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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    On the Importance of Reality in Reading Comprehension

    November 24, 2007 by Brandy Vencel

    I am passionate about literacy. This reaches back into my days as a reading tutor, spending much of my profits buying storybooks so that I could woo the children into loving reading. For quite some time now, I have been mulling over how it is that two people (we’ll call them A and B), for instance, can read the same words — let’s say they both can read them aloud without any mistakes in pronunciation. — and yet one comprehends what was read, while the other has only a collection of vague and jumbled impressions.

    On the Importance of Reality in Reading Comprehension

    What has plagued me is: what is the primary difference between Person A and Person B? How is it that reading, for someone like Person B, can be acquired as a skill, and yet be so lacking in mental connection that Person B is not much better off than an illiterate?

    In other words, what are the things that make true literacy possible?

    I really thought I had blogged about this once before, but I searched my archives and came up empty handed. I remember reading once (this is what I thought I had blogged about) that Charlotte Mason had an experience like my example above. A classroom of children read aloud a poem concerning a bee. Since none of them had ever actually seen a bee (they were city children in the strictest sense of the word), they could read the words without comprehending the meaning.

    Recently, as I was reading Poetic Knowledge, I found the author had thoughts in a similar vein:

    [O]ne cannot really read and know the words — the signs of things — without first a knowledge of the things themselves, which we must come to love.

    This was something I hadn’t considered, the very nature of words as symbols. I am a fan of phonics, but phonics does not foster understanding of anything except the words themselves. As a child learns the rules, they learn how words work, and they can predict with regularity what an unfamiliar word will sound like.

    But the word is a symbol.

    It stands for something. Something that exists out in the world, out in reality.

    This leads me to two thoughts in regard to the teaching and training of my own children. The first is that I must make it a greater priority for them to have a working knowledge of real things. This is already why we try to grow things, make things, do things. This is a good reason not to falter on that path. The more the children grow and make and do — out in the real world using real materials — the more they will comprehend when they read.

    The second reaffirmed in me our media-free lifestyle. Television’s moving pictures, though I’m not sure I would define them as a symbol per se, is also not reality. Pictures, unless they are altogether contrived, capture a limited perspective on something that exists in the real world. Cartoons, by the way, exaggerate something that is real, which is why only adults truly appreciate them. One must understand the real world to comprehend animation.

    Pictures are, in my opinion, a tricky subject. A child can mistakenly believe they are learning about reality by watching television, when much evidence is to the contrary. Besides the research stating that babies watching so-called educational videos actually know fewer words than babies that don’t watch them, the trouble with television can be more subtle. Pictures cannot adequately convey size and proportion, texture, smell, or taste. In focusing on one sense (vision) in a limited capacity (the size of a box instead of the size of the actual object), the child’s understanding of the real world is truncated.

    This world, after all, is more than what we experience with a single sense. Moreover, God created a world that can be felt through the use of multiple senses at once. It is hard to say that a child watching a nature video, for example, is experiencing creation. When I watch my babies begin their adventure in the real world, I always notice that they naturally engage all the senses. They refuse to only use vision, even though we adults encourage this when we nag them not to touch. Babies will look at something, grab it, feel the texture, sniff it, listen to it if it has something to say, and inevitably try to taste it if an adult doesn’t intervene.

    I don’t mean to say that there is no place for pictures, moving or otherwise. We don’t use moving pictures at all at this point, but there have been numerous occasions when we have searched online or in a nature magazine for a photo of an animal that appeared in one of our books. However, I think I need to remember that the fact that my children saw a photo does not mean that they actually saw the animal.

    I suppose that my hesitancy comes from the idea that too often pictures are replacing real life rather than supplementing it.

    So far in my current thinking, I would say that a child’s directed experience of the world enhances their ability to comprehend what they read. I use the term directed loosely, because this often takes the form of nothing more complicated than a mother’s narrative of what the child sees {i.e., “See this? This is an orange.” or “Feel this! This is so cold.”}

    This seems so simple, and yet the implications are huge, especially when I consider popular educational methods. It is hard to believe that sitting at a desk for many hours each day at very young ages could accomplish the sort of depth of comprehension to which I am referring.

    And so I wonder if perhaps the poor reading in this country isn’t to be blamed on whole language versus phonics, poor curriculum versus great curriculum. Perhaps the entire methodology, the actual way we do school is at fault.

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  • Reply Brandy November 26, 2007 at 10:04 pm


    Thanks! Two book suggestions in one day. 🙂 I suppose I know who to contact if my pile gets low. I think I will put that on my PaperBackSwap wishlist. Sometimes, the lesser-known works are overlooked treasure. 🙂

  • Reply Frieda November 26, 2007 at 9:56 pm

    Brandy, another interesting book you might read on the subject of language-control is Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn. It’s not a classic like George Orwell’s 1984, but it is a quick read and quite thought-provoking, as well as entertaining. (Sorry, I don’t know how to underline titles in this box!)

  • Reply Brandy November 26, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    I have never read Helen Keller’s life story, but you are the second person to reference it in my recent experience, so I’m going to add it to my list!

    Your college professor’s belief in the connection between language and thinking would be supported by the book 1984, where the government is controlling the thinking of the populace through redefining and shrinking the language. We see our own politians do this as well, coining new terms to suit their purposes. If the terms are adopted, these same politicians control the discussion.

    The connection between language and thinking could be a whole post! One parting thought I have is that we cannot know how much thinking a person who cannot speak does. Since language resides in the mind, a mute person may or may not be capable of sophisticated thinking. In rearing disabled children, I would think the application would be to still push for language expansion, even if it only manifests itself internally. The deeper the thought life, the more satisfying a life the child will live, I think…

    Now I’m wandering. 🙂 Thanks for your thoughts. It gave me even more to chew on here!

  • Reply Frieda November 26, 2007 at 1:42 pm

    It was interesting to read your thought-provoking post and compare it to Helen Keller’s life story, which I re-read for the 10th time this month. She certainly exemplified what you are saying, with the added thought that even moral and behavioral growth has a lot to do with thinking, reasoning, and comprehension. In college I had a phychology professor who believed that one could not truly think without having language skills. (I’m not sure I totally agree, but…) And the implication of your post is that one can’t have language comprehension skills without living experience. How intertwined life is!

  • Reply Kimbrah November 26, 2007 at 7:13 am

    Me too! 🙂

  • Reply Brandy November 25, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    That made me laugh. 🙂

    I like to think of myself as well-balanced… 🙂

  • Reply Kimbrah November 25, 2007 at 8:14 am


    You sound like an Unschooler. Maybe there is still hope for you. 🙂


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