Are the Kids Reading?

When I taught college preparatory government to high school seniors, I had a textbook that was fairly awful.  It was much too general, incredibly dry, and written on a 9th grade reading level.  For a time, I tried to get my students to read portions of it, but eventually, I gave up on even this. Instead, I lectured over the basics, and we did projects and other activities to liven up the subject matter as much as possible.  I did have them read current events articles and primary documents as well, although looking back, if I am honest with myself, I could have assigned more reading.

I wonder how many teachers are in a similar situation.  They don’t like the textbook for a variety of reasons, the students aren’t reading the textbook, so the teachers take away the textbook and replace it with PowerPoint lectures, scaffolded notes, podcasts, videos, etc.  They supplement a bit with other readings but perhaps not enough.  If Cynthia Shanahan, a professor of literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is correct, there is a deficit of reading going on in the K-12 classroom, especially the non-English classroom.  According to Shanahan in an interview with Lorna Collier, after a year of observing classrooms from across the curriculum, Shanahan found that “not much reading was going on.  Teachers were telling the students what they were about to read before they read it, or they were truncating the reading to get to the questions, but they weren’t having students read.”  For all its benefits, technology makes it even easier to reduce the amount of reading through the use of podcasts, videos, and PowerPoints.

Of course, for every yin there’s a yang.  Technology also can help a teacher find and assign more (and better!) reading.  Don’t like your textbook?  Find shorter, more interesting complex texts on the Internet and assign those, or consider writing your own “textbook”!  Lots of teachers are doing this now with great success, especially those who have been in the classroom for several years and know the ins and outs of their subject matter.  (This is a future goal of mine – to write my own book.)  The point is to make sure that you have not unintentionally taken away too much reading.

What Exactly Are the Kids Reading?

“We all want our students to grow as readers: to master increasingly more challenging and sophisticated…texts.”

I do not think the statement above is debatable, but I do think there may be room to discuss what exactly is meant by that last word of the quotation: texts.  What exactly is a text, and more importantly, how does one go about choosing an appropriately complex text?

In general, the word text in the context of education means just about anything one can read.  So clearly novels and short stories are texts, but essays, biographies, instructional manuals, advertisements, newspaper articles, and song lyrics among many other examples are also texts.  In addition, charts and graphs would also fall within this broadest definition of text.  We want our students to have a steady but varied diet of texts.  We want them to read a lot across a wide range of texts.

This is all well and good, but as I contended in previous posts, if we want our students to grow the most from their reading, then text complexity needs to be taken into account.  For a long time, researchers looked primarily at a text’s Lexile score, but more recently, educators agree that the best way to determine a text’s complexity is by looking at several things, not just quantitative measures.

When determining the complexity of a given text, make sure to keep in mind these 3 questions.*

  • Are there multiple layers to the text – multiple meanings, purposes, etc.?
  • Does the piece use a lot of metaphor or other literary devices?
  • Does the piece require or assume a great deal of background contextual knowledge on the part of the reader?

The more you say, “Yes,” to the above questions, the more complex the text.**

Who Is Teaching the Kids to Read?

The short answer to the above question: everyone.  Or at least, that should be the answer.  Yes, we rely heavily on our English language arts teachers to do the bulk of direct reading instruction, but they can’t do it all.  By the time students are in middle and upper school, they should be reading more complex readings in specific subject areas like science and social studies. Such readings require a teacher conversant in the language in which the material is written.  My students come to me knowing how to write a general English essay, but I have to teach them how to write a history essay. Similarly, we non-English language arts teachers have to spend some time teaching students how to read in our subject area.  Reading a science or history text is not the same as reading a short story or novel or general nonfiction text.

If you’ve just read the above, and don’t believe me or don’t feel you can spare the time to teach reading, then there is little I can write that will persuade you.  Feel free to stop reading now.  If, however, you agree but don’t feel really prepared to teach reading (assuming you are a non-English teacher!), then read on.

I don’t mean to put this too bluntly, but if you don’t know how to teach reading in your content area, it’s really up to you to do some research and seek help.  Chances are you have an entire department (English teachers, here they come!) willing to share some great strategies with you.  The great thing about teaching reading is that there are tons and tons of resources out there for you.  Most research talks about getting kids to read more actively and provides simple but effective ways to do this like modeling, annotating, multi-draft reading, close reading, or mini-reading conferences. Google any of these terms and a plethora of resources will pop up.  In addition, check out some of these authors and books to start.

Harvey Daniels and Steven Zemelman Subjects Matter: Every Teacher’s Guide to Content-Area Reading

Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey Improving Adolescent Literacy: Content Area Strategies at Work

Eileen Murphy Buckley 360 Degrees of Text

Nell Duke Reading and Writing Informational Text in the Primary Grades: Research-Based Practices

*For more on determining text complexity, see Eileen Murphy Buckley and Cynthia Shanahan.

**For most K-12-level textbooks, I would argue that you can’t answer “Yes,” to the above questions. (College-level textbooks become a bit more complex.) Having said that, textbooks can offer lower-level informational reading that allows students to get a bit of context for the more challenging – and more interesting! – texts.


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