It Goes Both Ways

I sat in my office chair and reflected on what had just happened.  It is not like this does not happen often (because it does) but sometimes you are hit right between the eyes with it.  My students had just enlightened me.

Often in my seminar course, where I am seated and sharing equally in the lessons the Great Conversation teaches us all, I learn new things from Plato, Augustine, or Camus.  In my literature courses as well, the students find things I have never seen.  But this time it was a Freshman!

My course for the Freshmen introduces them into the Intellectual Life and teaches them the basic skills to thrive in high school and college.  We play around with such basic skills as reading, writing, speaking, and listening.  It is a class where I feel “safe” with the subject material.  And yet, on this day, the clouds parted and light poured in.


” I think you are selling something none of us want to buy.”

The student was unblinking and bold as he stated what it seemed to him the majority of his classmates were thinking.  We had been discussing reading and why it is so central to the Intellectual Life, and perhaps, all of life.  I had poured out my passion for reading, and books, and ideas, and learning, and…and…then this bald statement.  The wind kind of came out of the sails.

“What do you mean by that?”  I was convinced that if he rethought his statement, he would see the error.  But instead, he and his classmates began answering the question in spades.

“Of what real value is reading in today’s world?”

“Who needs to read anything when you can Google it?”

“What job requires reading?”

That is when the light struck me in the eyes.  Our modern world makes little of reading.  When I was young (and dinosaurs threatened my extinction), there was tremendous guilt for the young person who did not read.  He or she would hide or disguise their lack of reading.  Now the tables seem to be turned.  Reading for any prolonged period of time is mostly seen as either recreational or utilitarian.  “Of course I will read if it will bring me some monetary benefit.”  But don’t hurt yourself reading more than you have to; keep this to a minimum.  Read smart.  Those on the cutting edge will let SparkNotes do the heavy reading for them and they get the gist in bulleted points.  Most of what we as adults model to young people is how to read as little as possible, not how to read more and better.  Far too many of us (and I hope you note I am including myself here) read a title or half a sentence and then click on to the next thing.

So did this moment destroy my passion for teaching students to read?  No.  But it sure helped me see more clearly that such instruction is more and more a counter-cultural activity, not something to be assumed.  I had answers to the questions they raised, but the fact that they are now being raised when they really were not even questions in my youth helped me learn a lesson I hope I never forget: learning is as much about what we love as what we know.  We are what we love.


21st Century Problem

Studying humans is a hard thing to do.  We are not a discrete lump of information, and we don’t pattern very well.  Most of the mis-guided assumptions of past ideologies about how science can tame the wildness of anthropological study are just that: wrong guesses.  But that being said, we still try to discover what truths we can find in the morass of data that is ever growing in various Excel sheets of the world.  My peremptory point is this: science is limited in what it can tell us about education.

But…many are looking at whether the leap to electronic media is helping or hindering the pursuit of educational excellence.  Read this overview from the Business Insider and then consider my few “off the cuff” considerations of the issue of whether screens or pages are better.

Meditations on the Surface of the Issue:

  1. The media are different – ink on paper is not the same as light on screens.
  2. A potential impact on these author’s study could be that by studying college students, they are still studying students who learned to read on paper and moved to a screen after acquiring their reading skills. Not sure if their findings hold years from now when screen reading is all that has been done.  That does not dismiss everything, it just makes me wonder how much is incidental and how much is necessary.
  3. There is probably a connection between reading speed and reading comprehension, so the fact that online is faster would lead me to the conclusion that it was less comprehending. The key here is not necessarily to change media, but to slow down.
  4. How much of this discussion is a matter of taste, or a discussion of the familiar vs the new rather than a real substantive discussion of benefits compared?
  5. The “digital revolution” is over, we just have to figure out how to live with it. I am not seriously considering trying to promote a counter-revolution, but all such paradigm shifts include unintended consequences that usually impact front line folks way more than those who implemented the shift, such as teachers in the classroom figuring out how to “use” an ipad to promote learning.


HowdoURemediate Reading?

Over and over in my educational experience I have had to sigh over some student who is now well into school but who is still struggling with reading. I am sure if you have taught for long, this has happened to you as well. This reality produces several problems for a class: pacing, discussion (the struggler will not open his mouth), assigning independent work, and other issues can be frustrating to the teacher and the struggling student. Many teachers thus ask, “How can I help a kid like this?”

Identifying the problem comes before the solution. There can be a number of possible issues at work that must be discerned and then dealt with according to the best wisdom available for each. The student may have had poor teaching prior to entering your class. He may have physiological or psychosomatic issues that need diagnosis and treatment, but I believe these are rarer than statistics might indicate. The student, especially if he is pubescent, may simply have an attitude that needs work. Teachers can definitely help with this, but it takes differing strategies than other issues. And lastly, the student may just not have enough training in reading and be falling behind due to lack of work. This last issue is the one I will deal with here. I will address others as I am able.

First, let’s cover what I don’t think you need:

We don’t need to start thinking that…
…reading is in need of machinery – man is not a machine, and neither is the process of thinking, which is why reading does not need to become a mechanistic endeavor. Many modern approaches seek to quantify reading ability when I believe a good teacher is a much better “measure” of good reading than any “objective” form of quantification.
…”new techniques” will solve reading problems. If anything, usually all that is needed is time, patience, and the few basic strategies one would use to teach a new reader to read.
…there is some magic program that will work wonders. There are great programs (read on) but most of them show a preference for what I just mentioned, giving plenty of time and patience toward proven exercises that teach a student to read fluently and well.
…what we need are specialists. I am not against folks specializing in the knowledge of teaching reading and reading remediation, but the average person can teach a child to read and can, with patience, help a struggling reader gain more ability.

Okay, with the negatives out of way, what do we need to do with a student who is struggling? Reading has three distinct acts, according to Aristotle, though he applied it to all of thinking and I chose to bring it down the level of simply reading:
1. Apprehension of terms – here the student is taught how to form words from symbols that have meaning. The more distinct and unambiguous those terms, the more clearly they will apprehend a thought from the letter symbols.
2. Judgment – this comes when the student begins to put together words into sentences and then judge the idea convey by that sentence’s subject and predicate.
3. Reasoning – finally the student begins combining sentences into a thought process that is comparing various sentences to each other to grasp new ideas.

Many theorists today put these forth in different and distinct terms: decoding, fluency, and comprehension. I believe this is a focus on means rather than the ends of the acts of reading. It is much easier to approach Aristotle’s view of reading and seek to provide the student who is struggling with work in phonics and vocabulary, practice hearing and producing the music of fluently read sentences, and developing the necessary questions reasoning demands.

If your struggling student just cannot sound the letters that make up the words, then he needs to go all the way back to square one and learn phonics or at least greatly sharpen weak skills in such. I will not at this time bite off the big bite of comparing all the many programs available for such. But the point would be that there are a large number of resources to teach phonics in the context of reading. Research bears out the old notion that all language acquisition should be “in context” rather than separated into lists and meaningless drills. One great study is Cantrell, S.C. (1999). Effective teaching and literacy learning: A look inside primary classrooms. The Reading Teacher, 52, 4, 370-378. Cantrell showed the following results between in context and out of context language instruction:

Percentile Score
Stanford 9 Skills taught in context Skills taught out of context
Comprehension 67 41
Word analysis 47 37
Spelling 66 38
Language 76 36

This implies that reading “works” rather than disconnected sentences is going to bear better fruit more consistently. It also brings up questions about a lot of the “efficient” means we use in schools today: vocab lists, spelling lists, word lists, etc. I believe reading complete stories and ideas are much better than “reader basals.” Dare I mention that kids much prefer to read such as well?

Once you have your student able to “decode” or apprehend the terms, you must work on his ability to string those bad boys together into sentences. I cannot overstate the role played here by listening to good reading, and practicing reading by the student. Teacher must read to student well, for manageable stretches, from a variety of sources, most of which are well beyond their ability. The teacher must gently coach the student through his own reading, making him read rightly, no matter how slowly. Most kids will want to rush forward to get done and need someone slowing them down.

But you are not done after hours and hours of getting them to read fluently, you must move ahead, or continue to make them ask questions of their text. I am convinced that many teens have been trained only in the first two acts and then the third gets left behind and they will read a paragraph, look you right in the eye, and say, “I don’t get it.” At this point many teachers mistakenly start trying to fill up the student’s head with information to get them to get it. That is not the problem. The issue has been they don’t know what questions to ask to get the information out of what they were reading. I think Mortimer Adler’s classic, How to Read a Book, is far and away the best work to help with this.

To summarize, a struggling student needs to gain ability in reading words, which then become sentences, and finally thoughts. The best means to these ends is one on one, deliberate, impassioned, patient reading with the student by a teacher who loves to read. I think it really is that simple.

Even though I believe a quiet spot by a fire with a strong reader helping coach a weaker one is the best means, many folks will want to find help/resources. The following are some that I know have good reputations:

Hooked on Phonics
Read Naturally
Great Leaps

Give me a heads up if you know of other programs, or if one of these has not been up to its billing.