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The Relationship Between Comprehension and Analysis (Reading Modes Series Part 2)

June 15, 2015

In this second post of the “Reading Modes” series I will discuss the connection between “comprehension mode” and “analysis mode.”

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Like so many other folks I know, I used to believe that students needed to comprehend a text fully before they could analyze it. Often we would read a whole-class book all the way through and discuss each chapter in painstaking detail before I would even think of asking them to go back and analyze any part of it, let alone the work as a whole. However, after I started working on analysis through short, focused analysis paragraphs about short, focused passages, I realized something interesting. When I asked students to analyze a passage of a longer text, they would often come to some kind of comprehension realization as they analyzed. For example, this year my students read Night by Elie Wiesel. Here is an excerpt of one of the passages students analyzed:

“The night was pitch-black. From time to time, a shot exploded in the darkness. They had orders to shoot anyone who could not sustain the pace. Their fingers on the triggers, they did not deprive themselves of the pleasure. If one of us stopped for a second, a quick shot eliminated the filthy dog.

I was putting one foot in front of the other, like a machine. I was dragging this emaciated body that was still such a weight. If only I could have shed it! Though I tried to put it out of my mind, I couldn’t help thinking that there were two of us: my body and I. And I hated that body. I kept repeating to myself: ‘Don’t think, don’t stop, run!'”

The prompt I gave them to drive the analysis was:

In this passage Wiesel is describing the effects of all the dehumanization and suffering he has experienced. What does his use of figurative language suggest about the ultimate effects of dehumanization?

In the act of investigating the figurative language in this passage student noticed that Wiesel was comparing himself to an automaton, and that he referred to himself and the other concentration camp prisoners as “filthy dogs.” This was in contrast to earlier passages when they had noticed the SS soldiers as the only ones making these dehumanizing comparisons. Through the act of analyzing Wiesel’ use of figurative language in this passage students came to understand how Wiesel is showing internalized dehumanization in the memoir.

Now, this passage represents an important shift in the book as we start to see the way Wiesel is internalizing the dehumanization he has experienced. This is normally something I would want a student to pick up on during a “first read” of the book; essentially, it is something I think they should get when in comprehension mode. However, I have rarely seen students pick up on this transition in previous years as we have read this section in comprehension mode. In this instance the act of analyzing actually enhanced their understanding of the flow of the text, even as it also pushed them to explain the meaning of figurative language in this section.

Now, it could be argued that students might have also picked up on this transition if we had simply paused and read this section more closely in class, even without the analysis focus. However, I will say that many students really found the way Wiesel was internalizing dehumanization only after analyzing these specific metaphors. Other students who picked a different part of the passage to analyze did not pick up on the transition so readily. It seems that the act of analyzing the text also enriches the students understanding of the text overall. When we pause to analyze specific passages students are sucked in by the author’s use of interesting language and literary devices. Many feel like they are solving a puzzle as they start to see how figurative language here, and alliteration there, work together to develop a tone or message. In this way the act of analyzing while also “reading to comprehend” enhances both the analysis and the comprehension.

So, how do I negotiate between these two modes in my class, especially considering that I have to set priorities? What I am currently working with is a system where we read the beginning of the text as a whole class and pause to analyze specific passages along the way. Sometimes all the students respond to the same prompt about the same passage. Sometimes I give them a choice about which passages to analyze and then their share their learning with the class. Often as we move to the end of the book students find passage that stand out to them and then analyze those based on which writer’s moves they noticed in the passage. Either way we constantly move back and forth between comprehension (which is always needed at some level) and analysis as we move through the book. I’ve learned that analysis can’t wait until we are “done” with comprehension. Instead, it is a vital part of the reading process.

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