Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Teaching Reading at All Levels

Do you teach reading once kids are in middle and high school, or even college?

Of course you do. Or at least you should. One of the biggest problems in secondary instruction is the idea that we teach students to read in first or second grade, and for ever after that, we simply assign reading. Reading  - or the way we access text - is a skill that needs to be developed and refined continually based on the text or information.

So, how do you teach reading?

You go back to the books and you look into literacy instruction, as opposed to focusing more on literature and how to talk about stories. You don't look for a new book, but a new activity or angle in class. You model your own reading habits, and you develop open communication with the kids about theirs. And there are great resources out there in how to do this.

A great place to start is an excellent book and literacy guide called I Read It But I Don't Get It by Cris Tovani, and English teacher and literacy advocate in the Cherry Creek School District. Tovani - and her book - is one of best resources I've found. In fact, when I discovered her book years ago while taking a staff development class on reading comprehension - another good idea if your district supports it - it literally reignited my passion for teaching English. When I spoke to my coordinator about it, he smiled and said, "You've been reborn, haven't you." I had, and the experience kicked off a reading revolution for me. It was a tad infectious, too, as our principal bought copies for the entire department. Another exceptional text by Tovani that is specifically geared toward teachers in content areas is Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?

Nearly 50% of high school students are "dys-fluent," even when reading grade level and familiar text. That means they are literate, and their brains can identify and pronounce the words as their eyes run across them. However, they are "fake reading" at best, and that is why they comprehend and synthesize little of what they read. That is why they don't remember what they read. That is why they don't have much to say in class discussion. That is why they aren't connecting with the literature you are so passionate about. They can "read." They just aren't very good at it.

And that is the key to our education problems. And it is the burden of high school teachers.

The teaching of reading is far too often linked with primary grades, and is dismissed by middle school and high school teachers outright. However, what primary teachers focus on most is decoding and then moving to basic comprehension. Thus, as reading material becomes more complex, students need to access more tools of comprehension. They need regular instruction in how to deconstruct a text. They need guidance and focus in being meta-cognitive and retaining that which they read.

Thus, despite English teachers' love of and passion for their themes and general discussions of great literature, they need to focus on the basic techniques of reading. The problem of course is that young teachers do not come out of college with this as a focus. And they have very little in terms of ability to develop resources and engaging lessons on literacy. Ultimately, high school teachers do a lot of "assigning reading" and very little teaching of it. Sadly, when students don't comprehend and don't connect, teachers admonish them, telling them to read it again, or read it more slowly. And, that is practically useless.

So, stepping outside our narrow focus of the stories we love, schools need a commitment to return to the basics of literacy instruction ... at all grade levels. Ultimately, we must be teachers of literacy as much as we are teachers of literature or science or social studies. And that holds true whether we are teaching ELA and Essentials of English or College Prep English and AP Language and Literature.

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