"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Long Road from Reading to Comprehension

I teach the second semester of General Chemistry at Georgetown and at the beginning of the course, I often tell the following to my students: "Last semester, you were introduced to a vast array of concepts and tools beginners in chemistry need to learn. By now, I hope you would be able to carry a conversation with a chemist and understand some of the language that chemists use. Chemical equations should now look similar to a sentence written in grade school level. This semester, it is time to see the fundamental concepts (the basic ideas and emotions) upon which chemistry is built. And I hope that after this semester, you will be able to see how things fit together and begin to see the world in the way chemists see it."

I also share with my students a poem I wrote in my mother tongue:

Makatang Dalita

Mga titik sa harap ng aking mga mata,
sukat na walang malay tulad ng mga bata,
hanap ay pagsasama upang maging salita,
anyo at damdamin nasa kamay ng makata.

Ang mga pusong ngayon ay waring nagkalayo,
mga saysay na hindi maihatid sa iyo,
galak, hinagpis at pati na rin pagsusuyo,
sa titik lang nawa'y magkaunawaan tayo.

Dagat man ang kaibhan pilit naitutugma,
labis o kulang kinakailangang tumama,
salat sa ayos sa aking puso'y nadarama,
mga titik, aking hangad, ay magkakasama.

Mga titik ay maging salita, maging tula,
isipan at damdamin ay maipakilala,
at kahit walang himig sa madla'y ipatala,
titik na may galak, minsan di'y galit ang dala.

Hindi hihigit sa sulyap ng iyong mga mata,
o sa tamis ng ngiti sa labing nagmumula,
o sa larawan ng ating mga alaala,
ito'y 'sa lamang tula ng makatang dalita.

Below is a translation in English: 

The Poor Poet

Letters running across my eyes,
Filled with innocence like little children,
Searching for a union that will make words,
Their form and emotions, in the poet’s hand.

Hearts that are now seemingly far apart,
Stories that cannot be told,
Joy, sorrow and love,
With these letters, I hope we understand.

Amidst a sea of difference, I will try to connect,
Too much or too little, I will try for a meter,
Devoid of order, in my heart I feel,
These letters, I wish, will come together.

The letters will become words, will become a poem,
My mind and heart, I will show,
And without a tune, I will share,
Letters with joy, and sometimes with anger.

This will never surpass a glance from your eyes,
Neither the sweetness of your smile,
Nor a picture of our memories,
This is only a poem from a poor poet.

Reading occurs at different text levels. First, we have letters clustered together to form a word. Word reading therefore becomes the first step. Then comes vocabulary, we need to know what these words mean. Words make up a sentence. In a simple sentence, there is a subject, a verb, and an object. Of course, adjectives and adverbs add flavor but there are also prepositions and conjunctions which can add a dependent clause or two. There is also past, present and future. Grammar helps us understand how words are connected to each other. These rules guide us in extracting the message from a sentence. Beyond a sentence, we now venture into high-level language. We need to figure out the topic behind all these sentences. We can sometimes infer. And when we really get into the reading, we may even feel what the writer feels. The above steps, by the way, are also necessary to understand a joke. Failing in one of these steps can easily lead us to missing the punch line. 

Indeed, there are so many factors involved in the process of reading to comprehending. Helping a child develop reading comprehension requires identifying where the difficulty lies. What is interesting is that these factors are a bit independent of each other. In addition, there seems to be a hierarchical relationship. Letters, words, concepts, topic, disposition can be regarded as descriptions of reading levels. Therefore, one may suggest that difficulties in each of these levels map over a child's reading comprehension performance. 

The Language and Reading Research Consortium at Ohio State University has recently examined how each of these factors correlate with a child's performance in reading comprehension. The study, "Pressure Points in Reading Comprehension: A Quantile Multiple Regression Analysis", is scheduled to be published in the Journal of Educational Psychology. The researchers find that all of these areas, vocabulary, word reading, grammar, and high level language provide variance among students across all quantiles of reading comprehension. The contributions at each quantile performance seem identical for each of the different areas.

Above copied from
Pressure Points in Reading Comprehension: A Quantile Multiple Regression Analysis.
Logan, Jessica Language and Reading Research Consortium
Journal of Educational Psychology, Oct 24 , 2016, No Pagination Specified. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000150
With multiple regression, the researchers are able to extract the unique contribution of each area to a child's reading performance. In this analysis, the hierarchical nature becomes evident.

Above copied from
Pressure Points in Reading Comprehension: A Quantile Multiple Regression Analysis.
Logan, Jessica Language and Reading Research Consortium
Journal of Educational Psychology, Oct 24 , 2016, No Pagination Specified. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000150
Word reading is important for poor readers. These students need help in this area. Variations in performance among poor readers are also correlated with grammar and high level language. Vocabulary, on the other hand, is quite important among average readers. Grammar seems to be the only area of significance among top readers. Nevertheless, the additional analysis still leads to something similar from the one obtained in a simple regression analysis, that is, the contributions from the various areas are much less than 1 at the 90th percentile. Obviously, there is one area that is not included in this analysis that may be able to explain further differences in reading comprehension performance. As the authors noted, this may be knowledge. Background information is important in reading comprehension since we oftentimes know something about a passage that we are about to read. 

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