Comprehension used to be dreaded by my class. Make sure you answer the question fully, don’t start with because, use the words from the question and the text to help etc etc. And it would be the same, week after week. So I decided to do something about it that would make the exercise more relevant to what they wanted to do and the following activities are what we tried.
Activity 1: Comprehension Through Art
I would give the children a copy of the text and ask them to read it carefully, highlighting everything they felt could be represented as an image. From this I asked them to draw and colour or paint a picture that showed me what they had read about in the story. Overall, the results showed a good understanding of what they had read. Whereas I may have asked a younger class how many friends did Peter meet at the park, there in the picture would be Peter with two friends. If the text had described each of them, I would see in their picture, the two friends of the correct size, right hair colour and correct clothing as per the text, so in a much more enjoyable way for them, they were comprehending the story.
I thought difficulty might arise in the comprehension for the older children but instead what I though would be a road block for them turned out to be an inspiration.
For questions where inference was required; e.g. How did Mary feel, seeing the turtle swim away? I had paintings showing a sad face but also changes in the colouring of the picture itself and the child, in describing their work afterwards, would say, I painted it in greys and blues because Mary is sad the turtle has gone.
I was surprised at how successful it was and have tried it from time to time since. Obviously it can’t be used all the time because the formation and practice of the language of understanding is a vital component but for variety it works very well.
Activity 2: Comprehension as Comic Strips
The difficulty with using pictures for comprehension is that it is impossible to show progression in a story.
I found by using a comic strip format, those texts which question children on a progression such as ‘What do you think Mary will do to help the turtle?’ or ‘What do you think Raj’s parents will say when he gets home?’ are more easily answered.
The children can also practice sequencing by considering how they can show their understanding through the development of the text into a story. It’s fairly easy to guess how many frames will be needed for their answers and I would suggest asking the children to think about where the story will go next. To be able to do this, they will have to have a good understanding of it so far and their finished strip should demonstrate this.
Activity 3: Rewriting the Text
This is a very useful activity as it also practises writing for different audiences.
It can be done in quite a variety of ways depending on the text:
– A change of person; this often can give a different perspective on the story and help the child to understand more of what might be inferred.
– A change of setting; this enables the child to take the facts from the given text and transplant it into a different scenario. When assessing it you should see all of the characteristics and action but higher order work will also adapt the actions of the character to the new situation but not completely change them
– A change of style; The easiest is to convert the text into a newspaper report format and it works quite well as detected inferred information often appears in ‘What the eyewitness saw’. Some texts which have a chronology can be tested by changing the format to an instructional one which highlights sequencing of events.
– The version I like is when you change the subject of the text. We once did this exercise on a piece from ‘Alice in Wonderland but changed Alice to Alex, a boy. The children had to rewrite it but thinking about whether the boy would react in the same way to his encounters. Needless to say, the Cheshire Cat has been rescued by the RSPCA and the Mad Hatter is receiving treatment.
Dave Lewis, Primary teacher