Back in school, in French classes, we used to be given ‘comprehension tests’ for our homework. Doubtless the same exercises are used the world over, though not necessarily by that name. ‘Comprehension’ involved reading a passage written in French, after which you would be expected to answer questions based upon what you had read and understood. Many hated ‘comprehension’, and there would be an audible groan from the class as the teacher set the task.
I loved it. It was, as far as homework was concerned, a ‘freebie’. It had not taken long to work out that the answer was almost entirely contained within the question. As long as you had the basic vocabulary to understand the passage itself, it needed only the most rudimentary understanding of the way that particular language worked to be able to regurgitate the question itself as an answer with the odd detail from the passage thrown in.
There was no need for really understanding though, not at all. The clues were all there. Once you had worked out how to re-present the question, the answers wrote themselves. It always seemed a little pointless to me, as a good mark was based more on rephrasing something you were being told, rather than actually understanding French. But as I liked French and was pretty good at it, I had usually finished the comprehension homework before the class was dismissed and could look forward to both a good mark and a free evening.
We had comprehension tests in English classes too. Given that we already understood the language and how it worked, the requirements were a little bit different and not quite so easy to whizz through. The questions would not simply ask you to restate what you had read, they required you to think about it instead, drawing unwritten conclusions and interpretations. Quite often, there could be no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer as the response had to be subjective. Even so, the information from which your conclusions would be drawn was always included in the text, in obvious or subtle form.
These ‘comprehension tests’ were never, to my mind, a real measure of understanding, but were rather testing knowledge. All it needed was that you paid attention as you were reading and the answers were never far to seek. A good grade could be gained by simple regurgitation in French, and basic extrapolation in English.
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