Muscles and Brains

Have you ever started an exercise regimen, lost some weight for the first month or two, only to slowly plateau?  We know that our muscles eventually become so used to doing the same exercise over and over that the health benefits from that exercise diminish a bit over time, or at least stop increasing.  This is why circuit training is pushed by personal trainers around the country.  Your muscles are constantly being used in new and different ways with circuit training, and because of this, you can actually burn more calories with a shorter workout.  So less can in fact be more?  Well, with circuit training, it appears so.

For a long time, educators and parents heard that simply reading more would automatically make students better readers.   Whole companies have developed around this basic premise.  The problem is that our brain is like a muscle, and like our biceps and triceps, if we simply do more of the same thing with our brain, over time we will plateau.  Anyone who really knows me knows I have a fondness for a good British mystery novel.  Love, love, love them.  I can read them at any time of the day or night without effort because I’m so used to the basic plot lines and dialogue.  No matter the author, they all have similarities.  By this point, it doesn’t take much effort for me to read these kinds of books, and they certainly aren’t stretching me intellectually or improving my reading skills in statistically meaningful ways.  I’ve reached the plateau.  If I want to give my brain a workout, I choose something different, whether that’s a literary novel or nonfiction.  When I read a kind of literature with which I’m less familiar, my reading slows down, and I find myself relying (whether consciously or not) on the old tried and true reading strategies like self-questioning and annotating that I learned long ago.  A short academic article can give my brain a much greater workout these days than a 500-page British mystery.  It might take me less time to read the 10-page article – just like circuit training may take less time than a long walk – but my brain works much harder to decipher that 10-page article than the novel.

So what does this mean for schools?  Well, it means that simply adding more of the same probably isn’t going to generate much in the way of different results.  It also means that adding more variety to students’ reading diets is of paramount importance if we want to give their brains a workout and improve their reading ability.  It means that quality matters more than quantity.  Please don’t misunderstand me.  Students should have access to lots and lots of good books from a school library, and they should be given time throughout the school day to read books of their choosing.  Call it SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) or D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything and Read), call it whatever you wish, but having lots of books available and giving students time to read those books sends the message that reading is worthwhile and hopefully will convert some students into lifelong readers.  Anyway you look at this, this is a good thing.

However, if the objective is improved reading ability, we need to make sure we are constantly working our students’ reading muscles in new and different ways.  This is a twofold process: First, it means reading challenging, complex texts.  Some of these texts may be novels or full-length books, but they do not have to be.  In fact, to provide a varied diet of reading material, teachers may assign more shorter works or excerpts.  Provided such shorter pieces are appropriately challenging, forcing the students to dig deep, that’s okay.  As I said above, the length of the piece or the number of pieces read isn’t necessarily the most important component when trying to improve reading comprehension.  Second, students need to actively engage the reading strategies they’ve learned to decipher and decode these varied complex texts.  Such strategies need to be explicitly taught, clearly modeled, and then actively practiced by the students.  These three components need to happen all throughout the K-12 education.

There’s an old adage still floating around that I was reminded of today by a colleague: Students first learn to read, and then they read to learn.  The idea is that once students know how to read, they don’t need explicit instruction in reading anymore; students’ reading ability will simply (one might say magically) improve on its own once they’ve gotten the basics down.  But surely we know this isn’t true.  Different kinds of texts require different kinds of reading.  As students come into contact with more challenging texts, texts that they’ve never come into contact with before, they will need to be taught how to read such texts, they will need to be taught new and different reading strategies or how to adapt the old strategies to new texts.  Students may be able to read the words in a difficult text, but they will not comprehend the full meaning of the text without instruction in how to do so.

More to come…





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