Do You Read Me?
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.