Friday, January 17, 2014

The Weight of a Word

Did you ever completely misinterpret a situation, just from the misunderstanding of one word?

Background knowledge deeply affects reading comprehension, a fact I received a humorous reminder of this week. 

My students are required to do 300 pages of reading outside of class per semester. When they finish, they make an appointment with me for a “book talk”--a 10-minute discussion about the book. This week I started one discussion with the usual “Why did you pick this book?” The student replied that she likes fantasy, and from the cover illustration, the blurb on the back, and the librarian’s brief ad for the book in class, she had thought the book was a fantasy, but she was disappointed when she discovered it wasn’t. Meanwhile I was thinking, “I heard the librarian’s ad, and I was perfectly clear that this was a work of historical fiction set in Europe in the early Renaissance. How could she have thought the book was a fantasy?” 

As we continued, I asked her about the protagonist--was he a dynamic character who changed over the course of the book, or was he a static character who pretty much stayed the same? In her answer, she began to tell me about the difficulties he faced and overcame related to his being a dwarf. As she said the word “dwarf,” she hesitated, her voice rose in query, and her forehead furrowed. 

Suddenly, epiphany. I asked, “Did you know that ‘dwarfism’ is a medical condition that makes people abnormally short?” Poor child: she’d read “dwarf” on the back of the book, thought Middle Earth and Narnia, and spent the first half of the novel, until she finally gave up, waiting for the elves and the magic to show up! 

How can I help my students with the background knowledge they need for better reading comprehension? Here are a few ways:

  1. Create safety where students can share questions when they are confused.
  2. Model admitting when I don’t know things and looking them up.
  3. Be aware that English words can have many different meanings or connotations, depending on context, and explicitly teach them whenever the realization strikes.
  4. Share background knowledge when I anticipate misunderstandings (unfortunately, this mostly comes from experience).
  5. Remember (and remind students!) that while reading depends on background knowledge, it also grows background knowledge. 

Most of all, I read, encourage my students to read, and talk with my colleagues about good books--sharing the joy, fueling the virtuous circle.

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