Reading Comprehension: Identifying Confusion

My students have often been at a loss to tell me what caused them to become confused.  And I was at a loss about how to help them.  How could someone not know what caused their confusion?  It resulted in nonsense conversations. Me: “Which part do you find confusing?”  Student: “All of it!”  Me, obnoxiously reading from the beginning of the paragraph: “The.  Is that word confusing?” (Put out the torches, I didn’t actually do this.  I just thought it exasperatedly).  Obviously, I needed help.

If you’ve read the last few posts, you know that I spent the spring intersession trying to learn about teaching “technical reading.” In the third week of our class meetings, I decided to ask some questions about confusion.

Once again I that found Cris Tovani’s book Do I Really Have to Teach Reading had anticipated my problem.  She writes quite a bit about detecting confusion, suggesting that readers need to become aware of the “video camera in your head” and the “voices in your head.”  These show a picture of what you’re reading about, comment on the reading, agree or disagree with the author, etc.  It never occurred to me that some people don’t have them, or don’t realize they are part of understanding.

In conversation with friends and other teachers, I’ve discovered that not everyone has a camera, or that there might be several voices (the one that reads the words, the one that tries to convince you to make pie instead of reading, etc.).  I’m interpreting Tovani’s point in this way: students must learn to notice the sensory reactions they have when they read, to create them if they’re not there and, most importantly, to notice the moment when they turn off.  It doesn’t matter which one you use, or if you have something else altogether: when it stops, that’s the sign of confusion setting in.

The Exercise

To help people become aware of this, Tovani proposes this exercise: choose a short piece of text and make a photocopy for each student.  Students must underline every single word.  They underline in pen if they could explain that word to the class, and in pencil if they don’t know the word or aren’t sure they could explain the concept in the given context.

I asked students to read the passage twice.  Once at a “skimming” pace, with the goal of stating the main idea, and once at a “full comprehension” pace, with the goal of discovering which parts were confusing and which were not.  And we timed ourselves.

I went first.  I explained that we would be using these ideas to help troubleshoot confusion.  I talked a bit about the video projector in my head, the voices in my head, what I see and hear when I’m reading.  The students had fun laughing and making fun of me for “hearing voices,” and a few contributed examples of ways that they use their “mind’s eye” or “mind’s ear” when they’re reading.  I asked them to keep those ideas in mind and try to notice which ones were going on while we worked on today’s reading exercise.

I projected the chapter introduction, and modelled the “skimming for main ideas” process.

  1. Students start timing
  2. I read the text out loud
  3. I interrupt my reading to speak out loud any thoughts that I think might point me toward the main idea
  4. I write what I think is the main idea
  5. Students stop their stopwatches

After a brief conversation about whether they agreed with my main idea, I read the same section again, this time underlining each word in either green or red, like so:

  1. Students start timing
  2. I read slowly, stopping after each word or phrase to report whether I could explain it to the class (“I know that word, it means ‘slanted.’  I’ll mark that in green.  Hm.  What does ‘coefficient’ mean in this context?  I’m not sure what they’re measuring the coefficient of.  I’ll leave that in red.”)
  3. I underline each word or phrase in red or green, depending on my conclusion about my understanding
  4. I get to the end
  5. Students stop their stopwatches.

Ok, so obviously I know what the intro to the chapter means.  I modeled the degree of understanding I had when it was new to me, just a few weeks ago.

Then I asked for comments.  We talked a bit about how much I had to slow down when I was checking my understanding of each word (they calculated my “personal slow-down rate” at 2.3 — I have to spend 2.3 times as long when reading each word than when skimming).  The comment that got the class nodding was “reading this way made you MORE confused.”

“In a way.” I asked them, “Do you think that reading this material erased knowledge that used to be in my head?”  They didn’t seem to think this was true, and it was the entry point into a conversation about defining and classifying confusion (a post for another day).  I told them I felt that the confusion had been in my head all along; I had just never noticed it before because I wasn’t looking for it.

Several students wanted to speculate about the meanings of the ideas I claimed not to fully understand.  I agreed with them that I could figure out all the words, but explained that I still underlined them in red because I wasn’t completely sure how they related to the chapter.  I was trying to open the idea that there are kinds of confusion — from “I don’t know this word” to “I know these words but I don’t see why this is so important.”  I also reminded them that this exercise was about finding questions, and that we would come back for the answers.  Several students volunteered that “you’re not done reading this — you’re just starting.”

Then I gave them two passages to try for themselves.  One was “just right” for most students: unfamiliar enough to be challenging, but scaffolded by previous units enough for them to figure if out (shown below).  The second passage (see the top of this post) had so much obscure vocabulary in it that I was expecting “I don’t know” to be the main idea.


It took about 20 minutes for the class to finish.  I was expecting them to read more quickly when skimming and more slowly when underlining.  It turned out that that was only true for the first passage.  The second passage was so difficult that it was easy to find the words they didn’t know: they underlined most of the paragraph.  Trying to get a main idea, however, took several long minutes of brow-furrowing.  No one gave up, surprisingly, and everyone got something out of it.

We talked about how it felt to do this. (“Hard.”) The comment that stuck in my head was “When I underlined, I was surprised how many words I hadn’t even seen the first time.


No wonder they don’t know where the confusion starts: they literally don’t see the parts that cause the confusion.

We talked about when you should use which strategy.  “It depends whether the test is open-book or closed book.”  “It depends whether you’re studying for a test or just reviewing for class.”

A really interesting exchange happened like this:

Student: “It depends whether I understand it or not.  I only go back and slow down if I don’t understand it when I skim it.”

Me: “How do you decide whether you understand it if your brain is skipping over the parts you don’t understand?”

Student: “…”

I wouldn’t want to do this exercise every day because it’s hard on the brain.  But it opened up some great conversations about reading and confusion — I’ll post the reading comprehension summary next, and what we’ve learned so far about confusion after that.


    • Glad to know this resonates outside of my four walls. Confusion is turning out to be a really interesting theme to talk about with my students.

  1. wow—this is awesome. I think this ties in very well with my idea that confusion is a necessary part of learning, and perhaps even one of the best signals that you are learning.

  2. What a great post-will definitely be trying this with my students. Reminded me that, while confusion is good for learning, students must be able to pinpoint their confusion. Got my gears turning, too.

  3. @quantumprogress: This lesson happened about two days after you posted Embracing Confusion, as you might be able to tell! Later in the day we tackled some of the ideas you raise in that post, students had lots of interesting things to say, although I’m not sure I was framing the questions well. Will write more soon.

    @Terie:Hope you’ll post about it if you try it — I’d love to get some more perspectives.

    • Aw geez, am I that transparent? 🙂 That video was a major inspiration for the lesson, and I showed it to the students later in the day. I will definitely write more about this — and give proper credit to Veritasium for their thought-provoking materials.

      Thanks for writing, Paul! If you liked that video, and you haven’t read Frank Noschese‘s blog, you might also like his posts about Khan academy, pseudoteaching, and confusion.

  4. Mylene–thank you for sharing this lesson. Now I’m wondering where I can use the same thing.

    Paul–thank you for sharing that video! I feel like I just learned a huge amount about making good videos.

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