What Should We Read?

In my 20 plus years of teaching, I’ve used a host of reading programs and methods. The choices weren’t always mine to make. All teachers are at the mercy of curriculum and purchasing decisions often made above our pay grade. I am not complaining about that, and for a good reason, which I will explain later. First, let’s take a look at this list:

Basal readers: When I started teaching 6th grade, we had a very traditional basal program. I’m not 100 percent sure, but I think it was from MacMillan. I remember we couldn’t use the workbooks as consumables. Students had to write their answers on a separate sheet of paper.

Literature Anthologies: In higher grades and higher levels, I used a Prentice Hall anthology series, which I actually enjoyed working with. It had a nice balance of stories that supported teaching the classics and teaching to a culturally diverse group of students.

Whole Class Novels: I will never forget one small, delightful class of students I had my third or fourth year teaching. They got so excited by the books we read, particularly The Witch of Blackbird Pond and A Wrinkle in Time. We had fantastic class discussions on a daily basis.

Integrated Learning Technology: Yes, I’ve tried teaching reading with a computer program. I have asked kids to sit in front of a monitor, reading passages and answering comprehension questions designed to show them how to find main idea and cause and effect.

Reading Workshop: The favorite of progressive-minded educators everywhere, myself included. I love the idea of showing students how to read, then letting them apply the lesson with their own books. However, I’ve discovered some pragmatic issues with it as well, like getting every student in the right book and assessing the progress of 60 different students reading 60 different books.

Kits: You know what I mean when I say kits, right? Boxes of skinny, “high interest” books, very glossy and appealing. They come in a box, sometimes made of cardboard, or plastic with a handle. Students progress through the box at their own pace, usually taking some sort of quiz at the end of each book. I vaguely remember one that used plastic cards, almost like large recipe cards with short passages instead of the skinny books.

Standardized Test-Prep Workbooks: Guaranteed to get every child in your class to pass THE TEST by practicing all the reading passages, prompts and questions.

(I can see some of you nodding your heads, or shaking them, with a “been there done that” sort of expression on your face.)

The lesson I have learned from all these experiences may shock some of you. It may anger some of you. Good. Anger and shock are strong emotions, and you should feel strongly about instruction. Just don’t let your emotions block your thinking.

THE LESSON: What we read isn’t as important as how we teach. Anything with written words can be the material for a reading lesson.

Think about this — in one room school houses all over America, for generations, students learned to read from catalogues, the Montgomery Ward catalogue or  Sears and Roebuck. And they memorized passages from the Christian Bible.

Some of those people went on to become great scholars, inventors, scientists and captains of industry.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to teach reading that way, and I am glad I don’t have to.

But I think I could.

Reading, of course, begins with teaching students to decode and put words together into fluent combinations. Then, to make sense of those combinations.

For me, working in middle and high school, the making sense part is normally—not always— but normally — my focus.

My instruction centers on showing students how readers think, encouraging them to think for themselves and providing feedback on their thinking. The feedback, call it formative assessment if you like, may be the most critical piece. That’s what creates the growth we’re always looking for.

That is why I ask students to annotate as they read, to take notes on Post-Its or to fill in charts and graphic organizers. These tools make students thinking visible to themselves, to their classmates and to me, which is essential for teaching students how to think.

My favorite reading lessons often involve reading articles and columns by Dave Barry, Mitch Albom, Leonard Pitts and Rick Reilly. I project the passages on my interactive whiteboard, read a portion aloud and model my thinking and annotating. Then, I ask students to do the same thing with a partner. I assess how well that goes, then I ask the students to finish on their own.

Discussion, response writing and other activities follow.

The materials, I have learned, don’t really matter. It is the thinking that counts.


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