Comprehension can be a thorny topic. It is defined as the ability to read text, process it, and understand its meaning and involves complex cognitive processes.
Problems or weaknesses in any of these elements can be a significant barrier to the reader’s understanding. The job of the teacher is to identify which elements their pupils are struggling with and to break down those barriers through implementing effective teaching strategies.
While learning to read has traditionally been considered to be part of English lessons, reading to learn spans the breadth of the school curriculum, and, indeed, our entire lives. Thus, boxing comprehension off as English-only territory can be detrimental to the reader’s learning experience.
So how is comprehension relevant to other subjects?
For example, comprehension is also a vital part of the mathematics curriculum. Maths questions require pupils to use logic and reasoning, and to accomplish this, strong language skills are imperative. It is not only about memorising facts, or working through algorithms – although these are of course helpful – it is about teaching children to understand, to comprehend the meaning of symbols, numbers and more. It’s about making connections – a skill also crucial to English success.
It has been proven that maths texts contain more concepts per sentence and paragraph than any other type of text. They are written in a compact style with very few redundant words and as a consequence, each sentence contains a lot of information. Texts could contain words, numbers, symbols, diagrams, tables… the list goes on. And many of these texts are written with a higher accessibility level than the maths within them, meaning that the actual text can be a barrier rather than the maths that the children are being asked to complete. Without solid comprehension skills, children who are otherwise strong in maths skills can underperform.
Processing, thinking and articulating, all of these rely on language skills. If we read and process information of any type accurately, then this supports reasoning and deeper understanding.
So what challenges affect cross-curricular comprehension?
Well, as an example, the different terminology can be an obstacle– however, there are huge overlaps, and if we can surmount the differing technical terms, and learn to share strategies, this becomes abundantly clear, and it can be very liberating for teachers to think this way.
So how can teachers work together to develop comprehension across subjects in their school?
The key is working together. Making time for professional discussions, taking a cross-curricular approach, sharing strategies, teaching children to understand, practice and apply, these changes can have incredible impact in development.
Focusing on what is the same, not what is different, supports deeper and more flexible understanding in a wider range of contexts, both in school, and in real life.
You can listen to the full webinar Considering Comprehension Across English AND Maths here
Louise Pennington is the Professional Development Leader for Maths at Oxford University Press and Nicola Romaine is Professional Development Leader for English at Oxford University Press.