Reading Directions

It’s the ultimate in broken teacher record commands.  I hear myself using it a lot, though I’m more likely to say “Did you read the directions?” when I sense that this often crucial step has been left out.  One of the young people I work with recently found, in reading the directions, some useful insight into her difficulties with math problem solving.  The directions said “Use the number line to graph each rational number at the left.”  There were four items in this section of the page, and each consisted of a number line with a fraction beside it (on the left). She read the sentence and said “I don’t understand.”

I asked her which part she didn’t understand. She looked again and said “the part that says ‘graph each rational number at the left.’ What do I graph them to the left of?”

She had read the sentence so that the “at the left” didn’t describe the location of the numbers she should graph, but rather where she was to graph them. She’d read it three or four times before we figured this out. As soon as I suspected that this was what was going on, I pointed to the fractions themselves – the ones she was to graph. “Oh!” She laughed as soon as she followed my finger across the page. She made the face she makes when something becomes acutely obvious. She also realized something that has since become very useful for her to know.

Many people wouldn’t be stopped by this kind of syntax confusion. They’d read the directions, glance down at the exercises, and when they realized that there were numbers lined up on the left side of the area, they’d quickly go back and read again, this time adjusting their understanding to incorporate what they found with their eyes. Others do something more like this: read the directions, and set this initial understanding in stone. No further input can change the original understood structure of the directions. When this student realized that this was happening for her, it opened up an opportunity for conquering her difficulty with directions in particular, but also with reading complex or generally unfamiliar text.

This kind of tendency can look a lot like an inability to comprehend text. But it’s not at all an inability to understand, it’s just a failure to recognize the need to let go of one possible reading in favor of an alternative. Excellent readers misread things all the time. They just don’t stop there.