Why We Must Challenge the Status Quo of Reading Comprehension

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Even in elementary school, I felt that reading comprehension tests were little more than exercises in restating the obvious. These tests often seemed to measure little more than our ability to regurgitate facts and details rather than allowing us to truly engage with the material. For me, the sign of good writing is if you find your own notions and preconceptions about reality challenged, or if you begin to ask fresh questions because of what you read.

When it comes to testing reading comprehension, I’ve always felt that the better exercise is to share what questions you had about the ideas and concepts in what you were assigned. It’s also crucial to decide if what you just read is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ writing; if it didn’t engage you, it’s important to understand why that is, because knowing this makes you a more active and discerning reader. Yet, all teachers wanted to do was grade you on your understanding of assigned passages, based on often seemingly arbitrary data points you were supposed to revisit.  

One might say that my idea challenges the conventional approach to evaluating reading skills. After all, it shifts the focus to critical thinking and personal engagement with the text.I believe that reading comprehension was originally meant to reach this end, but when I was faced with “critical thinking” questions even in the 90’s, I found them common sense and surface-level questions. Of course, I didn’t yet have the terminology to describe what I felt, but in retrospect, that’s why I didn’t feel engaged with what we were reading in school. So, this is likely even more true for my peers, none of whom were nearly the bookworms I were.

The true value of literature lies in its ability to provoke thought and inspire curiosity. So, it’s crucial that when we read, especially during our formative years, we should be encouraged to explore new ideas and perspectives. We must learn how to question what we know and to expand our understanding of the world through the eyes of others. These aspects of reading form the essence of a meaningful educational experience, and true critical thinking skills when we read must be something that’s instilled from our earliest days in education.

Yet, I’ve been a part of many classrooms that feature quizzes including multiple-choice questions on the main idea or supporting details. Instead, I believe students should be asked, “What new ideas did this passage spark for you?” or “How did this story challenge your previous beliefs?” Such an approach would mean not just encouraging students to enjoy a deeper connection to the text, but also cultivate these all-too-necessary critical thinking skills and a lifelong love of learning. 

Students must see reading as an active, dynamic process, rather than the passive one it often becomes. Such a paradigm shift in how reading comprehension is taught would drastically transform our education system. It would create a generation of thinkers and innovators unafraid to question the status quo and seek out new knowledge. 

Come to think of it, this is likely what schools don’t want: a world of independent thinkers that doesn’t need them to stay in school until their mid-twenties only to be saddled with crippling student debt. Apparently, we don’t want to bring back the idea that reading, writing, and basic arithmetic is all you need to be a functional member of society. But, this is precisely what this world needs in a world more overflowing with knowledge than ever before. So, let’s dive into some practical ways to implement this approach in classrooms. We’ll also look a few examples of texts that effectively challenge readers’ preconceptions.

Some Suggestions for Better Reading Comprehension Tests in Classrooms

Question-Based Assignments

Instead of standard comprehension questions, teachers can ask students to write down three questions that came to their minds while reading. These questions could be about the content itself, the author’s intent in writing the piece, or connections to their own experiences. For example, after reading a passage from a novel, students might ask, “Why did the protagonist make this choice?” or “How does this setting affect the story’s mood?”

Reflective Journals

Probably the best thing any teacher can do is to have students keep a journal where they reflect on their reading, focusing on how it challenges their thinking or raises new questions. Each entry doesn’t have to be lengthy, even just a question or two, or a brief observation. I believe this isn’t common because educators seem afraid that their pupils will ask the ‘wrong’ questions, Still, what else is education for but learning how to find answers for our questions? (Yes, I know it’s really to brainwash students into becoming suits and dresses for Corporate America, but I can dream.)

Critical Thinking Prompts

Reading comprehension exercises should incorporate prompts that require deeper analysis and critical thinking by either putting them in the shoes of the protagonist or the author. These questions could include “How would you have acted in the protagonist’s situation?” or “What alternative endings can you imagine for this story?” Students could explore different outcomes for main characters based on their decisions within the narrative, or decide whether the story should’ve been told from a different perspective or in a different setting.

A Few Examples of Texts that Challenge Preconceptions

“1984” by George Orwell

This dystopian novel challenges readers’ notions about government control, privacy, and truth. It raises questions about the balance between security and freedom. Questions it might inspire: “How much privacy are we willing to sacrifice for security?” Or “Can truth be manipulated by those in power?”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

This classic explores themes of racism, morality, and justice. It challenges readers to reflect on their own beliefs about fairness and empathy. Questions it might inspire: “What would I do in Atticus Finch’s position?” or “How do societal norms influence our sense of justice?”

“Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley

One of my favorites from my high school days, this novel examines a future society driven by technological advancements and hedonism, questioning the cost of such a world on individuality and freedom.

Questions it might inspire: “What are the dangers of a society that prioritizes pleasure over everything else?” or “How important is individuality in a conformist society?”

“Beloved” by Toni Morrison

This powerful novel delves into the legacy of slavery and the struggle for identity and freedom. It challenges readers to confront uncomfortable truths about history and human resilience. Questions it might inspire: “How do past traumas shape our present identities?” or “What does true freedom mean?”

“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

This speculative fiction novel explores themes of power, control, and resistance in a theocratic society. It prompts readers to consider the implications of losing personal and reproductive freedoms. Questions it might inspire: “How would I respond to living in such a society?” or “What are the signs of creeping authoritarianism in our own world?”

By integrating these practical approaches and selecting thought-provoking texts such as these, educators can create a more engaging and meaningful reading experience for students. This approach won’t only enhance reading comprehension, but also encourage deeper critical thinking, personal reflection, and a stronger connection with the material. It prepares students to be thoughtful, inquisitive individuals who aren’t afraid to challenge their own beliefs and those they encounter.

Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but I hope that some people out there among you reading this you have a chance to put some of these ideas into practice. I know that teachers are hamstrung considerably by increasingly strict government regulation on curricula. But, in how you teach the material, you still can have some freedom in getting your pupils ahead of the increasingly stunted growth curve of our world’s intellectual future. 

Teachers and parents have been gifted a sacred opportunity to give those in their care a jumpstart on life. So, whether you’re in education or you’re a parent, I implore you to use your opportunities for the better. If you’re neither, I encourage you to take this advice and apply it to everything you read yourself. You’ll be better for it, and ahead of pretty much everybody else who settled on a mediocre education and paid dearly for it.

~ Amelia Desertsong

Amelia Desertsong is a former content marketing specialist turned essayist and creative nonfiction author. She writes articles on many niche hobbies and obscure curiosities, pretty much whatever tickles her fancy.
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