Think about the last thing you chose to read: a magazine article, a Facebook post, a book, a tweet. What motivated you to read it? Was it a recommendation, or did you stumble across it? What did you do afterward? I’m guessing you didn’t answer even one multiple choice question about the content.
I almost never finish reading an article I’ve discovered online or read in a magazine and immediately think, “Gosh, this would make a great diorama!” or “Does anyone have a hanger? I need to make a mobile so I can really show you all what this article meant to me!” It’s rare that I seek out a multiple choice question or two so that I can feel qualified and ready to discuss what I have read with colleagues or my family.
Adults talk about what they read. They share. They compare. They make connections to other texts on similar topics or similar historical events. They share on social media and e-mail article links to each other. Our students, however, often live in a world of worksheets and packets. No wonder reading has become a task many dread—worksheets do not often inspire.
Let’s put a little more real world into our classrooms, across the school day. Stop talking to students about passing standardized tests and start asking them to do some authentic reading. Stop talking about how reading practice will help them get a high score on the ACT, and start talking about how reading is necessary for informed adult life. When adults become ill, they read as many things as they can about symptoms and treatment options from as many different sources as possible. They don’t prepare for a quiz in their doctor’s office.
We need to make student reading across the school day feel as authentic, purposeful, and engaging as adult reading.
We’ve all been in this classroom: “OK, kids, I’m handing out this article. You need to read it and answer the questions in the yellow packet. It’s important, so read it carefully—some of these questions are related to our Standards. I’m sorry, I know it is more than one full page, and it’s going to be tough reading. I think most of you will be able to complete it before the bell. If not, it is homework. Your quiz is tomorrow.” Hint: If you feel the need to apologize for assigning a reading task, something is wrong.
Seek authenticity. Don’t turn a strategy into a worksheet or bog down a reading task with an acronym that makes the learning less engaging rather than more. Don’t ask students to read articles from their copy of a newspaper with the only goal being to “find the 5 Ws” in the articles you have chosen for them. Instead, ask students to pick up their device and find an article on a particular current event and read it with the goal of being able to tell someone else about it. Have a discussion about what happened and how it was covered in the website they found. Ask them to seek out another website with a different perspective. How do these writers convey their messages?
Stop connecting reading to packets and worksheets. Asking students to fill in blank after blank is encouraging shallow reading, without engagement or passion. It’s exhausting and tedious and easily forgotten. It’s also pretty darn easy to copy from someone else during study hall.
Think of packets as the student equivalent of insurance policies and privacy notices. It’s certainly important reading to the person asking you to read it, and it may be important to you someday, but it’s darn boring to read and easily forgotten.
Julie Scullen is a former member of the ILA Board of Directors and also served as president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council. She taught most of her career in secondary reading intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, disciplinary literacy, critical literacy, and reading assessment and evaluation.
The act of reading is, in some ways, the most invisible of arts. We can’t see others’ minds at work; their engagement with words can be mysterious to the outside eye. But when we read aloud to one another, we bring the joy and connection of reading to the surface; we illuminate its power.
Reading aloud is my favorite way to create community and joy. A profound, magical connection forms between reader, text, and listener. Through the books we choose and the people we read with, we deepen relationships and create memories that will last a lifetime.
In 2007, my colleagues and I created World Read Aloud Day (WRAD) through LitWorld in response to one little boy in a classroom who yearned for more time for his teacher to read aloud. This year WRAD falls on February 16.
WRAD is a soaring global, grassroots movement that shares the power of words and stories and has created a connected community of caring people who come together as a positive force for love and learning and celebrate something beautiful and good.
I had the honor of participating in a podcast (which will go live on WRAD) with our partner Scholastic on the profound resonance of the read-aloud—and the connections that are made—along with actor, comedian, and author Nick Cannon; renowned author and editor Andrea Pinkney; and esteemed researcher, author, professor, and literacy expert Ernest Morrell. Hear Scholastic’s full podcast on February 16, including an excerpt from Cannon’s new book of poetry, Neon Aliens Ate My Homework: And Other Poems.
I loved listening to Cannon talk about his favorite memories of reading growing up and how the sound of language changed him—how authors such as Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss “had a cadence or a rhyme.” He said he loved to share, read, and perform those words aloud. Now, as a father, he passes along the power of the read-aloud to his children, which included The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, a book that celebrated the tender moments of a small child experiencing the joy of a winter day.
Pinkney read aloud to us from her new book, A Poem for Peter, about the author of The Snowy Day, Ezra Jack Keats. I love how the link between Nick and Andrea was completely coincidental: Nick’s revering this classics book and Andrea’s writing the story of Peter, the boy in the book. Each one’s “lineage” of reading intersected in that moment of honoring the power of children’s books to change lives.
Ernest and I talked about the formative impact reading aloud has had on our own lives and with our families, and Ernest pointed out that the research shows how important the read aloud is to the learning life of every child.
I invite you to make your own connections to favorite books, both old and new, on this World Read Aloud Day. Bring your professional community together for dinner and read to each other. Read poems, jokes, news stories, magical fiction, and love stories. Find a a community center that really needs the care that the read-aloud brings and take time to share that on this day.
Join WRAD for 24 joy-filled hours! Visit us at litworld.org/wrad to find resources and on our Facebook page to see (and post!) photos from all over the world in the days and weeks that follow. Remember to use the tag #WRAD17 to share your experiences with everyone!
Pam Allyn is the founding director of LitWorld, a global literacy initiative serving children across the United States and in more than 60 countries, and LitLife, a cutting-edge consulting group working with schools to enrich best practice teaching methods and building curriculum for reading and writing.
Elementary school curricula include reading texts that introduce students to a wide variety of cultures. It seems like such a great idea! However, these stories may compound the problems of struggling readers by throwing in words from other cultures without enough context, making comprehension even more difficult. For instance, a group of urban, African-American students were reading a multicultural story in which one sentence caused considerable stress for the third-grade readers: “Mother wrapped the cassava bread in banana leaves and packed guavas for lunch.” The struggling third graders could not decode wrapped, with its peculiarly silent w, and had no comprehension of the direct object of the unknown verb because they stumbled over cassava (the students sounded it out well, but did not recognize any meaning). When asked why the mother wrapped the bread in foil, the students responded that they didn’t know. The teacher told the students that the mother had not used foil, but something else. The students had gleaned so little meaning from that single sentence that they didn’t know the question the teacher had posed was nonsensical.
The teacher read the sentence aloud to the students. She asked again about wrapping the bread: Why did the mother wrap the bread in banana leaves? One student finally stated with a mimed demonstration that it would be tough to wrap bread in such skinny things. Lavell was linking the sentence to the only related experience he had, the narrow strips of skin from peeling a banana. The teacher then asked why it was that the mother had not used foil or even a bread bag. The students again had no idea.
The teacher encouraged the students to look at the picture. The students couldn’t understand why because there was no lunch preparation going on. Another student eventually said to the teacher, “The kids don’t even have shoes!” The teacher enthusiastically told the students that this observation was on the right track and asked what else they could tell about the family. A student said the family lived in a shack. Another noticed the pots did not look like they had been made in a factory or sold in a store. The teacher wondered if the family would then have plastic bags and foil. The students agreed that they might not—but leaves? Why would the bread have to be wrapped, and why use leaves? A third student said the bread would dry out if it wasn’t wrapped and, shrugging, she observed that leaves were all over in the picture and the mother probably had to use what was available. The students were really excited about their deductions. Their excitement soon soured when they looked over at the other group of children working with the teacher aide and said, “The others have read the whole story already!”
Challenges of time and comparison
Teachers know how to help students build comprehension, but such achievement takes time—time to explore what is already known, examine pictures, make connections, and help students conquer the text. Teachers feel enormous pressure to move through grade-level material at a rate that ensures finishing the text and provides students with exposure to all of the concepts introduced in the texts. Annual tests designed to prove “adequate” progress reinforce this sense of pressure—the burden that children feel to keep pace with their peers is substantial. No one knew if the other group had read the story with comprehension or just plugged along until they got to the end; nonetheless, the students were upset that their group was taking too long on a single part of just one sentence.
Inner city students know many things
This anecdote does not suggest that the inner-city, African-American third graders described here know nothing; that is far from the truth. However, they did not have the contextual knowledge to make sense of the story, a problem any student could have when reading multicultural tales. Multicultural literature, so often praised, may actually cause more stumbling and may decrease reading efficacy. The author’s and publisher’s intent—to provide students with vicarious experiences of cultures and locations other than their own—is counteracted by the difficulty experienced by readers who already lack some of the skills needed to read at grade level.
Take the time, reuse color pictures
The solution is for teachers to take all the time necessary for true reading comprehension and confidence, showing students that what they know (bread dries out if unwrapped) is important even when a story seems irrelevant to their lived experiences. Teachers should also use pictures as often as possible. Color pictures matter, especially to kinesthetic learners. Sharing one color picture of unfamiliar items is worth the cost of ink. Teachers can glue the color pictures into file folders with labels that can be stored and located for reuse. The file folders also help the pictures stand up to being passed around and handled.
Opening a multicultural world is possible for all learners.
Margaret Carroll, Ed.D., is a professor of education at Saint Xavier University, teaching courses in special education and instructional methods.
This summer my great aunt told me, “I have a theory about how psychic energy flows between plants and people.” And over a beer this fall, a buddy laid out his theory on why his girlfriend broke up with him. Although these two said they had a theory, what they really had was a belief, confident thinking not necessarily supported by facts.
Big deal, you might say. What’s wrong with using theory when you mean belief? In late November, a friend, who is a literacy coach, told me she was struggling to reach a certain group of worksheet-loving teachers. “I tell them how important it is to have their kids read for extended amounts of time. But they just don’t believe that will make children become better readers.”
“How is that possible?” I exclaimed, jumping up and down and waving my arms. “The connection between reading amount and reading achievement isn’t something you choose to believe or not. It’s a fact!”
In science, a theory is not a belief. A description of what it actually is can be found in a New York Times article. In it, Kenneth R. Miller, a cell biologist at Brown University, says, “A theory is a system of explanations that ties together a whole bunch of facts. It not only explains those facts, but predicts what you ought to find from other observations and experiments.” In the same article, Peter Godfrey-Smith, author of Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, suggests we think of theories as maps, “To say something is a map is not to say it’s a hunch. It’s an attempt to represent some territory.”
I love this analogy: Facts are to a theory as features are to a map. Likewise, a geography map is to a territory of earth as a theory map is to a territory of science. The best maps—derived from decades of observation, experimental confirmation, and replication—are highly descriptive and strongly predictive. Thus, they are tremendously useful. Well-established maps provide paths of action, enabling us to solve problems, alleviate suffering, and plan for the future. Germ theory helps us to stay healthy, plate tectonic theory helps us plan for disasters, and climate change theory shows us how to fix the environmental mess we are creating.
We teachers are fortunate to have strongly predictive maps at our disposal. Reading is probably the most extensively studied subject in the field of education. The many facts that describe and demarcate its territory include the following: orthographic, syntactic, and semantic processing systems at work when we read; metacognition helps readers comprehend; fluency influences comprehension.
Likewise, we are blessed to have a map of instructional theory that is increasingly realized. We know, among other things, that instruction should be direct and explicit at times, that positive reinforcement molds behavior, and that providing feedback both during writing and reading and while commenting on behaviors leads to greater learning.
We are living in a time when policies and positions supported by facts are under siege. A countering move is to strongly and actively stand up for the well-established maps of reading theory and instruction theory. And we must say that teachers have an ethical duty to follow them. When teachers follow the maps of reading and instruction, they always have an excellent chance of leading their students to the destinations of competent reading and writing. But when teachers dismiss the maps, they are wandering in the wilderness and so are their students.
Powered by talk radio, internet misinformation, and unfair and unbalanced news reporting, the trend of making decisions based on beliefs and feelings rather than facts has been gathering steam for more than two decades. Now it is common to see people calling the theory of anthropogenic climate change a hoax, saying the theory of evolution is just a secularist’s whimsical idea, and, in the case of the aforementioned teachers, treating the theory of reading as a notion that one is free to believe or not.
Rather than allowing folks to dismiss our maps, which we have gained through great effort and are of immense value, we should be standing up for them. My new reading coach pep talk is “Use the map! Use the map!” Using and promoting the maps of reading and instructional theory are actions counteracting a backward slide into a dark place, where personal beliefs trump scientific enlightenment and critical thinking.
Mark Weakland is an educator, consultant, and author of books for teachers and children, including Super Core! Turbocharging Your Basal Reading With More Reading, Writing, and Word Work.
Have you ever had a moment where you felt overwhelmed by professional reading? Or challenged by assigned reading for professional learning communities? Do you feel like the demands of the classroom can be so daunting that time to read about teaching is forsaken for other necessities like Individualized Education Program reports, grading, and meetings?
I know this might sound foreign in a world full of readers, but have you ever faced that moment where you just couldn't deal with professional reading anymore?
When I read professional texts, a sense of vigor, courageousness, and creativity emerges. I recall reading books like Beck, McKeown, and Kucan’s Bringing Words to Life, McGregor’s Comprehension Connections, and Fisher and Frey’s Text Complexity and then feeling like I could set my classroom on fire with invigorated instruction. I’d read The Reading Teacher and Reading Research Quarterly almost religiously. Ideas for my classroom would spawn in my head. I’d return to the classroom every day, with more excitement than the day before.
However, I can think of two periods of time when I embraced an extended pause in my professional reading. Over three years, I’ve taken a really hard look at the circumstances behind my choice to divest myself of professional reading and what I’ve needed to do to resurrect my passion.
Have you ever had one of those days where the stress and anxieties of the workplace, classroom, or meeting overpowered your ability to think? I’ve faced many of these days. Somehow, I associated a bad day in a meeting or the classroom as an indication of my teaching. Slowly as I deteriorated as a teacher, I found myself less and less willing to read, to invest in my profession. Thus, as I struggled to find myself as a teacher, I turned away from professional reading to avoid any further self-contempt spawned from my shortcoming. After all, authors are experts; I obviously was not.
After a low period when I did not fill my teacher soul with intellectual nourishment, I reflected on four key areas that aided a recovery of sorts and reignited my passion to read professional texts.
I am sure every teacher has faced a spell of turmoil in the classroom and reluctance when picking up or reading professional texts. Motivation to read can become stagnant. We can even question our values as teachers. Yet, even in those trying times, reaching out to explore may be just the spark we are looking for to create hope for a fresh start.
Justin Stygles is a fifth-grade teacher at Guy E. Rowe Elementary school in Norway, ME. He has taught for 13 years at the intermediate level and in various summer program settings. He is currently working on a book with Corwin Literacy about self-conscious emotions.