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Do You Read Me?

June 1, 2012

Photo by the author.

As the foundation for most core, academic learning, literacy consumes much of the focus in discussions of education practices and policies.  If we could harness the energy generated by advocacy and dissent, we could power small towns by staging debates on reading instruction and book lists.

I recently read Dan Willingham’s guest post at The Answer Sheet, questioning whether or not we might be killing the joy of reading, (and maybe even the point of reading?), by trying to teach students to approach reading with a set of strategies to help them make sense of their reading.  The strategies in question are often formalized versions of what happens more organically for many successful and effective readers.  Willingham is in good company raising the question of whether academic instruction can be guilty of Readicide.

For a short period of time some years back, I taught a reading course at my high school, in addition to my duties teaching more traditional English courses.  There was no singular product or approach to reading instruction.  I used some lessons in reading strategies, offered sustained silent reading, had students memorize academic vocabulary and Greek and Latin roots, tried to spark interest with discussions and debates based on students’ reading and research on topics of interest, helped students connect with our librarian,  and even secured a small grant so that students could choose books for the library to add to its collection.

So, I’d like to offer this thought about what works in adolescent literacy instruction: I don’t know.  Or rather, to be more precise, I don’t know anything that’s going to work all the time.  I don’t know why the same approach works sometimes and fails sometimes.  I don’t know what book or approach or lesson I would choose if I don’t know the students and the context of the instruction.

I do know that students vary. Every individual brought unique challenges. Some thrived on trust and could be quite productive when given more options, more leeway, more independence.  Some students depended on me for every step and every move, and would do their best as long as I kept providing guidance.  Some students were resistant, openly defiant, and I never really cracked the code for helping them.  Others were just as resistant, but would respond positively if I waited them out.

One freshman girl I recall fondly complained about nearly every class and every activity, and tried to intimidate the boys who told her to quiet down.  After months of working to gain her trust, it turned out she responded well when I simply laughed at her – not mockingly, but as if I found her amusing (which I actually did – around February or March).  Having said her piece, she would relent, buckle down, and then hand in great work.  A year later I was a guest at her quinceañera, and we maintained a friendly connection throughout her years in high school.

I’m also reminded of a student I knew all the way back in 1994, a fourteen-year old boy from Guatemala, three years into his American education.  Martin defied everything I was being taught about language acquisition in graduate school.  He was developing fluency without much practice speaking.  He was reading the dictionary for fun.  He was learning to write in English in part just by using English texts as the source material for his keyboarding practice.

So, when we engage in broad discussions about What Works in literacy and language, there are certain generalizations that leave me uncomfortable.  The first step is thinking of the child.  It doesn’t matter how great a lesson or book might be if the student won’t attempt it.

But what makes a great lesson?  Some of my students began to look at word roots as puzzles and came to appreciate the way deconstructing words could help reveal their meaning.  Other students were never particularly successful or interested in that approach.  Some students would indulge me in certain strategies if the content was interesting and relevant to them, while others would engage on almost any content but resisted the constraints of teacher-directed strategies or discourse.  Did I commit readicide?  Did I bore students by teaching reading strategies?  I think I’d have to plead guilty where the question concerns some students, and yet for others, I think I was helpful. Looking back on years of practice and dozens of students, my answers are not clear cut.

I do know that our limited entry and exit assessments of students in our reading classes were thoroughly unpredictable.  Judging by that tiny bit of data, it would appear that there were students who regressed, other who plateaued, and a few who skyrocketed during that year they spent with me working on their reading.  I never wholly believed the results at either extreme.  Had it occurred to anyone to use standardized test scores to evaluate teachers at my school, I do know that no one would have had a formula to separate my influence from that of my colleagues who had these students in their regular English classes.  Nor would anyone have been able to suggest a reasonable formula to disentangle the effects of other teachers, attendance problems, mid-year transfers, or other variables.  I know that some of my students from reading classes went on to great success in high school and have now entered college.  I can’t claim more than a sliver of credit for that.  And if you hear grand claims about literacy instruction that all students need or benefit from, I suggest you hold on to a sliver of doubt.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary Porter permalink
    June 2, 2012 4:25 am

    I read you loud and clear, as my daddy used to say. The experiences you describe are the real stuff of teaching; I teach chemistry, but I recognize everything you wrote about fifteen-year-olds.

    There’s a worse problem than misguided attempts to define the one best system, though. My science colleagues, along with our history teachers, have just been subjected to a year-long professional development on how to teach our students to write for the Common Core. None of the strategies are aimed at reading, writing, or comprehension! They’re all about producing higher-scoring products for machine grading by Pearson.

    “Chomp” is one great strategy. To teach them how to summarize, in writing, we’re supposed to have them cross out all the small words, highlight the big ones, map the big ones into a flow chart, then construct sentences out of the them, changing the order slightly.

    At no point is meaning, purpose, or interest addressed. Obviously, the scoring programs aren’t interested in that, and can’t even see it.

    These literacy standards and their rubrics are now to be applied across all the disciplines; One Core, to rule them all.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      June 2, 2012 10:24 am

      Mary, thanks for your comment. As an English teacher, and former reading teacher, one of the things I liked about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) was the interdisciplinary approach to literacy skills. However, the main worry for me and many others is the implementation and assessment. What you’re describing certainly sounds like a formulaic method designed to score well on tests, without assessing any higher order thinking. It’s only a step removed from the worst types of comprehension questions found on tests and in textbooks. Here’s an invented example to illustrate my point.

      “In 1790, the Emperor of Backlaffistan ordered his generals to perspillicate the troops along the eastern border, a change in tactics that served to dismallify the local tribes and usher in a period of intraspidated relations.”

      Now, no one could possibly derive much meaning from that passage. We know an emperor changed tactics and the change had effect on relations with local tribes, but we don’t really know what kind of change it was, what effect it had, why it was undertaken, whether or not it should have been done, whether it was predictable or innovative, etc.

      And now, here are four questions almost any student could answer to show their supposed comprehension of that sentence:
      1. In what year did the Emperor change tactics? 1790
      2. What tactical shift by the Emperor dismallified the local tribes? He ordered generals to perspillicate the troops on the border.
      3. How did relations between the Empire and the local tribes change? They became intraspidated.
      4. In what region were troops perspillicated? The eastern border

  2. June 4, 2012 3:52 am

    Good thoughts, all. My teaching principle regarding reading: students that devour reading materials are primed for direction toward core readings. Without this desire to read, they can’t be called upon for focuses, relevant readings.

    This presents a challenge for teachers of all subjects: how do we figure out the best trajectory to tap into a student’s core reading interest or proclivity? As a chemistry teacher, I have tried to use literature, history, business, public health, current events, biography, television, or even graphic novels as stepping stones. I really feel that any bias on the part of a teacher against particular media or subjects is neglecting a valuable set of tools.

    That said, the challenge of tailoring this for each student is great, indeed. Enlisting students to select possible sources is a good start, and group discussion of individual readings can alert others to resources and help paint the picture of how each fits into my teaching goals.

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