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The Relationship Between Comprehension and Reading as Rehearsal for Real Life (Reading Modes Series Part 3)

June 24, 2015

As I discussed in part 1 of this series the “Reading as Rehearsal for Real Life” reading mode (also called the “Big Idea” reading mode) is where one is reading in order to think about the big ideas in life, developing empathy through identifying with the characters, or even just rehearsing one’s real life decisions through the characters choices. In this post I will discuss the relationship between comprehension of the text and understanding these “big ideas” that readers use to rehearse their own lives.

At some level it is obvious: you must have a basic comprehension to make connections between text and big ideas. For example, you have to know what the characters are doing in order to compare your choices to theirs. This is why you can show students the movie based on a book, or have them watch a play, and they can still have discussions, or do writing, about real-world connections with the story, even if they never actually pick it up the book. But what about a deeper level of comprehension, one that requires you to make inferences about character motivation, to understand the relationship (through subtle dialogue) with characters, or even just descriptions of setting that create a certain tone about a place, which in turn develops theme? Well, what I have found is that this level of comprehension enhances students ability to “rehearse for real-life” with a text far more than simple plot awareness. Once students move toward a deeper understanding of nuances in a text, the real-world connections become far more interesting.

On the flip side, one of the most obvious ways that real-world connections support comprehension is that making personal connections to the text provides motivation and interest for students. When students read The Hunger Games a discussion or writing assignment about Katniss’ motivations at every point in the book can lead directly to questions about what motivates students to make difficult decisions in their own life. When students read Desdemona’s speech at the end of Othello, where she plans to stay with him even as she has reason to fear him, amazing insights can ensue about why she will essentially “stay” with him, and gives students a reason to consider what to do when they feel uncertainty about all types of relationships. By connecting the text to their own lives students are encouraged to find deeper understand of character motivation, character development, or even just thoughts about what things like pride, love, or jealousy mean in both their text and their world.

So, comprehension at a deeper level, especially around character development, can enhance a student’s understanding of how a text connects to their lives, and motivate them to read in the first place. On the flip side, a focus on the big ideas or character motivation in the text can help students reach this understanding. If students have a deeper understanding about what a text is saying about abstract ideas like love, hatred, dehumanization, joy, power, etc. they will be better able to see how the same ideas connect to their lives. If students are being asked to compare a time they felt pride with Othello’s speech about falling in love with Desdemona in Act 1, they have a reason to read closely and figure out what the speech is really saying. If students are being asked to compare a time they told a lie to the way Katniss and Peeta present themselves at rallies in Catching Fire then they have all the more reason to figure out the nuances of Katniss and Peeta’s relationship. In this way a focus on “Big Idea” reading actually motivates and enhances comprehension of more subtle points in the text.

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So, the question is, how to capitalize on this relationship between comprehension mode and big idea mode in the classroom.To be perfectly honest, this is something I am still struggling with as I often find myself getting bogged down in comprehension and pushing students back to the text to find meaning rather than just sharing personal experiences they think are tangentially related to ideas in the text. Essentially, I am constantly watching out for the trap where “rehearsal for real life” discussions fall into the trap of being just about life, and not being informed by the text. However, I have found that a pattern of read, write, discuss works well to have students make these connections between the books we read and their own lives. It seems somewhat obvious, but I have students start with the text. They might do one of the following:

  • choose a line that stand out and explain why
  • translate a complex Shakespeare passage into “modern” English
  • find a line of dialogue that illuminates something about a character
  • put a star next to something interesting/surprising

Then, students write. They may write just their opinions of the section of text and/or character, they may try and connect the text to a specific event in their lives, or I might have them explain the connection between that section of text and a “big idea” (like love, pride, jealousy, dehumanization, societal pressure, etc.). One of my favorite ways to do the writing this year was my commentary assignment. But the key step is discussion. Be it in small groups, whole class, inside-outside circle, etc. students use discussion to bounce their ideas off each other and really start to make those new real-world connections. To be totally transparent, discussions (especially whole class ones) is an area of my teaching I’m very focused on improving next year because I struggle with them. But what I found fascinating in the last couple years is how many students vividly remember our discussions at the end of the year, even if those discussions were infrequent and inadequate in my opinion. Discussions stick out to students, and also help important ideas stick in their heads, which makes them the perfect vehicle to get students to make the link between comprehension and reading as rehearsal for real life.

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