How To Improve Student Reading

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Recently on multiple platforms, Robert Pondiscio talked about reading on his way to standing up for Secretary of Education John King. We disagree about his praise of King for making all the correct word noises, but he’s made a point worth repeating about the improvement of reading.

Every teacher of low-income children and English language learners has had this moment: You’re sitting with a student, working line by line through a text, grappling with what should be fairly simple comprehension questions.

“Did you read it?” you ask. “I read it,” the child replies. “But I didn’t get it.”

This is what reading failure often looks like in a struggling school. A child can read the words on a page in front of him, but he can’t always make sense of them.

I would tweak this a bit– you don’t have to teach low-income and ELL students to have this moment. But the rest is absolutely familiar, and I think the insight he applies is also valid.

Pondiscio argues that the traditional response– more reading instruction, harder– is not useful. And under the Big Fat Standards movement, we have pushed in exactly the wrong direction. Common Core and its mutant siblings all emphasize reading as a set of discrete skills, somehow existing in a vacuum separate from any content. This is rubbish. Reading never happens in a vacuum, and the reader’s relationship with the material, which in turn is based on reader interest and reader knowledge, is always critical. Or as Pondiscio puts it

Children’s ability to understand what they read is intimately intertwined with their background knowledge and vocabulary. If a child is not broadly educated, he won’t be fully literate.

When a student doesn’t know the words or the context or the background of what she’s reading, reading is hard. If you give someone who has never heard of Harry Potter ten pages from the end of the last book to read, all the reading skill drills in the world will not help that person make sense of what’s on the page.

Pondiscio is a member of the E. D. Hirsch fan club, and I half agree with him — in order to read well, you have to Know Stuff. Hirsch just happens to have a particular view of what stuff everyone needs to know, and that Master List of Stuff is highly debatable, regardless of whose list we’re looking at.

When we talk about standardized tests being biased, this is what we’re talking about– what stuff the test-taker already needs to know in order for the test to make sense.

Here’s a classic example from the Archive of Terrible SAT Analogies:

A) envoy: embassy
B) martyr: massacre
C) oarsman: regatta
D) referee: tournament
E) horse: stable

Embed this batch of vocabulary in a reading selection; we don’t have a reading problem, or even a vocabulary problem. We have a “what’s your community culture of origin” problem, aka a “what have you actually experienced in life” problem.

Particularly at my level (high school), the solution to supposed reading comprehension problems is rarely context clue skills or decoding skills or the fabled “passage reading skills.” The most useful skill at my level is discussion. We read a selection last week that led to a question about collective bargaining, and my students were largely stumped, and it was nothing as complicated as some set of reading skills or attack strategies. They has just never heard of collective bargaining before and had no idea what it was, and so I picked the approach of discussion, probing to see what experience and background knowledge they had that I could connect to the idea of collective bargaining (because the best way to explain something unknown is to connect it to something known) and they could ask clarifying questions of their own and, in this case, even argue a little bit about the issues related to the concept. None of that was reading instruction as we currently understand it, but nothing else would get me better results on the “reading comprehension” questions dealing with “collective bargaining.”

The new round of calls for a more rounded education are correct for so many reason (even if some, like King, are undercutting their own words even as they speak), but at a bare minimum, even with the modern reform narrowed view of reading and math as the be-all and end-all, a well-rounded education matters because the more you know, the better you read. Common Core has been denying that for years. As Pondiscio puts it:

There’s a surface plausibility to the idea that nothing matters more than reading, but we’ve followed this well-intentioned idea off a cliff.

If we could stop perpetuating the failed concept of reading as a content-free skills, it would be a huge service to all our students.

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