The main task in teaching reading is to teach understanding. To assess the problem of what to teach when teaching understanding, we must try to determine what is likely to prevent a child from comprehending a given text. Or, to put it more positively, what must a child know, beyond word recognition, in order to read a story?
Let us consider an actual story and use it as a guide to the problem. The story is from an edition of Treasure Island which bills itself as being appropriate for eight- to fourteen-year-olds. We will take seven passages, and attempt to indicate the kinds and sources of trouble a child might have in reading those passages.
1. Awkward Expressions
I remember . . . when the brown old seaman took up his lodgings at the Admiral Benbow.
One problem children have in reading stories is a lack of familiarity with certain idiomatic usage, or modes of expression. Here, the problem is obvious because the expression "took up his lodgings" is an out-of-date phrase. The child may well know, or be able to figure out, what each word is, but he may still be confused. He will not be able to understand what plan the seaman is following. One aspect of learning how to track characters' plans is learning the cues that indicate when a character is pursuing a given plan.
2. Script Instantiation
. . . lodgings at the Admiral Benbow.
Adult readers now realize that the Admiral Benbow is a kind of hotel (or inn, as we are later told). But how do we know that? We know it the same way we know that in "Sam ordered a pizza at Luigi's," "Luigi's" is a restaurant, probably an Italian restaurant. We, as adult readers, know when we are in a script, and how scripts are referred to in texts. Children, however, have difficulty in making this association. They are often unfamiliar with the "stay at a hotel" script. Even if a child is not thrown off by the awkward phrase "took up his lodgings," he will not be able to figure out that the Admiral Benbow is a hotel unless he is familiar with the hotel script.
3. Plan Assessment
"This is a handy cove," the seaman said to my father, "and a well-placed inn. Do you have much company here?"
Here, in the context of the story, an adult reader will recognize that the seaman has a plan to stay at the inn if it is quiet and secluded enough. We assume he is hiding, or that perhaps something even more sinister is occurring. We wait for the reason why. But does a child? A child must be taught to look for the plans of the characters he meets. He must learn to question their motives and see the larger picture. This is a very difficult thing for a child to learn. It involves a new point of view for him. Young children tend to accept the people they meet on face value. They trust everybody. They do not see or look for sinister plans or plots. They must learn to ask questions like, "What is odd about this picture?" and "What if the sailor is not someone to trust?"
Most, if not all, plots are based on the interaction and blocking of some characters' plans as they strive to achieve their goals. Tracking such things in detail is often beyond a child's experience. He must learn how. Movies can be an aid here. Children who watch movies will learn something of plot development and sinister plans.
But there is a great difference between processing text and processing pictures. In reading, many more inferences must be made about what characters actually have done. In movies, actions are spelled out in visual detail. Understanding that a character has a plan, and inferring the details of his plan is easy when watching a movie because we just watch the plan develop. We see every detail of a character's actions in front of us. In reading a story, we can assess the plot, but we must infer the details.
4. Background Knowledge of Characters
Though his clothes and manners were coarse, he did not seem to be an ordinary seaman....
Would a child recognize an ordinary seaman from an extraordinary one? What comparison is being made here? Without some knowledge of what a seaman does, looks like, wants, and so on, it is difficult to understand this sentence.
Two things are important here. First, if we want to help a child understand this story, we should give him stories which have the relevant background knowledge. Second, we must also teach the child to wonder about the implications of the details of the story. A child must be taught to assess the traits of the characters he meets, i.e., what kind of person is being talked about?
5. Plot Development
One day he took me aside and promised me money if I would keep my eye open for a seafaring man with one leg.
The plot thickens. We know that, but does a child? He must understand something of what a plot is, how stories develop, and so on. Again this understanding is based on tracking plans. Who is doing what? What does it mean? How do I know? How might I be wrong? These are questions worth reflecting upon.
6. World Knowledge
His stories were what frightened people most of all. Our plain country people were as shocked by his language as they were by the crimes he described. My father believed that the inn would be ruined by the captain's tyranny; that people would stop coming because he sent them shivering to their beds.
To understand this passage, you need to know something of the values and morals of an English town in the eighteenth century. Further, it is most important to know about businesses, inns, in particular, and how they are run. A basic knowledge of commerce is needed here. This story can be understood effectively only in the presence of the appropriate background knowledge.
7. Tracking Props and Goals
"He's a bad one, but there's worse behind him. They're after my sea chest."
This line is the turning point of the story so far. It indicates that there will be a fair amount of plot associated with the sea chest. As it turns out, the content of the sea chest is the crucial issue in the story. How is the child to know this? How do we know it?
We know it because we know about valuable objects, greed, likely containers for valuable objects, and story structure. When we see a particular prop in a story, we expect it to be used in the story. The child must be taught to look out for props, and to track the goals associated with those props.
8. Inferences, Beliefs, and Reasoning
When I told my mother all I knew, she agreed we were in a difficult and dangerous position.
Why are they in a difficult position? For adults, it is obvious. Our heroes possess objects of value that others know about and will want to steal. But this is not necessarily obvious to a child. A child must be taught to construct chains of reasoning based on beliefs derived from what he has heard so far, and from what he knows of life. But, what does the child know of life? Some of that kind of knowledge is taught by stories. Much of it must be taught when, or preferably before, a story is encountered. The child must learn to figure out what is going on.
Obstacles in Reading
Where am I in the content of the book?