Friday, September 26, 2014

Whither the Joy of Reading?

The act of coming to be a reader is infinitely complex. So complex that any attempt to talk about teaching reading is ultimately inadequate. This is certainly true of the recent article I wrote for the Washington Post Answer Sheet. The purpose of that piece was to take a close look at some research purporting the benefits of “frustration level reading” and to argue for the necessity of instruction for students on the instructional level. 

Some readers/commenters on this piece asked a good question: What about the joy of reading? Aren’t we likely to be more successful if we forget all this instructional mumbo-jumbo and focus on the joy?

Of course, the joy of reading matters and it matters a great deal. As Mark Twain has said, “The [person] who can read and chooses not to, has no advantage over the [person] who cannot read.” So yes, the joy of reading, the sheer pleasure of a good book well read, matters. There are those who argue that the biggest literacy problem in this country is not people who cannot read, but people who do not. But while joy is necessary to building a reader, it is not sufficient.

At the risk, again, of oversimplifying this complex process, allow me to posit the three most necessary instructional aspects of making a reader. Each of these is necessary, but of itself, not sufficient.

1.    Developing in the reader the ability to smoothly and fluently process the visual, structural and semantic clues provided by the words of the text. (decoding)
2.    Developing in the reader the ability to comprehend that text on a literal, inferential and evaluative level. (comprehending)
3.    Developing in the reader a deep sense of the life-long joy that can be found through reading a wide variety of books for entertainment and information. (motivating)

While it is true that many children come to reading with minimal instruction in number 1 and 2, it is also true that many students struggle with one or the other or both. The skilled and informed teacher seeks to strike a balance in instruction that provides for what each child needs. As I am sure any student of motivation can understand, students who struggle with decoding and/or comprehending may find reading a struggle or embarrassment and, therefore, their motivation will suffer. Likewise, a student who has mastered the basics, but is forced through endless decoding worksheets may also be unmotivated.

The challenges for any teacher are great. How does the teacher develop a joy in reading for every student?

First, the teacher reads aloud to students every day. Through read aloud the whole world of literature is opened up to every student in the class, struggling reader and skilled reader, through the teacher’s skilled scaffolding of the text. Read aloud is a great leveler in a classroom. Every child can listen and enjoy a story or an informational text that may well be above “reading level” through the magic of the read aloud. In 45 years of teaching from kindergarten to graduate school, I have never encountered a student who did not enjoy being read to.

Second, the teacher provides guided choice of reading material. Students get joy out of reading books they are passionate about, so whether those books be on dinosaurs, baseball, horses, vampires, detectives, or life in the desert, students need to be allowed choice. The skilled teacher guides the choice by helping the students clarify what they are truly interested in and then helping them to find a variety of texts that they can be successful reading.

Thirdly, the teacher ensures that the student is successful. Motivation is rooted, in part, in success. If a child feels that s/he cannot be successful in reading, s/he may well shut down and not be open to the joy in books we seek to bring to them. Providing for success means providing instruction at a level where children can be successful and at the same time improve their reading ability. In other words, the teacher operates in what Vygotsky called “the zone of proximal development.” That is the space between what the student can do on his/her own and what the student can do with a teacher’s help.

As we ponder what I have outlined here as the components of joy in reading, we need to seriously consider where the Common Core and the emphasis on standardized tests is taking us. How do we balance a call for greater text complexity in our instruction with the need for developing joyful readers? How do we insure students are having success when we are being asked to provide them with instruction on the “frustration” level? If children learn that reading is about analyzing a text to be able to answer multiple choice questions do we risk killing the joy?

I suppose there is some joy involved in getting a good score on a standardized test of reading comprehension. For me, I would rather listen, with joy, to Charlotte’s Web read aloud. I bet most kids would too.

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