Monday, June 13, 2011

Science as a Means of Improving Reading Comprehension

Robert Pondiscio:

Again, did they “read easily?” Or did they decode easily? And I’m not as confident as Merrow that they “drew inferences correctly.” Here’s what viewers saw Monday night on the Newshour:

JOHN MERROW: I wondered how the fourth-grade class might perform on the state test this year, and asked Ms. Cartagena to send me two of her students who were reading below great level.

Jeannette, who is 9, came first.

STUDENT: So far, I have hoped to find many new species.

JOHN MERROW: I asked her to read a passage about dragonflies from last year’s state test.

STUDENT: About 5,500 dragonfly species buzz around the world. Who doesn’t like — like looking at these amazing insects?

JOHN MERROW: What are species?


JOHN MERROW: Kinds. It’s kinds of species. Right. Exactly. Yes.

Exactly right? It is impossible to know, based on this exchange, if the child understands “species” as well as Merrow assumes or if she has a sufficient grasp of what a dragonfly is to apply the concept. As a teacher, I’d want to probe more for understanding, “if you’re looking at two dragonflies, how can you tell if they are different species?” you might ask. If she said they might be different colors or have different shaped wings, I’d feel reasonably confident that she understands the basic idea. If she says “one’s male and one’s female” or can’t explain the difference at all, then the concept is still shaky, or she might not know enough about dragonflies to apply it. Either way it would impact her ability to draw inferences and make meaning from the passage.

I'm no expert on dragonfly taxonomy, but this: "If she said they might be different colors or have different shaped wings, I’d feel reasonably confident that she understands the basic idea," didn't seem right to me. A little quick Googling confirms that the difference between wing shapes within the order Odonata is fairly subtle -- there is more variation in venation. Color can vary within a species by sex within a species, by stage in life cycle, temperature or death.

More pointedly, wing shape would be a better way to tell dragonflies from other orders of insects, more than distinguishing among them.

Of course I'm being pedantic, but so was Robert. But he was being pedantic with no real interest in the facts he was being pedantic about. How do you tell dragonfly species apart? It is a hard question. As is "What is a species?" There's a big gap between "kinds" of dragonflies and understanding speciation, and I'm quite sure a fourth grader doesn't have to bridge that gap to understand whatever passage she was reading.

Anyhow, I just thought that was a damned peculiar and unpersuasive example.

1 comment:

doyle said...

Well, not bad for kids who read below "great" level. (Thank you, PBS....)

This is troubling a couple of levels. We need to get over the confusion between decoding and comprehension. We need to acknowledge that decoding isn't science.

(Ah, but the real reason I write--I am finally going to get that letter out. If I type it, I kill two birds with one stone.)