Reading to Learn and Learning to Read

There are lots of assumptions about high school students you have to get rid of when you become a teacher.

The first is that most high school students know how to read.

This group of kiddos, born around the year 2000 (!), grew up with internet, cellphones and an increasingly frantic cultural emphasis on the soundbite, the status update, and the hashtag. It’s sobering to realize that most of them do not remember dial-up.

Even when I was in elementary school, computer typing classes with boxy, green-screen machines were in vogue. Judging by the widespread pushes in education nowadays about iPads for every child, I can only imagine that for many of my kids technology already was a big part of their elementary school experience – Smartboards, Youtube videos, Powerpoints, even “educational” video games… again, useful vehicles for condensing information into small, digestible bites.

Baby food, but not meat and potatoes.

The point is that unless these high school students had parents who read to them every night, access to lots of books, encouragement from their families, and a special type of intellectual thirst that can’t be quenched by television or wikipedia, they inevitably suffer from an inability to read in order to learn. 

They are still too busy learning how to read for extended periods of time in the first place.

Unfortunately, in high school, most textbooks assume that you already know how to read. Most teachers do, too. For social studies you might be assigned a chapter about the origins of the American revolution and quizzed the next day, under the assumption that you learned something from reading it (or that you read the chapter tat all). Or in science you read a chapter about mitosis and meiosis and later you’re expected to explain the process yourself. Or even in math, the text gives you charts and graphs and directions – and sometimes even word problems – and you must have both sides of your brain working at once to tackle the problem.

But of course all that kind of reading requires a lot of patience, mental stamina and an awareness (learned in fairytales and other classic literature) that people often do not say what they mean, nor do they really mean what they say. But if you haven’t read about deceptive witches and foolish greedy children who eat Turkish delight, then you come into high school totally unprepared for the biases and hidden agendas sprinkled throughout most texts you encounter.

I find myself, when teaching, trying to find ways to make complex directions and concepts as short and simple as possible. I have even adopted catchy phrases to help my kids remember how to write thesis statements (“A is B because of 1, 2, 3!”) and explain quotes (“remember, quotes can’t speak for themselves!”) and even sit up straight (“SLANT!”). That is what the teacher books tell me to do.

I’m trying to meet my kids where they are, so that’s okay I guess. But sometimes with my own use of Youtube videos, graphic organizes, and gimmicks, I feel like I’m exacerbating the problem and catering to their infirmities rather than helping them learn how to really read.

I’m not saying that all my students suffer from this malady. I do have a few very strong readers – far better than I was at their age. But year after year, that number is growing smaller. And I am faced, as an English literature teacher, with introducing Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Sophocles’ Antigone, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and Dante’s Inferno to a group of people who need to learn how to read before they can to read in order to understand.

High school teachers are not themselves prepared to teach reading. Our own certification is based largely on our content knowledge – not on our ability to impart basic skills. There are many times when I wish I had been in ACE’s middle school or even elementary English content class so that I would have a better grasp of how children learn how to read in the first place.

It’s very difficult to teach someone how to do something you don’t remember learning how to do yourself. This is true with teaching writing but even more true of teaching reading. All I can remember is being constantly read to and suddenly — seemingly out of nowhere — reading C. S. Lewis for myself. I doubt this was the actual course of events but that is the way I remember it. And I read Lewis in order to learn – because I was curious about miracles and the problem of pain and all the rest of it.

Unfortunately, many of my kids read in order to avoid bad grades. Or to get good ones. Or they simply don’t read.

Cris Tovani, a reading strategies specialist, has been a huge help to me in the last few years in breaking down the complexities of the reading process. If you are at a high school teacher like me, often at a loss as to how to bridge the gap of years of little reading in your kids, check out her books.

You’d be reading to learn yourself – but perhaps eventually you’ll be able to pass that invaluable skill on to your students.


Teaching High Schoolers How to Read

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)