When I was studying to become a high school English teacher, I thought about how fun it would be to discuss great works of literature with thoughtful and curious adolescents. I looked forward to deep conversations and debates. I remembered the books I loved reading in my high school English classes- The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, Julius Caesar by Shakespeare, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and many others.
I never thought that I would be responsible for teaching fifteen-to-eighteen year olds HOW to read in the first place.
So many high school teachers (regardless of subject) are like that. We assume that kids learned how to read in elementary school. We assume that they expanded these skills in middle school. We assume they know what to do when they get confused. We assume they know how to help themselves.
We assume, we assume, we assume.
And we are wrong.
I discovered this pretty quickly during my first year of teaching in Louisiana. I confess, I was rather horrified. How could you possibly get to high school and not know how to read? I mean, what have you been doing all this time? I knew that some students had learning disabilities that made reading really difficult – but I did not expect that MOST high school students don’t really know how to read well.
I did my best stumbling through my first few months, frustrated and increasingly disillusioned. I, of course, could not remember HOW I learned to read. I just always knew, it seemed. Why couldn’t these guys figure it out like I did?
And then I realized what a big mistake I was making.
What was I doing?? I was their English teacher! It was (and is) MY job to help them, wherever they are. For a myriad of cultural, historical, and psychological reasons, my kid did not know how to read well (and, in some cases, maybe not at all). And I needed to do something about it.
So during Christmas break of my first year, I began researching how to teach reading. I had no idea what to do, at first. But then I began asking questions: What do ESL teachers do? What do first and second grade teachers do?
And, by God’s grace, I found this book by Cris Tovani in Barnes and Noble:
This book has helped me more than any other in understanding where struggling readers are coming from, how they think, why they think the way they do — and, most importantly, how to help them become better readers.
Tovani’s description sounded exactly like my students:
Sadly, many of my students don’t expect to understand what they read. They accept their confusion and figure that at this point in their lives, it’s too late for them to become better readers. They wait to be told what it is they have read. If no one does that, they just don’t get it.
She has a lot of insight into the experience of struggling readers:
People who read well often take for granted the real-world payoffs. Struggling readers seldom get to experience how great it feels to finish a book. Or how helpful it is to read and understand a chapter in a textbook. They don’t know how much fun it can be to escape day-to-day life by jumping into a good read. By ninth grade, many students have been defeated by test scores, letter grades, and special groupings. Struggling readers are embarrassed by their labels and often perceive reading as drudgery. They avoid it at all costs. Reading has lost its purpose and pleasure. (Tovani 9)
The great thing about this book is that it is NOT just for English teachers. In fact, it is designed for ALL secondary school teachers- math teachers, science teachers, social studies teachers, religion teachers. And Tovani does a great job helping teachers sort out their priorities. We may not always realize this, but it it is OUR responsibility to teach our kids HOW to read the material we assign them. If we don’t do that, we shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t do their homework or fumble miserably through our reading assignments. We have to give them the tools they need so that they can become responsible readers who can monitor and manage their own comprehension.
Middle and high school teachers can and must teacher students to be better readers of their course material. Critics argue, “If middle and high school students could read better, then more content could be covered. They could read at home and understand the information, and teachers could move through material faster.” Right! Teachers would love this to be the case, but it isn’t. Many students aren’t reading at home, and they aren’t understanding what they read in school. […] It requires a variety of thinking processes, many of which need to be taught. Middle and high school students don’t automatically know how to cope with rigorous reading material just because they’ve left elementary school. (Tovani 14)
So, if you’re a teacher, ask yourself:
Am I teaching my kids how to read the material I assign them?
Am I valuing the AMOUNT of content I cover over my student’s ability to UNDERSTAND it?
Tovani’s book gives practical, concrete advice how to teach adolescents to become better readers. She offers lots of lesson plan ideas, activities, homework assignments that you can integrate into whatever content you are trying to teach.
I was in the middle of a mythology unit this year when I realized I needed to stop and teach my kids some reading strategies. Yes, it can be frustrating to interrupt your plans, but what’s the point of plowing through Homer if kids give up the moment they encounter a tough assignment?
We need to teach them how not to give up on reading.
One thing I have been having them learn to do is to “listen to their inner voices.” They love this– especially when I talk to them about “all the voices in my head” that I hear as I read. I model this for them out loud and then have them read pieces of challenging text, which they mark up with whatever pops into their heads. They learn to distinguish two main voices:
1. Reciting Voice – the voice that merely repeats the words on the page. If this is the ONLY voice in their heads, chances are they will remember very little of what they read.
2. Conversation Voice – the voice that actually interacts with the text. This is the voice that says things like “ew! I can’t believe he just did that!” or “Hector is such a great guy. I want to marry a guy like him someday!” or even “Uh… I’m getting really confused. Is Priam a Greek or a Trojan?”
After they learn to monitor their own comprehension by listening the voices in their head, and training their Conversation voice to stay on track, then we learn about Fix-Up Strategies.
When I notice that I am getting distracted or confused, what can I do to help myself?
All of this is just a taste of the great things Tovani shows you how to do.
As you read this book, rethink your instructional role. Examine your current teaching methods and avoid pressures to cover content. Try to sidestep the temptation to feed your students information. Don’t reduce the opportunities your students have to read because they are having difficulty. Teach them the strategies that will help them read the assigned material, and assign interesting, accessible text. Be confident that, yes, you do know something about teaching reading. The very fact that you can read makes you something of an expert. (Tovani 21)