Why do we Read?

posted in: Literacy, Reading | 0

If you ask people why they’re reading, what kind of responses would you expect? Typically, you’d hear:  for enjoyment, to learn about a topic, to find out how to do something. In other words, people read for fun, for information and for understanding.

If we ask students in school why they’re reading, shouldn’t we expect the same responses?

A colleague and I recently interviewed a group of fifth graders about their reading, using the Fountas & Pinnell (2000) “Reading Interview.” It’s one of my favorites, because of the rich information you get when you sit down with a student and ask his or her thoughts about reading. After we each had interviewed about five students, we took a break to compare notes. We noticed a disturbing pattern in the interviews:  these kids were not reading for meaning.

When asked, “Why do people read?” students responded that people read solely for the purpose of becoming better readers. To questions such as, “What have you learned from reading?” or “What advice would you give students in this room to help them read well?” students spoke only of decoding. What they “learned” through reading was not information about snakes or famous athletes or how to do the perfect cartwheel. What they “learned” was how to break words into smaller pieces so they could figure them out. The “advice” they would give to classmates was not a suggestion for a good book or keeping a response journal, but sounding out words.

Is this what we’re teaching them?

If this were a group of first or even second graders, still learning to read, this would not have been so surprising, but I know I sure didn’t expect it from experienced fifth grade readers!

To be fair, the class with which we were working had already been identified as “struggling readers.” Meaning, they were reading below grade level expectations, scored lower than their peers on standardized assessments, and had difficulty completing assignments that involved responding to text. The teacher, new to fifth grade, was open to suggestions as to how to reach her students and support stronger reading habits. And so we decided to interview them, to learn how they felt about reading and what kinds of reading they might like to do.

I was expecting kids who might have trouble identifying what they liked to read, or who had trouble finding books that were both at their level and interesting to them. (This, as we all know, is problematic at this age.) I was not expecting kids who didn’t even know that he or she read because it was fun or because they wanted to learn something.

So, what does it mean? Well, of course we don’t know for sure, but it certainly raises questions about how we teach struggling readers. Are we focusing on the how at the expense of the why? Is this deficit approach common for teachers who work with kids reading below grade level? Why are we not talking about comprehension? And why aren’t we having conversations that spark the joy we can have as readers? Do we think kids who can’t read well can’t understand?

I don’t have answers yet. Obviously we’ll need to collect additional information. But I do know that our focus is going to be comprehension – reading aloud and thinking aloud so students see that a piece of text has meaning. I know that I won’t be throwing them a book and asking them questions about it without teaching them how to actually engage with the texts they read. I foresee lots of modeling, lots of shared reading, and lots and lots of discussion.

Otherwise, I can’t really call my students readers. They haven’t “cracked the code.” Knowing that letters have sounds and that, when put together they form words isn’t enough. That’s not reading.

We read for enjoyment, for information, for learning. We read for meaning.

Thoughts on Snow Days and Teachers

posted in: Parents, Schools, Teachers | 0

So, it’s January in Northeast Ohio, and it’s supposed to get really cold again this week. Hopefully, not cold enough for another snow day.

Oh!  Did I say that out loud? Please don’t tell my kids … they’ll never forgive me.

But seriously, that last round of snow days – which took the total number of days in a row my kids were home to 18 (including Christmas break) – that sent me over the edge.

As a former classroom teacher, and former kid, I want to rejoice in the snow days. I want to say, “Let’s stay in our pajamas and drink hot cocoa and curl up with a good book.” I want to engage my kids in some fun winter craft that involves burlap and fake snow.

But the reality is that I’m tired of seeing my kids lying around in their pajamas all day. Truth be told, it makes me kind of mad … I mean, I’m trying to get work done while doing laundry and cooking and cleaning. The very least thing they could do is get dressed.

No, my kids don’t want to read, or catch up on homework, or do a craft. My kids want to eat all day, and beg non-stop for food. They’ll argue with each other at the top of their lungs about the most ridiculous things, until it gets physical and I have to stop what I’m doing to referee. My kids will nag to play their iPads or PlayStation for hours on end until – out of sheer exhaustion from the harassment – I give in. They’ll ask to invite a friend over because they’re “bored”, and I’ll end up making food for four kids instead of two.

And other kids’ parents:  don’t think I don’t see you laugh when you whip out of my driveway. I know who the sucker is.

But, you know what? I’m glad I have these days. Because it makes me appreciate schools and teachers. It really does.

Sometimes I have this vision of myself as a home-schooling mom. I’ll teach my kids exactly what I want them to learn.  It will be at their level and will all be relevant. We’ll take field trips to the Science Center and the Art Museum. We’ll gather ‘round the table and have fabulous discussions about the Civil Rights movement and its impact on current events. Our art projects will be integrated into social studies or the literature we’re reading … and then we’ll write about them using the writing process.

But, let’s be real; none of that is going to happen. Because of snow days. Because I realize I don’t want to spend 24-7 with my own children.

I do enjoy talking with my kids, and taking them places, and working on projects. I know my role as parent is incredibly important. I know that the value I place on learning is critical to their success in school. I know reading to and with them sets them up for a lifelong love of reading. I just don’t want to do it full-time.

So God Bless the people that do.

Thank you, teachers, for spending your time with my kids. Thank you for trying your best to turn 7 hours a day into a meaningful learning experience. Thank you for expanding on what I’m trying to teach them at home. And thank you for enabling me to enjoy the occasional snow day I have with my kids … making our time together both relaxing and pleasant because I know you have the work part covered.

… But I really do need them to get dressed.

Basic Image Gallery Post

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The Next Great Debate

posted in: Literacy, Reading, Schools, Teachers | 0

When I was a little girl faced with a challenging homework assignment or difficult household chore, my mom would look at me calmly and tell me that I could do hard things. That was it.  I could do it. She’d give me a little tip, a hug, or some guidance if I needed it, and then she’d walk away. I’d work it out or I’d ask for help. Sometimes I even failed. Life went on.

That was back in the days when the “phonics vs. whole language” debate was battling it out in schools. It was such a great distraction from the real issues of education. The debate raged on for decades. I suppose for some, it’s still going on. But really, it was a false argument, based on a misunderstanding, or at least a very narrow view, of whole language and even of phonics instruction. If you know about reading, it seems silly to say that teaching only through phonics or only through whole language is correct. Phonics gives us our information about letters and sounds, a foundation for reading.  Whole language gives us the focus on meaning making, another basic of reading. What’s the debate? We need both. Of course, some students may need more instruction in one or the other, but any good reading teacher will work this out as she gets to know her students.

Fast forward a bit, and we are on to the next great debate in reading education. Recently, the New York City Board of Education has decided to abandon balanced literacy in order to align their curriculum with the Common Core Standards (http://www.examiner.com/list/why-balanced-literacy-is-crucial-not-detrimental-the-common-core-classroom). The assumption here is that balanced literacy and the Common Core are somehow incompatible with one another.

I’m hoping we won’t spend the next couple of decades on a balanced literacy vs. common core debate. Simply put, this debate pits teaching students to read challenging, content-rich texts against reading just-right books. As scary is this may seem, it’s another false debate. Balanced literacy is an idea (a good, solid, research-based idea) and a significant contribution to our growing understanding of learning to read. It’s not an inflexible program that limits learning opportunities. The basic idea is this:  growing readers need access to different levels of texts AND they need different levels of support to access those texts.  They also need to read and write and talk about text. I think that’s pretty much it.

So, what’s the debate?  Give students challenging texts and just-right books to read within a balanced literacy framework. Teach them strategies to make meaning from hard texts. Do this with read alouds. Do this through guided reading.* Prepare them to do this all by themselves. The common core sets an expectation that students manage complex texts independently. Balanced literacy provides us with the structures to do this.  We actually are set up for success here.

So let’s not debate this false dichotomy. Instead, let’s spend our time building upon the good work established through balanced literacy and use it to teach students how to read complex texts. But let’s also give them ample opportunities to engage with just right texts as they grow as readers, as thinkers, and as people. While our politicians and corporate leaders hash this out in their efforts to either save or do away with public education, let us continue to do what’s best for kids. If we build on their successes, and teach them from where they are, they, too, will grow up believing that they can do hard things.

*Don’t define guided reading so narrowly.  It might be based on levels or on reading strategies, but it is always based on the needs of specific students