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Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Problem with Reading

Apparently, according to a front-page article in today's Times, fostering student improvement in reading is more difficult than fostering such improvement in math.  To which this English teacher says, "Well, DUH!"

I can't imagine that this truly comes as a surprise to anybody.  I mean, we've all known for ages that math teachers have it easy.  Math, after all, is just a bunch of steps.  Whether you're adding fractions with unlike denominators or deriving some factorization of calculusitude (did I say that right?), all you really need to do is perform certain steps in a certain order to reach the appropriate conclusion.  Reading, though, is a whole different animal.

Think about it: In order to teach reading, you first have to be clear about what reading is.  On a fundamental level, it involves decoding--the act of viewing marks on paper (or wherever) and translating these into words.  But of course, if that were all that was involved in the act of reading, then I could claim the ability to read Italian--or Korean, for that matter.  I can read Korean words (one of my many hidden talents), but even the Korean equivalent of a "Dick and Jane" book ("See Kim Jong-un rant!  Rant, Kim, rant!") would stymie me.

Teaching reading involves teaching children (or adults) to both decode and then to derive meaning from what they have decoded. And that sounds far simpler than it is.  After all, unlike mathematical operations--which involve a finite set of steps that can more or less be followed by anyone--the act of reading comprehension involves myriad discrete skills--decoding, vocabulary acquisition, the ability to distinguish major from minor details, the ability to draw inferences---any one (or combination) of which can throw obstacles into the path of developing readers.  And of course there is no one agreed-upon way to teach any of these things.

Of course, there is one simple solution to the problem of how to teach children to read: Make them read.  Simplistic?  Well, yes, especially given the education industry's reliance on high-stakes, multiple choice tests.

(DIGRESSION: These tests are of dubious value anyway.  I have known professional reading educators who don't achieve perfect scores on these tests, mainly because a lot of times these tests pose questions with a number of reasonable answers, only one of which is the "best" answer--"best," of course being a highly subjective quality.  EOD)

Still, I truly believe that, if teachers simply demanded that students read every day--while giving them more or less complete freedom to choose the materials that interested them--we would see a steady increase in reading ability.  And maybe even in test scores, too.

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