher in English required us to keep a journal and write everyday a paragraph or two on our observation and reaction to what is happening to our physical and social environment, including the wandering of our mind. He was patient and dedicated enough to check and make corrections to our outputs every weekend.

Writing helps me organize my thoughts, my perception of and responses to the stimuli — the things and events around me that caught my attention and what was churning unusually in my mind — and to choose the appropriate words and their combination to express these thoughts in sentences and to string them together into paragraphs to produce a piece of work: an organized idea of something.

When you read the piece you write, you don’t read it word for word, or sentence for sentence but in sequence or flow of thoughts. Transfer that way of reading in reading other works, you will read faster and your comprehension will no doubt improve. Once you love to write your thoughts, you also love to read more to gain more information to improve your writing. Reading builds your vocabulary and improves your writing. It is a happy cycle. More writing and reading improves understanding.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. William R. Adan, Ph.D., is retired professor and former chancellor of Mindanao State University at Naawan, Misamis Oriental, Philippines.)