Sunday, March 31, 2013

Text Selection Matters, or STOP WASTING TIME

Let me start by saying that I believe very few things more strongly than I believe what I am about to write. I've been wrong in the past - A LOT - but I would be shocked to find I am wrong about this one.

In my last post, I posed the following choice:

a) You could ride bikes together, encounter something interesting, and have lasting memories of the day.
b) You could ride bikes together, encounter something interesting, and instantly forget the experience.
Option b) describes much of our current reading instruction, and we absolutely must change this. In this metaphor, the skill of riding bicycles symbolizes the skills of decoding and making meaning of printed text, commonly grouped together and referred to simply as reading. The experience itself, and the knowledge to be gained by riding the bicycle, refers to the content of what is read. Let me start by describing a practice that we see in many reading classes:

1. The teacher talks about a reading skill that students should practice, such as finding the main idea or making inferences or identifying and interpreting examples of figurative language. In the best of cases, this takes less than 10 minutes.
2. The teacher then puts a text in front of students so that they can practice this skill. This text is not connected to anything the students have learned previously, so that the teacher can be sure the students are using today's strategy and not simply making connections to what has been previously learned.
3. The students answer several comprehension questions about what they have read, and answer questions directly related to the day's aim, to ensure they are practicing applying the correct metacognitive strategies they are supposed to be applying.
4. At the conclusion of the lesson, the teacher never speaks of the passage, or its contents, ever again. Students are not expected to remember what they have learned and, due to the desired novelty of each subsequent practice passage, they are passively encouraged to forget what they have read. the debrief inevitably focuses on the strategies students used, and make it clear to students that they are not expected to take any knowledge away from the passage. The words students have read are simply a vehicle for practicing today's skill.

To see an extreme version of this, pay attention to the "test prep" that is done in reading classes. Students across the country read disjointed passages and answer comprehension questions about them. At its peak, this practice takes hours away from other potential activities every week.

First, to the idea that kids need to be ready to read things they have never heard of, let me ask you how often you really read doctorate papers in physics (no cheating, cousin Sarah!) or how often you read just one academic paper on a totally unfamiliar topic. You don't, right? If you really care, you try to build a base of knowledge before diving into something so technical. And you can understand newspaper articles about things you don't know because the authors can assume some level of general knowledge, and fill in the rest of the gaps for you.

I'm not going to spend the next three hours ranting about the relative merits of skills-based reading instruction. Instead, I want to make a couple of simple propositions:

1. Increased knowledge of the world will allow you to understand more of what you read.
2. Reading skills aside, education should be biased towards knowing more things, rather than less things.

#1 is really the point here, but even if you don't believe it, #2 is a nice backup.

Back to the original bike-riding choice, this time framed in terms of reading:

a) You could read something, learn a few interesting facts, and have lasting memories of the material (which would positively affect your ability to read future texts about a similar topic), or 
b) You could read something interesting, encounter a few interesting facts, and instantly forget what you have read.
Absurd as it sounds, we often make choice b. We put material in front of our kids and all but instruct them to forget what they have learned, all because of our notion that what students read doesn't matter - based on our actions, only how they read seems to matter. I don't buy it.

Text selection matters. And it matters even more when taken cumulatively. Even if we still focus on skills (which, I'll admit, I think is largely a waste of time, compared to the opportunity cost of learning material that will allow students to acquire new vocabulary much faster, and recognize all of the information that writers assume they already know), we at least owe it to our kids to use the time they spend reading to also build a coherent body of knowledge.

Let's be much more intentional about the things our kids read. Eventually, we'll become much more aware of what core knowledge we're helping our kids develop, and we'll align this with the most frequent assumptions authors make, using, oh, I don't know, the Core Knowledge sequence, or something similar. But a necessary first step is a recognition that time spent reading material we don't actually want our kids to learn anything from is a terrible use of time. Even in fictional works, there is always something to be learned. Meaningless, disjointed texts are not only taking all of the joy out of reading; they are also taking away most of the learning.

As I read this, my 5-year-old son is sitting next to me reading about sharks and keeps shouting things like "Daddy! Sharks don't have bones!" and "their skin is like SANDPAPER! We used sandpaper before in my class!" Looking backwards, it's a good thing his teacher thought it was important that he use sandpaper;
otherwise the reference to a shark's "skin like sandpaper" would have been lost on him. Looking forward, he will be in better shape next time he reads about marine life, not because we have practiced making inferences about sharks, but because he is beginning to grasp predator/prey relationships, variety within a species, and the vastness of the ocean. We'll build on this the next time we read about the ocean, or about other predators, or the next time an author compares a character's motions to those of a shark, or the next time someone is called a remora, and so on...

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