In Defense of Reading

[A more technical defense of teaching reading in all grade levels and all content areas.]

In a country prized for her innovations in science, technology, and social progressivism, the United States has stood as one of the most literate societies in history, which has made these accomplishments possible. More so than the advent of the internet, this country’s widespread literacy of the layman has allowed the dissemination of every form of knowledge and understanding. The ability to read and write has become integral to American living; from reading tax instructions to the ingredients of a recipe; from the daily news to voting amendment explanations; from reading the Constitution to reading the Bible; whether it is writing a resume, an email, or a blog post. The success of a representative government rests on a well educated, reading populace (Doran, 2005, 5).

Therefore, when reading falls out of practice, the populace loses control over their own government, as is currently taking place. Nowhere are these skills more noticeably integral to every citizen in America than their origin in the classroom. If students don’t get it right here, or rather, if students are not given strategies to succeed in literacy, they will be restricted in their participation of the American Dream. The implications of illiteracy in a highly literate society cannot be overstated. Assuming the necessity of a literate society, suffice it to say at present that teachers have an obligation to convey reading skills to their students above all else, regardless of the subject matter, lest all forms of higher education soar above their reach. Literacy is the solution that goes to the heart of many problems currently facing educators (Doran, 88).

It is not sufficient to conclude that literacy is a necessary skill, as this is already a foregone conclusion for any serious educational entity. The deficiency occurs when literacy is not emphasized at every grade and in every subject. The secondary classroom is not immune. The math, science, and social studies classrooms are not immune. Reading is a requisite still in every subject. Indeed, high schools must commonly contend with inefficient reading strategies, struggling to remediate students uncomfortable with the written word. It must then follow that all teachers take the first step toward fixing the problem by participating in the literacy scene.

Fine, Zygouris-Coe, Senokossoff, & Fang (2011) found most secondary content teachers assume that by the time students enter secondary schools, they have mastered the skills and strategies needed for comprehending content area texts, only to realize many students are not able to read or comprehend these technical, dense, or abstract books. For a teacher to consider himself highly qualified as an educator, their knowledge must expand beyond pedagogical content, and embrace knowledge of how to incorporate literacy in their content area.

Whereas remedial programs still provide the necessary services for severely lacking students, literacy in the classroom is not reserved for the struggler. The teacher must view each student as a separate literate entity—and the integrity of their reading strategies and comprehension is of gravest concern. To reiterate, reading is what connects the content areas together and opens the doors of knowledge and understanding to the literate.

However, as every mother’s child possesses different traits, so too every teacher’s pupil will possess different educational strengths and weaknesses. Some students need more help in reading than others. This begs the necessary question: who needs rescuing? There are students the educational establishment will commonly deem to have learning disabilities, dyslexia, attention deficit disorders, and problems with behavior, emotions, or social interaction. Pat Doran encourages we reevaluate our assumptions about these struggling students. Those who have disabilities, behavioral problems, suffering grades or are otherwise disinterested or hesitant may not have a disability or disorder at all. It has been shown that much of the malcontention in delinquents derive from their (almost) inevitable levels of illiteracy. Poor reading leads to poor academic performance, which leads to poor self-esteem, which consequently leads to poor behavior. The earnest teacher will discover that most academically or behaviorally challenged students fall on differing levels of the same continuum of deficient reading skills. These students will benefit most from your concentrated efforts to promote reading. As Doran facetiously quoted, “Try reading before you try Ritalin.” (Doran, 15).

This is to further enforce the necessity of universal reading practice for all students of all grades in all content areas, because the principle described above is a truism no matter who is already ‘at risk’ or not. Whatever the baseline, every student will benefit from the ability to read, and read well. Of those who excel in the skill, allow them the space to progress as far as they are able. Don’t limit their success in favor of keeping pace with struggling students. This would qualify as an equal crime to forgoing literacy altogether (Davis, 2012, 570). A holistic strategy to accommodate for these differentials in the classroom is what Steven Krashen advocates as free voluntary reading (Krashen, 2007). Free reading time should be promoted as an essential component of the classroom, as it allows students to practice reading their own choice of books at their own pace. It is the great equalizer! And it has shown impressive results in reading, writing, spelling, grammar, and vocabulary. Of course, content areas will have more limitations on the time and books available for this type of activity.

The astute teacher will need to be aware of one further example of students requiring special attention. Binder and Lee identified students who are considered resilient readers, those who cannot read very well, but with the aid of compensatory strategies, are still able to comprehend enough to get by. These students are adept at extracting syntactic similarities to words or concepts they find difficult to read through a cursory analysis of the context. While an impressive skill, it is dangerous because it forgoes proper reading and decoding strategies in favor of being ‘close enough.’ It does not allow full mastery of the English language by hindering vocabulary, spelling, and comprehension of more complex passages. They should still have the same free reading time as everyone else, but they will need supplementary instruction and practice with decoding strategies, such as grapheme to phoneme correspondence (Binder & Lee, 2012).

Most content classrooms will not have the ability to accommodate a high dosage of word attack skills, and this should never serve as the sole proprietor for remedial reading instruction anyway. The disadvantage of synthetic phonics is its frequent delivery outside the context of reading itself! (Davis, 561). This will prove especially difficult for resilient readers, though no student should suffer through a pile of disembodied English lexis. This is not to dissuade the importance of phonics as one of many strategies the teacher has on his tool belt, but to emphasize the importance of implementing actual practice in reading real texts and hearing how people speak real words.

Therefore, all teachers will need to prepare themselves for more. Provide specific and consistent feedback while managing a positive classroom environment conducive for those teachable moments. Foster a respectful, patient environment by telling students early on that English is a difficult language to master, but practice makes perfect. So encourage students to help each other out. If they hear someone mispronounce a word, give them the proper pronunciation. Don’t avoid correcting students on their errors. Any teacher understands the value of immediate feedback, and this is no exception. If students can’t expect correction in the classroom, of all places, (possibly to preserve their self-esteem), then when will correction ever take place? How will students learn from their mistakes?

To maintain the kind of environment where students feel safe to be corrected a teacher must give his feedback with gentleness. Reading can be a sensitive subject for a struggling student who might already possess tendencies of withdrawal in order to cope. An effective strategy, and prominent communication skill, is to balance correction with praise. Before you correct a student, praise the student’s efforts by noting a positive observation. For example, “Thank you for giving it a try, but it’s actually pronounced like this…” One way to describe it is the good news-bad news approach, or as Doran calls the 1-and-5 Approach, where the one is the correction and the 5 is the praise, as if on a scale of 1 through 5 (Doran, 95). Teachers can also model self-correction, or metacognition, through think-alouds throughout each lesson. This is just as effective for literacy as it is for other subject matter.

This is a decisively superficial defense for literacy in the classroom and only a passing review of what teachers can do to promote reading with their students. If anything, teachers are encouraged to seek out a more in-depth understanding of literacy and new ideas for incorporating it into their content areas (Fine, et. all, 26). Since blending sounds will not produce consistent phonetic pronunciation nor will it generate a word’s meaning, decisions about decoding should be left to teachers (Davis, 562) as they assess the level of comprehension their students possess. The irregularities and complexities of the English language do provide challenges for the adolescent, especially if grade school programs were lacking in this arena, but it does not necessitate hardship for your students. The same potential for difficulty in the learning process likewise provides potential for extraordinary achievement. A teacher’s focus on reading will add weight to the latter.

References

Binder, K. S., & Lee, C. S. (2012). Reader Profiles for Adults with Low Literacy Skills: A Quest to Find Resilient Readers. Journal Of Research And Practice For Adult Literacy, Secondary, And Basic Education, 1(2), 78-90.

Davis, A. (2012). A Monstrous Regimen of Synthetic Phonics: Fantasies of Research-Based Teaching “Methods” versus Real Teaching. Journal Of Philosophy Of Education, 46(4), 560-573.

Doran, Pat. (2005). The Secret Club: Why and How We Must Teach Phonics and Essential Literacy Skills to Readers of All Ages.

Fine, J., Zygouris-Coe, V., Senokossoff, G., & Fang, Z. (2011). Secondary Teachers’ Knowledge, Beliefs, and Self-Efficacy to Teach Reading in the Content Areas: Voices Following Professional Development. COERC 2011, 24-28.

Krashen, S., McQuillan, J. (2007). Late Intervention. Educational Leadership, 65(2).

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