Monday, August 6, 2012

What if I didn't know that I didn't know?

I sometimes find while reading that I need to stop and look something up to better understand the content of an informational text or the context of a complex narrative. Of course, like most experienced readers, I can often fill in the gaps that writers leave by relying on my own background knowledge or by making inferences.

But what if, like many students just learning to read, I didn’t know that I didn’t know something? Or I didn’t know it was my responsibility to fill in the gaps that writers leave? How hard would it be to understand what I was reading or to even learn to read at all? Knowledge is essential to reading comprehension, and this includes both factual knowledge and knowledge that is based on reasoning, or inferential knowledge.

A recent study published in the journal, Reading and Writing, regarding the relationship between inference making and reading comprehension among pre-school students potentially provides educators, and parents, some additional insight into the process of how pre-readers develop comprehension skills and could inform the development of pedagogy that more efficiently addresses the various skills that are required for children to develop literacy. While this study, as many others before it, found that children’s ability to make inferences was significantly related to story comprehension (some previous studies have found causal relationships), it extended this understanding to pre-school, pre-reading children for the first time. Furthermore, the authors believe they have identified specific inference types that “make a unique contribution to story comprehension above and beyond basic language skill and age.”

While children in this study tended to more frequently make inferences related to the concrete activities of a story’s characters, it was the more abstract inference categories—goal inferences and character state inferences—along with one concrete category, action inferences, that significantly related to children’s story comprehension. Other types included character activity inferences, object inferences, causal inferences (antecedent and consequence), character emotion inferences, and place inferences.

The authors examined the inferences pre-school children made when narrating a story using a wordless picture book and whether these inferences were related to story comprehension in a separate narrative task in which they were asked to answer questions designed to elicit both literal and inferential understanding of an aurally administered narrative. Also, both the story generation and narrative comprehension tasks were conducted using an on-line process in which students were asked to think and share aloud while narrating a story and listening to a narrative read aloud to them.

Citing a relationship between working memory and reading comprehension, the authors assert that while the on-line story generation task is perhaps more demanding than measuring inferences using narrative recall, it is also less demanding of young students’ attentional resources and allows them to move at their own pace. Furthermore, they note that while previous authors had linked inference making to narrative comprehension within a single narrative, they were seeking to determine whether inference making would generalize to comprehension of an unfamiliar story.

One implication for educators is that teaching comprehension skills, perhaps specifically including making inferences related to goals, character state, and action, can and should begin with pre-reading, pre-school students. Also, for teachers trying to determine how students acquire comprehension skills or why certain students may be struggling, the on-line approach allows them to formatively determine which inference types students are struggling with and to make the necessary instructional adjustments.

Finally, this study addresses comprehension using narrative forms of writing which, while valuable in helping students to develop specific skills with respect to narratives, does not address the need for students to be able to comprehend and use expository text, particularly as they move into the upper elementary and secondary grades in which their ability to comprehend text of any kind is, for better or worse, often assumed.  While narrative comprehension is important, early childhood educators should not assume that it facilitates comprehension of expository text. Furthermore, it also perhaps suggests, given that stories tend to be more interesting and more challenging in that they require more inference making, according to Daniel Willingham in  Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom, upper elementary and secondary educators might consider ways to provide opportunities for students to learn the material they traditionally cover with expository writing in ways that are appealing and connected to their students.
  • Tompkins, V., Guo, Y., & Justice, L. M. (2012). Inference generation, story comprehension, and language skills in the preschool years. Reading and Writing. doi:10.1007/s11145-012-9374-7

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