Tim Shanahan has pointed out here, when purpose questions are too specific they may take student attention away from a fuller understanding of the text. The teacher added to the purpose setting by asking the students what questions they had about the story. These questions tapped into the students' own curiosity on the topic and so were also helpful in setting purposes for reading.
Despite these fine efforts by the teacher, not all the students in the guided reading group were buying into it. One boy sped through the pages very quickly and when the teacher went to his side and asked that he read aloud, his oral reading showed lots of speed, but little meaning making. The overall impression was that this child's purpose was to get through with the task as quickly and as painlessly as possible. He wanted to be done with the exercise and comprehension be damned. All the good work of purpose setting was lost on this reader.
Student purposes and teacher purposes are often in competition in a reading assignment. Very often students who are asked to answer questions at the end of the chapter will ignore the reading of the chapter altogether and just search the text for the answer to the question. The students' purpose here is similar to that of the second grader in the lesson above - not to learn the information - but, as Shanahan suggests, to complete the task in the most efficient way possible.
To understand why, I think we need to look at the reasons adults read and then see how we can apply this understanding to young readers. I read for many reasons every day. I read to stay informed, I read for entertainment, and I read for work. To stay informed, I read the New York Times. I read the Times selectively, skimming headlines to see which articles I want to read more fully. Everyday I linger over the obituaries, which I consider a kind of daily history lesson, the opinion pages, as well as movie and theater reviews. If an article relevant to education pops up, I read it closely, sometimes even leaving a comment.
For entertainment each day I read a poem. I enjoy poetry, perhaps because I have a short attention span, but also because I enjoy the interplay of words at which poets are so adept. I look for this word play and I also look for insights that illuminate the human condition. Finally for work, I may take an entirely different approach to reading. Recently, I have been creating power points for a graduate class I am teaching. This requires reading large amounts of research and theory and translating that into pithy power point slides. This is a very different kind of reading that has me focusing on key points to share with my students.
Each of these kinds of reading has a specific purpose and requires a specific kind of reading. The key is that I, the reader, determine the purpose and that that purpose fulfills some need, personal or professional, in my life. What I am doing is purposeful reading and what we want to foster in our students is not a teacher determined purpose, but a condition that sets them up to do purposeful reading.
Literacy researcher, Nell Duke says that we need to create classrooms where students "read informational text as often as possible for compelling reasons." What are some ways we can foster compelling reasons for reading?
Reading as inquiry - students who are curious about a topic have a genuine purpose for reading. Teachers can foster curiosity through setting up conditions where students observe phenomena and then seek information to explain it. Raising butterflies or tadpoles or having an ant farm in the classroom may pique student interest. Simple experiments (Duke suggests evaporation or magnetism) may send students off to find information to explain what happened. Skillful teachers help students activate curiosity and then point the students to books, articles, web sites they can read to quench that curiosity.
Reading to share - Research shows that when students are asked to read something so that they can share that information with others, they read more strategically and with greater comprehension (Guthrie , 2003). One way to set up a reading share is a jigsaw activity. In a jigsaw, small groups of students form a home group. Each member of the home group is assigned to an expert group where they will read one chunk of a longer piece of informational text. The students read and discuss what they have read with their small group of other experts and then are responsible for sharing that information with their home group. In the home group, experts on different parts of the text share what they have learned.
Reading to write - Duke suggests that reading to write can also increase authenticity. If reading on pollution is paired with the goal of writing letters to the community regarding recycling practices, the purpose of the reading becomes more clear. The same may be true for reading about a particular country that culminates in a travel brochure. Purposeful writing tasks make can make for purposeful reading.
Anticipation/prediction guides - Anticipation/prediction guides are a good strategy for helping students activate background knowledge and generate curiosity about a reading. To make an anticipation/prediction guide the teacher chooses a passage and determines what key ideas the author is communicating. These key ideas are then expressed in simple declarative sentences and arranged in a yes/no, agree/disagree, true/false format. Students predict whether they will read that these statements are true or false according to the author. An important aspect of the anticipation/prediction guide is the discussion generated by student choices prior to reading. You can learn more about anticipation guides here. Below is an example of an anticipation/prediction guide that has the student revisiting the predictions after reading.
The research has long been clear that reading with a purpose improves comprehension. What has also been clear is that no matter how hard teachers work at creating purposes for reading, student purposes may not match teacher purposes. Working toward developing curiosity and real reasons for reading may lead to the kind of purposeful reading that is engaging and which fosters use of reading strategies and improved comprehension.