Comprehension and composition are topics that our children learn in school. They are part of the learning process that will help them to eventually become better readers, writers and thinkers. Some students experience difficulty in this area especially when it comes to the comprehension and composition exercises.
Here are some helpful tips to guide us, both parents and children, in overcoming the hurdles related to this subject matter:
How important is background knowledge?
Over the past two decades, research into how we read and write has shown that the biggest factor affecting comprehension and composition is how much we know about the topic we are reading or writing about.
Your Pokémon Go obsessed child with a C average would likely be scoring an A in a comprehension paper if the text was about Pokémon Go. Student with good background knowledge can open up a comprehension paper on any range of topics and quickly understand what the writer is talking about. In their composition paper, they can easily pull out interesting and well-developed ideas for any question they are asked. Unfortunately, Pokémon Go is unlikely to be the sole topic of exams.
In order for your child to produce the relevant, interesting, and wide ranging essay required to get top marks, knowledge of the following topic areas is useful:
- Choice is a new issue in many countries. For most of human history, the concept of choosing clothes, schools, or even spouses was an alien idea.
- Even now, not all countries or societies have the same amount of choices available.
- Some countries choose to restrict their citizen’s choice based on economic or ideological reasons.
Without knowing this, students can only write about their own limited experience of choice – perhaps the difference between a hawker centre and a mall, which won’t lead to failure but also won’t bring in the higher grades.
What does your child need to do?
In the comprehension paper, the question types that students struggle with most – inference, authorial intention, and summary – are all based on their understanding of the passage.
An encyclopaedic knowledge of all 151 Pokémon may help your child ‘catch ‘em all’ but because of the huge variety of topics that comprehension and composition tests could include, this is not enough to succeed academically. For example, topics may include food, geography, consumerism and technology, science, nature and pollution.
Bearing this in mind, how can your child build their background knowledge to do better in this kind of exam?
The short term
In the short term, teens often possess a fair amount of background knowledge gained from the variety of subjects they study and their personal interests (sports, travel, Pokémon Go!).
In the lead up to the exam, try drawing these strands together. For example, getting your child to make a timeline charting when scientific discoveries were made, historical events happened or works of literature were written. Perhaps they can also try placing on a map the countries they have read about in social studies, English, or geography. Research into cognitive processes suggests that by drawing these kinds of links in our knowledge, it becomes more meaningful and memorable.
The long term
Building up a general knowledge bank over time will give your child a huge advantage. Our curriculum at the British Council supports this by focusing on essay writing and non-fiction texts filled with information.
From Secondary 1, our students study a topic for five weeks and regularly review what they’ve learned through quizzes and assessment tasks throughout the year. This leads to long-term learning and retention: absolutely essential for those mid-year and end-of-year exams!
That doesn’t mean that your child’s passion for Pokémon should be squashed. Research is clear that the more students read about a topic, whatever it’s about, the better they do in school exams.
But in addition to this, your child needs to build a broad general knowledge to be able to quickly comprehend exam questions on a whole range of topics. Who knows, perhaps a well-chosen example of how Pokémon Go has affected sedentary lifestyles might make a difference!