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Teacher Talk: What To Do About Reading?

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Is the printed word falling out of favor with today’s students? Will text-based learning soon give way to multimedia approaches that more closely match the Net Generation’s daily experiences with interactive technology? A recent Newsweek cover feature, “The Future of Reading,” and a November story from Education Week, “Young People Seen Losing Love of Reading,” raise those possibilities.

In her Education Week article, Kathleen Kennedy Manzo also reported on a recent study by the National Endowment of the Arts that found “American youths are reading less in their free time than a generation ago, a statistic that bodes poorly for their academic performance, job prospects, civic participation, and even social well-being.”

These articles sparked a thoughtful conversation among members of the national Teacher Leaders Network, who shared a variety of perspectives from their diverse teaching positions across the K-12 spectrum. Here are some highlights.

Mary T, high school English and journalism teacher:

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Join a related readers' discussion, “Reading Lessons.”

Among our faculty, we have all noticed that the kids are not reading enough. Even at the Advanced Placement level, I can see that students do not have enough experience with reading to tackle challenging texts. They do have pretty high auditory levels of vocabulary acquisition, I think, from being exposed to media in all its forms from a very early age. My observation is that they can use words properly in context but are poor spellers. My guess has been that they are familiar with hearing the words but do not have a visual record of the words, because they hear far more words than they read.

It has occurred to me that in Elizabethan times not many people could read. They went to "hear" a play, not see one. Though most were illiterate, they lived in an aural society and were better listeners than we are today. When books became pervasive, the experts of the time said these easy references would destroy the discipline of memorization. And they were right. Could we be moving to an era where reading is not as essential as it once was?

If u cn rd ths, u cn ern $! Remember those ads on the matchbook covers (back when everybody smoked)? The ads were for shorthand courses, but they look like the text messages of today. Language is always changing. Maybe reading will be an old technology sometime soon.

Marsha, middle grades math and science teacher:

This issue of nonfiction reading is huge. It's been my bandwagon within my district over the past couple of years. I have learned to be a reading teacher in science and math. I never wanted to wash my hands of this responsibility and throw it over to someone else, but I had thought I would get some assistance from the reading people. I had envisioned this as a joint effort where we mutually designed something that would help them with their curriculum and help me with mine. Ha.

Our district reading scores look fine. That's because our reading assessments are mostly made up of fiction passages. But getting the English department to veer away from the tested objectives to lend a hand in expository reading is almost impossible. This year, however, I have seen a glimmer of hope. The English department took our science and social studies books into class during the first few weeks of school and "taught" the structures of text, the table of contents and the index. While I'm grateful for this help, it doesn't go very far, and those skills have to be revisited every day within context for it to take on a life of its own.

I can completely understand the reluctance of our English teachers to take on the challenge of helping students become better decipherers of content in history, geography, math or science. They have way too much on their plates to start with–teaching their own literary content, plus grammar skills and the writing process. And most often, these are not subjects where the typical English teacher has a lot of knowledge of the specialized vocabulary or concepts. So we’re kind of left with the question–in our current curriculum structure, whose job is it to teach reading in the content areas?

Gail R., instructional coach:

In my school district, there is a big push to include more nonfiction reading at a younger age. I am a big fan of "twin texts," providing a nonfiction and a fiction book on the same topic simultaneously. It gives both teachers and students lots of content, reading strategies, and compare and contrast learning opportunities.

Mary Anne, a literacy coach in a large school system:

I look at the struggling readers in our middle and high schools and wonder how they survive in their content area classes. These kids don't love reading—the process of reading totally escapes them. For one reason or another, they missed something along the way. They love to hear the fiction stories—and even nonfiction—but the automaticity in decoding and constructing meaning from text doesn't exist for them the way it does for us.

Marsha, like you, my goal is a joint effort where reading teachers and content teachers work together to help these kids–the reading teachers teaching the process, and the content teachers teaching author's craft and the language of their subject area. This is an analogy that I use with my content teachers – imagine having to speak and read and write in 7 different languages every day. That is what happens to our kids. The language of math is very different than the language of science, which is different than the language of social studies.

Teaching reading is not like running a book club. It doesn't mean you read a great story and talk about it. Teaching reading is not teaching English. English teachers (and I was one for many years) are not taught to teach reading—they are taught to teach analysis of literature to students who can manuever their way through text.

Claudia, a secondary teacher:

I have watched this conversation with interest, because for the past several years I've taught nothing but an elective, “Reading for Pleasure,” at my high school. We started small, one section per semester. Now, we run 12 sections, and could fill others if we had the teachers. In my school, there is a strong culture of reading—our media center is active and kids talk about their books. For the first nine weeks of this semester, 131 students in my classes read a total of 269,157 pages. (This includes books for English classes, not necessarily for pleasure.)

My class is designed to share books with students, and to give them a place and time to read, uninterrupted by other demands. Then, everyone writes about what they've read. I read with my students every day (tough gig, I know), and I respond to every entry, as a fellow reader.

I've noticed the same 'dip' in interest among our students that others have noticed. Over and over in their literacy autobiographies students tell me how much they loved reading in elementary, and then “something” happened. They can't even articulate what it was. I wonder how much can be attributed to new demands on kids' time, new interests, or peer groups that may not value reading. I spend lots of time in class talking about books, fiction and nonfiction, young adult, classics, popular adult fiction. Once kids learn (relearn?) what they like, they DO read for pleasure, because they have the power to choose what they read.

I want to throw one more idea into the mix. Nowhere in all these articles do I see a serious acknowledgement of the reading kids do the most: online. I would argue kids are interacting with text much more often than the "experts" think when we factor in computer use.

Gail T., high school English teacher:

This year my primary professional goal is to help my students read more and enjoy it more. I had an epiphany at the first of the year when I was grading reading quizzes and many of my students were failing, as usual. I heard a voice in my head say, "You cannot continue to let them get away with this. You have to figure out a way to get them to read and engage with the text."

I began trying all kinds of strategies to make it happen. For example, I borrowed an idea from a reading specialist to have reading time in my class every day for about 20 minutes. I read the same book as my kids so I am modeling reading. Most of my kids say this time is really helping them, and I have noticed that almost every one of them brings the book to class and spends the time wisely.

I also am having my kids annotate their novels this year. That has helped tremendously. I have a high number of kids who are buying their own books so they can just annotate right there on the page without having to do it on another sheet or on stickies. We have had wonderful discussions (even with freshmen!) based on our annotations.

One more thing I'm going to try is an idea I got from a teacher I’m mentoring—a book talk with parents and students together. My freshmen are reading Night, and their assignment is to prepare study questions for the book which the parents must read and answer. I have had a few kids tell me their parents say they won't do it, which makes me sad. But I'm hoping for the best. If it doesn't work, I'll just keep trying things until I hit on something that does work.

Cindi, middle grades reading teacher:

Claudia, I love the "Reading for Pleasure" elective! I teach the "Reading Because I Didn't Pass the End-of-Grade Reading Test" elective. Believe me, they don't "elect" to take my class. My kids are the what-happens-in-middle school kids. On the first day of school, I shared my reading History with them, and they struggled to write their own (poor readers = poor writers). They all said they were excited about reading in kindergarten but hate it now. Every day I hear at least one student say, "I hate reading!"

I am trying to do everything that all the experts say because my goal is that when they get to high school they'll tell their teachers that the "something that happened in middle school" is that they got excited about reading again.

And I agree with you that they are doing more reading than we realize online. My son, who is now 24, tried to eat the books when I attempted to read to him when he was a toddler. Now he reads everything he can log onto about sports and politics. And his fantasy football newsletters are full of figurative language and imagery. Somehow we have to figure out how to "join 'em" if we can't "beat 'em."

Linda E, a high school English and journalism teacher, wrote:

It may be true that students are not reading as much as previous generations, but I think that is true for all of us. I think reading in general has declined in our society. Why? Partly because we don't have to! But let me take the students' side for a minute. First, as an English and journalism teacher, I know students WILL and DO read. It is our job as educators to make reading relevant to their lives!

The most difficult aspect of reading for this "sound bite" generation is sustained reading. They consider 15-20 minutes of continuous reading a long time! That is one of the reasons students have difficulty on standardized tests with long reading passages, presented one after another. Students lose interest and drift off.

As a journalism teacher, I know that students love to read periodicals. I have copies of our daily newspaper (and sometimes USA Today) in my classroom every day. The students grab them as soon as they come in. And I keep a "news" bulletin board covered with articles on teen-relevant items on it, which I change often. They love reading it, and often ask for copies of the articles. So, while statistically it may be true that students aren't reading as much as previous generations, I disagree that it is cause for alarm. What I do agree on is that as educators we should take some action to model pleasure reading and to look for sources to share with them to encourage pleasure reading.

Sheryl, education-technology consultant:

We have a changing demographic of students. Poverty is on the rise, as are kids who have been immersed in interactive reading environments through technology. Kids have trained their brains to learn through active engagement because of video games and Web sites that require them to "do" something while reading. For many, it has become their preferred processing strategy.

Teachers have trained their brains to feel most comfortable reading through traditional means, so there is a disconnect between their personal schema and what they are seeing in their students. The natural conclusion is “Kids today do not like reading.” Yet, I believe if our books were interactive, kids would read with the same excitement our parents did. Kids still love stories, but many of them just do not relate to the 20th-century reading styles because the synapses of their brains have been "wired" or trained to comprehend in a very different way. Traditional reading holds no real excitement—it just takes too long.

We will find exceptions to the rule. There will be kids (like several of my own children) who learned to read and process information in more traditional ways and still worship the printed page. But there will be just as many (and, increasingly, more) who developed their learning style at the foot of the flickering “blue parent” and require the kind of stimulation associated with TV and video games.

We need to understand that in a changing world, education can no longer stand still. If we want to remain relevant in the lives of our learners, then we will need to use strategies and materials that fit their learning styles, not our own. Techno-constructivist methodology is the educational language today's learners understand and respond to best. We need to provide opportunities for them to read challenging rich, descriptive language and favorite authors in venues that allow for active engagement and full involvement.

If we do this, we will see the same sense of wonderment we witnessed among students in days gone by who loved reading physical books. That love of narrative and learning is still there, it just needs to be nurtured through more modern techniques. We need to reinvent the book.

David, high school English teacher:

At the risk of sounding like quite the traditionalist, I'd say that literature, and fiction in particular, offer an experience that cannot be replicated, and ought to be part of the experience of every student and every person. To the extent that we lose an interest in literature as a society, we lose an important opportunity to understand ourselves and others in a way that is fundamentally different from other artistic or informational experiences.

I'll grant that my own bias may make that experience seem superior, but I won’t give an inch in arguing that it's irreplaceable. Now, I'll be the first to admit that we English teachers should shoulder much of the blame for "killing" the experience of literature for some people. We should value a broader variety of texts, and find ways to give students more selection and more approaches to their studies. (So, I'm part of the problem... and hopefully part of the solution!)

But with the disclaimers out of the way, there's something special about reading fiction. Literature is the ultimate virtual experience—a truly mind-expanding trip to other times and places, seen through the eyes of someone other than ourselves. Literature encourages us—requires us—to identify with other people in a way that differs from movies and from most nonfiction reading.

Ideally, we engage our imaginations over an extended period of time, acquiring a vicarious experience that can be more intense and lasting than a movie, because of the time it takes and the amount that the reader contributes to the experience – much more interactive than a movie or anything the Internet has to offer (so far). I think of literature as an expansive owner's manual for life – how to see the world through others' eyes, how to avoid other people's mistakes, how to be thankful and recognize something about the worst kinds of pain that you know you haven't been through (yet?), and how to survive if that day comes. You can experience the past, present, and future of humanity, sometimes all at once, and dwell within the experience.

In Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, a seemingly sane woman chooses to die with her books rather than watch them burn and lose them forever. That scene is believable to me. The key to understanding this moment is that, to this woman, it's not about the loss of her own freedom—which I can imagine someone dying for—nor is she losing her own creative works. She's losing experiences and connections with works not even created during her lifetime, but integral to her being.

In a way that I don't see with other art forms or experiences, the books are alive to her, each with its own deep and complex living reality. Maybe it's my own blind spot, but I can't re-envision the scene where the same calm sanity leads her to light the match to die with her DVDs, or her PC and modem. Or maybe—insert ten minute pause for reflection here—maybe I can see it after all ... but for different reasons.

I hope I don't seem to be down on other arts, media or technology—I enjoy them all—but with all others, very few are those experiences that have provided the lasting impact on me that the best fictional books have—regularly—since I was ten years old.

—Compiled by John Norton

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