– Reading comprehension: the joy and the pain

It’s MCAS season, and all three of our children — a 3rd grader, a 7th grader, and a high school sophomore — are taking them. They seem unbothered by a few days of testing: Lydia announced, “They don’t matter,” and Grace said, “No homework this week!” Eli is his usual cool and collected self and has altered his behavior only a little, to get the recommended good night’s sleep.

This morning Grace emptied out her school bag from Friday, and after they all left the house — I’m grading papers at home today — I looked at the worksheets from last week. There must have been 25 of them. (I would say that the idea of a Paperless Classroom has been about as successful as the idea of the Paperless Office.) I was completely riveted — and I am not kidding — by one of the reading comprehension worksheets from the MCAS review curriculum.

It’s a social history piece, written by children’s book author Lucille Recht Penner and called “Don’t Throw Your Bones on the Floor,” on the Pilgrims and their manners. Here are some good (wonderfully disgusting) facts, verbatim:

  • Pilgrim manners weren’t always the same as ours. In their first years in America, they were often too busy for regular meals. People just helped themselves right out of the cooking pot. They ate standing.
  • When the family did eat together, the dinner table was often just some old board laid on top of barrels. The cooking pot was placed in the middle, and the family gathered around.
  • No one had his or her own plate. Instead, two people would share a trencher — a bowl carved or burned out of a block of wood.
  • Some poor people didn’t have wooden trenchers. Instead, they used pieces of stale bread as plates. They put food on top. Then, after they had eaten the food, they ate the bread plates!
  • Almost nobody used a fork… They thought forks were silly. Why bother, they said. “Fingers were made before forks.” But everyone needed a spoon, because the Pilgrims ate so many soups and stews.
  • It was always fine to eat with your fingers. The only rule was that you were supposed to wash them — or at least wipe them — before you stuck them in the pot. Naturally, this meant that everyone needed a napkin. A big napkin! The Pilgrims threw it over one shoulder or tied it around their necks. It hung down almost to their knees. And your napkin wasn’t just for wiping your hands. You could use it to grab pieces of hot food.
  • A polite person did not scratch at the table. Most people had lice and fleas living in their hair and clothes. But it was good manners to wait until you were done eating to scratch.
  • When you were eating meat, what did you do with the bones? Throwing them on the ground was considered poor manners. And you weren’t supposed to put them back in the pot. The correct thing was to pile them neatly on the table.

This was so interesting to me, that I was reminded of how much I enjoyed these kinds of reading exercises when I was a child: a short, surprising passage; beautiful and new facts; a few easy-to-answer multiple choice questions. It was, for me, like a little recess during a day of challenging academic tasks, such as math problems and book reports.

What’s weird is how much I have disliked, as a teacher, helping college and graduate students who are preparing for exams learn how to confront reading comprehension tasks. That’s a big part of the MTEL, the Massachusetts teacher licensing exam, and as a classroom teacher (at Wheelock College) and writing tutor (at Mount Ida), I taught education students and one practicing teacher (!) who were prepping for the exam.

Why do I dislike teaching a task that I enjoy(ed) doing? In my view, comprehension gets harder and harder as an adult, and that’s because experience brings more and more possibilities for interpretation as well as a view that there’s not always one answer. That’s a good thing, right? Our more skilled students know that issues are complex and nuanced. However, multiple choice questions promote simplistic thinking skills — that for any given question, there can be only one good answer. I don’t like one good answer; I’d like to consider a few. So, it’s hard, as a teacher, to promote one.

Question: According to the selection, what were Pilgrims supposed to do with leftover bones?

  1. wrap them in a napkin
  2. stack them on the table
  3. throw them onto the floor
  4. put them into the cooking pot

And you know the answer, don’t you?, having read the passage above.

It’s 2.

5 thoughts on “– Reading comprehension: the joy and the pain

  1. Typically, I don’t like a simple answer either. But at the same time, it can be so appealing — especially when you generally do not work with simple answers. I find that multiple choice question deeply satisfying. Of course, I also just like that list of facts, as you do. I have a mental picture now of neatly stacking bones on the table. (Proper manners, incidentally, are something I wish we had more of in our modern lives.)

    I don’t remember ever liking tests or quizzes when I was in school. But now I LOVE them. Especially identification tests (identifying the author of a passage). It gets back to my grading issues, maybe — there’s so much more enjoyment and exploration involved when the stakes are low and the pressure’s off. (It’s nice to hear your kids aren’t stressed about the MCAS!)

  2. Ooh, PS: I followed your link and answered the MCAS question of the day. Even though it was a science question, I got it right! (How is it possible that, after getting a PhD, I could still get that excited about getting a high school question correct? I’ve got a sickness.)

  3. I guess it’s important too, as you said, that the material be fresh and interesting to better engage the students, in turn resulting in better test grades I’d imagine. Great passage here, I hope much of the testing is as engaging.

  4. I used to teach my eighth graders how to construct multiple choice questions, good ones. (The right answer, an obviously wrong one, and two tricky ones, to start with.) They really got into it, and would read passages looking for ways to construct questions. I played it both that I would use their best questions on tests for the other class, and that the tricky test makers didn’t want them to know these “secrets.” It was a nice break from the ordinary comprehension practice, but kept them reading closely.

  5. After the MCAS were all over, I asked the kids about the good parts. Turns out, they like the reading comprehension and the math, but they think the writing prompts are silly. The 7th grader, for example, on one day had to write about “Your Perfect Day” and on another day to describe the past of the narrator of Paul Simon’s “I Am a Rock/I Am an Island” song! (Can you believe that?) Lydia rolled her eyes when she told me about that one.

    girldogtorch — What a great, great assignment. Much more fun and interesting than just learning how to pick the answer.

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