Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Why do we read?

I did a workshop today focusing on strategies for struggling readers. I think it's a legitimate topic and I think the workshop went reasonably okay. That's not false modesty; I just know there are some things I want to do differently should I do a similar workshop for anyone.

Anyway, one of the questions I asked is that of the title: "Why do we read?" Not surprisingly, many of the educators in the room seemed perplexed by the question. I mean, it's obvious, right? Sure, maybe, to educators. We read to learn, to be entertained, to expand our horizons, etc. All that good stuff. Yep, I agree.

But here are a couple of follow-up questions: Do our students understand why we are asking them to read? Do they really get why we are asking them to read what we are asking them to read?

I think the answer to both is "no." Too many kids think they are reading stuff in their textbooks because they have to so they can pass a test. And yes, that's true. But that's not learning. That's retaining some information long enough to regurgitate it in some format.

One of the strategies we talked about today is the word knowledge checklist. You can find a version here, though there are other variations. We talked about how students might use the word knowledge checklist along with annotation strategies, and we talked about how students might use the checklist framework for concepts rather than words. Why? Because then students have the opportunity to deep more deeply into the text, to investigate inferences, to think about how text structures and elements of text complexity contribute to or impeded their understanding of the text. And then I suggested how cool it might be if teachers asked kids to think about connections in other content areas with those words or those concepts.

Whether it's a textbook or a supplemental or some other text, students need to learn to appreciate the value of the role of that particular text. Students get certain kinds of information from a textbook that could be illuminated, amplified, supplemented, or maybe contradicted by other texts.

We ask them to read stuff not only so they can learn specific content, but so they can learn how to learn. So they can learn to be discerning. So they can learn how to analyze not only the content of a text, but its caliber. So they can learn how to synthesize a text and find the key ideas as well as see how an idea in one text might be supported, supplemented, enhanced, etc. in a text that has no apparent connection.

If they don't see the value of that kind of learning, the coolest strategies for our so-called struggling readers will not matter one whit.

Having said that, and quite possibly raised a few eyebrows, let me say this. Yes, we have some very real struggling readers. One of the things we talked about today is how we know which kids are struggling readers and how we determine in what ways they are struggling. Or are they really reluctant readers? And do they seem to struggle because they really don't want to read? If so, why are they reluctant? Is it because they don't see the point?

Laura Robb wrote about The Myth of Learn to Read/Read to Learn. The myth is that students learn to read in K-3 and when then reading to learn starts in fourth grade. Except, as Ms. Robb points out, that's a myth. Kids are still learning to read well beyond fourth grade. Do they know how to read graphs and charts? Do they know how to make connections between the reference to the table and the table itself? Can they discern possible reasons for a bar graph being vertical rather than horizontal? The format may mean the data is more readable or its presentation may lead the reader to certain preferred conclusions. Or it could just be a matter of space and paging in the text. Ms. Robb states: "In grades 4-8, expectations for learners dramatically change. Teachers expect students to apply sight-word and decoding skills, supposedly gained in the earlier grades, to new and challenging content-area information. However, many kids need more practice with these basic skills. They also need continued emphasis and instruction on interpreting and comprehending what they read."

To some teachers, that was gibberish because that's not what they tend to have to worry about. But one of the reasons we continue to explore and talk about strategies for struggling readers, or reluctant ones, is that the message(s) of why we implore kids to read will get lost because they don't have proficiency with the skills they need. Once they are more confident in their ability to read an unfamiliar text independently or with little help, they are more likely to hear why we ask them to read stuff. Which, in the long run, is mostly so they can not only survive, but thrive in their futures.

And, if none of that makes sense, read this: Why Read (When We Don't Like It).

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