Textbooks used to be the mainstay of instructional resources in the classroom. One of the greatest struggles teachers had was asking students to read the textbook, answer the questions, and be able to remember anything they had read. This frustration led to wide discussion among teaching communities that student reading capacities were poor, that they simply could not ask students to read independently.
A number of years ago, there was a large call for teachers to use more “authentic” text with students. For purposes of currency of information and engagement for students, authentic text became the mantra of the day.
These two happenings – the struggle with textbook reading, and the call for use of authentic text – led many teachers to feel justified in abandoning the traditional textbook in favor of other types of text. There was only one problem with this – we didn’t see the use of authentic text go up in most classrooms, we only saw the abandonment of the traditional textbook. In other words, kids stopped reading to learn.
This problem manifests itself at the middle and high school in particular. I observe teachers using straight-0n lecture and note copying strategies in many classrooms. When I ask “what about having students read independently sometimes?” I hear that they can’t read the text, they don’t have the reading skills. This is actually not true. Reading scores on state and national assessments, particularly in Kentucky where I do most of my work, are going up – even at middle and high school levels. All evidence of student behaviors in the literacy classroom, on literacy assessments, and frankly, in their daily lives suggest that they can read.
Now, I’m not calling teachers out, nor am I saying they’re wrong. I think the problem is that the statement needs to be specific “Students can’t read’ needs to be translated into “Students can’t read informational text.” This makes sense to me.
Lets look at elementary reading instruction, the place where students are prepared for what they will read in middle school, and at middle school reading instruction, where they are prepared for what they will read in high school.
Elementary School: Most, if not all reading instruction at the elementary level is literary in nature. The text is literary, the strategies are literary, the lessons are literary, and the follow-up book-related activities are literary.
Middle School: Many students do not receive regular reading instruction at the middle school level. There may be an English class, but a reading class? And, if they do participate in a regular reading program, guess what? It looks much like what we see at elementary school.
So, I ask you – How can students be expected to read informational text if they’re never taught how to do it? They can’t be. Another question – Should they be able to read informational text? Is it appropriate to ask them to read for learning in the middle and high school content classroom? I’d say yes.
There is no single answer to solve this major learning skills problem. Clearly upper elementary grades is the place to start, with direct instruction for students to develop informational reading skills, a completely different skill set than those used to read and comprehend literary text.
But also just as clear to me is the need for middle and high school ELA programs to begin to address their state and national standards – including those standards that say students will learn informational reading skills, and will read informational text. We can’t ignore them any longer.
I don’t suggest milddle and high school English teachers are of bad will. I suggest they have never been trained or expected to teach informational reading. Well now the time has come that they must. So, how to do that? More in my next post.