In my ever-present quest to teach people more about literacy, and perhaps deepen their understanding of how and how well people read, here's my column from March 11 for The Villager:
Are You Really Reading the Newspaper?
“If you can read this, thank a teacher.”
I’ve seen that platitude on countless bumper stickers, T-shirts, and coffee mugs over the years, and though it’s rather trite, it does make me smile. However, it brings up an important question: can you read? Seems like an odd question to begin an essay, yet literacy specialists would not dismiss it, for they know many adults don’t read regularly or effectively, and most Americans did not read a single book last year. An equally large number do not read the newspaper, instead skimming articles online, surfing social media, or watching TV. Abraham Lincoln, a voracious reader of the classics, warned us “the man who doesn’t read has no advantage over the man who can’t.” Granted, many people say, “Oh, but I can when I need to.” I wonder what the average adult might learn about himself if he sat down with the SAT or ACT reading section.
According to the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), roughly 40% of high school students are “dys-fluent” in reading even when encountering grade-level, familiar text. 80% of colleges have courses in remedial reading, including the Ivy League. As a result, many adults are also technically "dys-fluent,” which basically means they can’t read. Of course, they’re not illiterate, but they can’t truly authentically read complex texts with fluency and comprehension. In the field of reading instruction we’d say they’re “fake readers.” Their eyes may be able to skim the words and their brains can pronounce them, but they don’t truly comprehend what they are reading.
Sadly, there has been little discussion of the need to teach reading throughout high school and even college. In reality, most school systems teach students to "decode" in first and second grade. After that schools simply assign reading. The problem is as texts get harder and material becomes more complex, students need assistance in how to tackle the more challenging texts. Especially at the upper levels, all teachers need to teach students how to read for their class. Reading is a learning skill, not an English skill. However, most teachers simply tell students they need to “read it again” or “read it more carefully.”
Yet, it’s not simply a failure of pedagogy, but instead a failure of nearly everyone to understand literacy. As an English teacher with decades of experience and two college degrees, I can honestly confess to struggling with reading even in adult life. While completing a master’s degree in English, I initially struggled, along with my cohort of twelve people, reading the text for our socio-linguistics class. On the second day of class, our professor acknowledged with a benevolent grin, “Of course you don’t understand it. I haven’t taught you how to read this content yet.” That insight resonated with me years later when I read a book about reading instruction by Denver-area teacher Cris Tovani. I Read It, but I Don’t Get It is based on her efforts to work with struggling readers, and it literally changed my life as a teacher, moving me from assigning reading to teaching it. I now actively promote reading to my students, and though they’re teenagers, I still spend time teaching them how to read.
Last Tuesday was Dr. Seuss’ birthday, which is also National Read Across America Day, a day meant to be devoted to the art of reading. The last year of the pandemic and remote learning is undoubtedly having harsh effects on the literacy of many young people, but that doesn’t mean students’ reading skills will naturally decline. Carol Jago, former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, recently tweeted “Students who have been reading avidly - and had access to books - are unlikely to have fallen behind in reading.” The written word is a special gift. Reading, however, is not natural or intuitive. It’s actually a complicated and challenging skill, one which we too easily take for granted.