Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reading is Ridiculous

Sometimes I get so irritated about the fact that my students do not read well. My job is supposedly to teach them about citizenship, government regulation, economic systems, personal rights, etc. My job should NOT be to teach fourteen year-olds to read. It is though. It will be for the foreseeable future. My job is to teach students to read because they don't do it very well and without that ability they will not be successful. Accepting that is incredibly important; learning to deal with it is the next step and planning curriculum and instruction can be accomplished after that.

To be clear, many of my students read at or above grade level. In fact, a full third of them do. The rest of the students, however, do not. Because the average level is much lower than an eighth grade level, I give them material that is written on the average reading level of the grade so that No Child Is Left Behind. At one time I thought that if a student tried hard enough they'd magically advance numerous reading levels under my tutelage. Alas, for that to happen is astronomically unlikely. For it to happen in a first-year teacher's classroom is damn-near impossible.

I sat down with my lil' Wayne wannabe earlier this year to discuss why it is important to learn to read. He is still convinced that his best option is to drop out and start working on his first album. What I told him was lil' Wayne knew how to read and write fairly well before he dropped out and that he (the wanna be) needed to raise his reading level to at least an eighth grade level from a fourth grade level before he has a shot in the record business. When I told him the average reading level for the grade is three years behind, he became incensed. He started blaming everyone in the world for such a catastrophe of reading levels (except of course, himself). The tantrum was expected and my only response was that it wasn't one person's fault, nor a single group's (teachers', parents', students', administrators', etc.). The last thing I was going to do was start naming names.

At a professional development I attended this week (which deserves its own post), the presenter clarified the basis of my frustration with the reading situation: teachers expect that in elementary school students learn to read; in middle and high school students read to learn. The fact of the matter is, however, that students come to me and cannot read. I cannot send them back and sending them on is really out of my hands (in spite of the failing grades I hand out). What I can do is try, with the help of my team (the English teacher in particular) to boost scores at least one grade level at a point when low reading levels seem to creep to a halt altogether.

We do a lot of things to combat the low reading levels. Some of them are:
  • collaborating to use the same reading/writing strategies in both classes
  • handing out two different homework assignments (reading assignments) for my classes on a given day and on some giving out three to differentiate for the varied levels
  • silent reading of social studies trade books this year with sets of leveled books
  • explicitly teaching reading strategies with whatever piece we're covering in class
Last year differentiating, planning across the curricula and collaborating with other teachers was at a minimum because I was so consumed by my own classroom and to be perfectly honest I'm still figuring out what's the best way to approach this thing.

Reading is a tough thing to tackle. I do believe strongly that because my students are so far behind it is my job to work with my team to bring their levels up. While it means less time to devote to social studies in the ways I know how to teach social studies, my students need to learn to read and to read well. While according to our state they are, for the most part, not being left behind in K-12 education, they certainly are after they get to college or the world of work. I should not have to teach students to read, but for me to walk away from my job at the end of the year without having tried to give students one of the fundamental skills included in a formal education would be for me to not have tried to educate them.

Today's Wine: A house Sangiovese at an Italian place on the West Side- Campo. To be honest I didn't pay a lot of attention to it, but it went well with the pancetta in my pasta.


  1. Great post! I definitely feel your frustration. I felt the same way when I had a 9th grader come in and he didn't even know the alphabet. I use a lot of reading material that the students were interested in to get them to see how reading is important to their own interests. Maybe you can get the lyrics (if you can find clean ones) to some songs that the wannabe can read. Then have him change some of the words to higher level synonyms to build up vocabulary. Just a thought...

  2. All teachers are reading teachers. No one can give any child access to content unless you help them access meaning. As both a Social Studies and Language Arts teacher, it is my ethical and moral responsibility that all children can navigate information.

    Read Cris Tovani and Kelly Gallagher, and quit blaming other teachers. Be the change that I know you want to be.

  3. Love the wine suggestion. Let’s take this subject of reading levels a bit deeper re: independent reading. Here is where you will make some headway with your students.

    Degrees of Reading Power (DRP)? Fleish-Kincaid? Lexiles? Accelerated Reader ATOS? Reading Recovery Levels? Fry’s Readability? John’s Basic Reading Inventory? Standardized test data? Each of these measures quantifies student reading levels and purports to offer guidance regarding how to match reader to text.

    But, as an MA reading specialist, I have been trained in how these tests are constructed and how they help determine reading levels for students. I also know how some of the publishers of these tests level reading materials to match the results of their tests (and make a ton of money doing so). Although very scientific, there are eight problems with each of these approaches:

    1. They are cumbersome and time-consuming to administer.

    2. They tend to be costly.

    3. They are teacher-dependent (students and parents can’t pick books at their challenge levels without guidance).

    4. They do not factor in reader motivation.

    5. They do not factor in reading content, in terms of maturity of themes (Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye has a 4.7 ATOS readability level).

    6. When compared, the various formulae each vary in grade level equivalencies (one rates Tom Sawyer at 4.2, another at 6.9, and still another at 7.3).

    7. They tend to force librarians into arbitrary book coding systems to conform to the tests.

    8. They limit student and parent choice of reading materials.

    Given these issues, isn’t there a better solution that will help inform selection of independent reading books? Yes. Motivation and word recognition.

    Motivation has to factor into reading selection. My own son grew a full year in reading comprehension by reading the fourth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire over the summer a few years back. The book was certainly above his grade level for a fifth grader, but he was motivated and carefully read and re-read with dictionary and Dad at his side for help. Similarly, thank God for the current “Twilight” series. Many of my below grade level readers (I teach seventh graders) have significantly increased their reading levels by getting hooked on this latest literary phenomenon.

    Secondly, word recognition remains the best indicator for self-selection of appropriate reading level books. It is book and reader-specific and thus cannot be tested by the above readability formulae. With guidance, parents and students can use either the five-finger technique (for younger kids) or the five-percent technique (for older students) to determine whether a book is at the appropriate challenge level for an individual student. Simply put, matching text to reader means picking a book that does not have too few or too many "hard" words for the reader. The right match will best challenge, yet not frustrate the reader. The right match will also produce the optimal reading comprehension and vocabulary growth.

    My advice? Only assess what will inform your instruction. Motivation and word recognition best match reader with text. Ditch the rest! For more on the word recognition formulae, see How to Determine Reading Levels.

  4. Great advice from everyone.

    I don't think that teachers ARE the problem. It's far more complicated than that. The fact that inner-city students don't read very well can be attributed to numerous stakeholders. I hardly want to isolate teachers as the major contributing factor to low reading levels.

    It is also imperative that social studies teachers help to teach reading. If I didn't believe that I wouldn't devote nearly half of my instructional time to developing academic skills in reading and writing.

  5. The whole purpose of public education began with the dawn of the printing press and the belief that reading was absolutely necessary to have an educated electorate. Jefferson points this out and Neil Postman does a great job synthesizing this idea.

    For years, reading and writing were taught alongside social studies (which also included philosophy) all within an integrated liberal arts / humanities.

    The subjects are inseparable.

    In teaching social studies, I incorporate reading and I use some reading strategies. You are right in asserting that students should already know how to read, but the fact is that you might have students who are behind. It is your job as a teacher to help those students. I don't think it requires a ton of extra time. In fact, Kelly Gallagher (in Readicide) does a great job pointing out that teachers can go overkill on teaching kids how to read instead of having them actually read.

    The cool part about social studies is that it gives students the prior knowledge to unlock functional, expository and narrative texts. The mere fact that they are learning those concepts will help them to become better readers and if you are providing some reading strategies along the way, you can play a vital role in raising reading levels.

  6. Sorry about the "blame" comment -- so many teachers blame the previous grades' teachers, and parents...I'm of the "buck stops here" philosophy, which it sounds like you are, too. Just hit a nerve. There are teachers in my own building who express their resentment at being a "reading teacher" so I'm a little sensitive.

  7. Kelly-
    It's really easy to blame the teachers that taught my students before me, but I try to avoid it. You're right about "the buck stops here" attitude. More teachers need to teach that way.

    Great feedback. I need to think of my content more that way and I often do, it's just that sometimes in the trenches when I want my students to understand a complex idea and the vocabulary gets in the way I get extremely frustrated. Perhaps it will just take more practice to get those points across.

    Your own stuff is great. I added both of you to my blog reel.

  8. Nick, you make me so proud! Supporting striving readers is no easy task, and I'm glad you're on board with helping students improve their literacy skills. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help (as I sit here writing my thesis on adolescent literacy development...).