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.