Comprehension Workbooks

04 Mar

Ugghhh.  What a truly awful concept!

You can’t begin to imagine the number of times I’ve been asked, “What do you use for comprehension?”

The reason you haven’t seen anything listed on my blog is because I don’t use a workbook for comprehension.

It’s kind of like asking, “What curriculum did you use to get the boys walking?”  Ummm…well…first we never used those awful ‘artificial walkers’ (which is a whole other story).  We just gave them space, time and voila….walking!!

It’s the same with comprehension.  We’ve used nothing artificial.   We’ve just absolutely saturated the boys with literature.  I read to them during school hours.  Hubby reads to them on weekends and in the evenings.  The boys read to us daily, as well as reading for themselves.  And whenever we get in the car there’s an audio story playing.   Over time they’ve grown to understand more and more through their repeated and frequent exposure to books and stories.

Actually, I fib.  The boys did do a comprehension activity once.  It was hubby’s idea.  At the time the boys were much younger and hubby was teaching grade 5s.  His school had just started some fancy wancy comprehension program they wanted all the teachers to utilise.  Hubby’s class were doing dismally, as were others.  Hubby couldn’t understand why, as to him the questions seemed obvious.  So he tried the program out on our boys.  At the time the boys had just had all the Roald Dahl books read to them so Hubby tested their comprehension on each of the books.  My boys blitzed each and every test.  So what was wrong with the school kids then that they couldn’t do tests that much younger children could do, without any exposure at all to that type of testing?

The only answer we could come up with was exposure to books and reading.  In general kids in classrooms have one (being the most common) to four (at the very most) class books to read and complete fill-in-the-blank activities for.   Then, whenever else they do comprehension, it’s from a workbook, where they are given a tiny bit of text and several basic questions about the text, and nothing which really gets them thinking…not that that tiny bit of text ever has anything really worth thinking about.

School comprehension tasks are awful and that’s why I don’t replicate it at home.  Never have.  Nor do I torture the boys with book reports.  We just enjoy great stories together, discussing them as we go along and sharing our passion or dislike for titles with interested folk.

The only thing I have purchased, and do use with my boys, that would come close to a comprehension curriculum is “Teaching the Classics“.  Now it is a brilliant program!   The beauty of it is that you don’t impose it on the student, but instead it transforms you the teacher into you the fellow explorer of great literature and teaches you how to guide and lead discussions about what you are reading.

To make the best use of this program I would say that you first need to saturate your students with good books.  Lots of them.   This is how they learn to comprehend the stories you read – through exposure, lots of exposure.  You can begin transforming yourself with the skills “Teaching the Classics” has to impart, while your children are marinating in literature.   Then, slowly you can begin to draw out their understanding of the books with questions – good questions.

“Do you think he should have done that?  Why do you think that?”

“How is that character like/different to the character from the last book we read?”

Get them thinking, talking and discussing.

Pen may never even hit the paper and most kids will be delighted about that!

This is what great comprehension is about – making sense of what was read and connecting things of value to our own stories.

For example, last week the boys and I discussed the novel we had just finished, “Lord of the Nutcracker Men”.   My original aim was to sketch out a basic story structure of the book – you know, introduction, climax and conclusion with a few bits in between that you’ll learn from “Teaching the Classics”.  But once we got started I realised that each of us had identified totally different climaxes and could articulate how they fit into the story structure they could see.  And they were perfectly valid and more insightful than the ones I came up with.  My little men had some great ideas about the story and remembered so many details as evidence; details that had already become foggy in my school-trained brain.  I sat back thinking, “Wow.  My job here is done.”  However, I hadn’t really done anything special except read them LOTS of books and chat with them about them.   It’s by far the easier, more pleasant way to teach comprehension.

For a really great audio on the topic, listen to Andrew Kern’s “Teaching Literature Wtihout Killing the Book or Student”  He starts out by simulating a classroom comprehension lesson and then contrasts it with a discussion focused comprehension session.   The difference is startling.

Yes, I know.  Comprehension workbooks are so much quicker than reading whole books.  It’s true and I do sympathise.  But to be honest, you might as well throw out the workbooks and do nothing at all.  That would save even more time and the value of the activity is the same.

Seriously, pick up a good book and do it often!  Feed their souls and minds with good literature; not just once a week, not just on the weekend, not just before bed, but as regularly as you feed their bodies, .

(Bypass modern bookstores as they have little to nothing of value, seeking only to appeal to the masses.  Jump online and start your search.  There are good books out there just waiting to be discovered.)

Reading will open up a wonderful new world.  It may take more time and cost more money but your children will gain so much – comprehension, vocabulary, written expression, grammar, socialisation, character values, Science, History, Geography…the whole world will open up.  No workbook will ever do all this!

Reading is enjoyable and the more you do, the more you’ll want to do.  And the kids will even start begging for it.

So burn the books! Toss those comprehension workbooks on the flames.  Save your children and head to the library for refuge and relief.

Must go, my dear readers…my children are waiting to be read to before breakfast.

You see, I have my priorities straight.  🙂



























Posted by on March 4, 2013 in Language, My Library


4 responses to “Comprehension Workbooks

  1. Susan

    March 4, 2013 at 8:51 pm

    What a wonderful resource of audios on the Society for Classical Learning site where Andrew Kern’s talk is to be found. Looking forward to listening to this talk and plenty of the others.
    Thanks again Tracey for your wonderful insights and testimony to the power of plenty of reading out loud. I can never be reminded of this enough!

  2. Tracey

    March 4, 2013 at 8:59 pm

    I was reminding me too. I do the reading aloud but I am guilty of feeling guilty about the time it takes out of the day. Ridiculous but true. Writing this blog post was cathartic for me today. We sat and did all of our reading aloud first and just delighted in it. It set a much nicer tone to the day than rushing around madly doing bookwork to make sure we have time for reading aloud.
    Oh yes that audio find was a biggie. I’m not sure any housework is going to get done for a while now. Oh well. A great mind and a terrible house has to trump a great house and a terrible mind. Tell me it is so. 🙂

  3. JoAnn

    March 5, 2013 at 9:01 am

    It’s such a blessing to know what works for our families, and to watch our children grow in that. Did your husband’s school keep doing the tests?

  4. Tracey

    March 5, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    No. I think they are still available but things quickly go out of fashion in school and the new latest and greatest thing comes along. They are forever looking for miracle cures.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: