For nearly a century, leading educators and school textbooks have encouraged teachers to set a purpose for reading. Sometimes these purposes are called “motivation” or they might be stated as questions, “What is a population?” or “What is the major problem the main character faces?”
It makes sense. We want our kids to be purposeful and such purpose-focused reading leads to higher comprehension, right?
Not exactly. Researchers (e.g., Richard Mayer, John Guthrie) have shown that, indeed, if you set a specific purpose for reading, students will do a better job of accomplishing that purpose. So far so good.
However, despite more kids getting correct answers, their overall reading comprehension tends to be depressed.
How can that be? Well, when you focus so specifically on a particular idea you are likely to get it, but that leads you to ignore the rest of the text message — lowering overall comprehension. You learn what you focus your attention on, but focusing on only a part of the text distracts attention from the rest.
I was reminded of all of this while doing a French lesson this week (I’m finally taking a class). The assignment required me to listen to a series of audiotaped messages and to pay special attention to the numbers in the various messages (e.g., prices, addresses).
I’m struggling to understand French by ear, so what I found myself doing was focusing so heavily on recording the correct numbers, I wasn’t comprehending the messages at all. I’d know they were talking about 10 somethings, but I honestly had no idea what. Frankly, I didn’t need to know 10 whats, I just had to know 10, so I found myself losing track of everything else.
I suspect that if this happened to me when I was in elementary school, I probably would have been fine with it. Ignoring the message is the fastest and most certain way to accomplish the assignment — though it isn’t great for learning language or reading.
To truly be a successful comprehender, I needed a different mental set for this activity. I needed first to try to understand the messages, and then to try to remember or go back to figure out the numbers. When I took a breath, ignored the numbers for the moment, and just tried to understand what the French speakers were telling me, I did much better. (And, at my age, since I really do want to learn French, I did just that even though it took longer. I’ve learned a thing or two since I was 12).
My successful, but foolish, initial approach to this comprehension assignment made me wonder how common such purpose setting is in reading lessons. I typed purpose setting and reading comprehension into Google. There were some irrelevant pieces that talked about different purposes for reading (entertainment, learning, etc.), but for the most part there was an extensive amount of guidance advising teachers of the importance of either setting specific purposes for reading or teaching kids to set their own specific purposes. Clearly, these experts haven’t read the research on this misguided instructional practice.
If you want kids to skim a text to locate a particular answer and you don’t care whether they understand the story, article, or chapter, then, by all means, give them specific purposes for such searching. However, if you are giving a purpose to guide reading comprehension, then be as non-specific in your purpose setting as possible (e.g., read to find out what happens in this story, read to find out what this author has to say about global warming, read to see if you can retell this later).
Yes, it is a big mistake to give a reading assignment that includes completing the comprehension questions at the end of the chapter — unless you don’t care whether the students read the chapter or not. Kids tend to aim at efficiency — getting the assignment done as quickly and with as little effort as possible — not learning. Don’t be surprised if they accomplish what appears to be the teacher’s purpose: coming up with answers to those questions rather than reading the text to try to understand the author’s message.