In his book ‘I Got Schooled’ filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan draws an analogy between education reform and ideas in health care. Basically, good health depends on implementing several changes in lifestyle rather than looking for the one right change. Exercise by itself is not enough if eating habits are still bad or if smoking still persists. Similarly, in education, Shyamalan asserts 5 strategies must be present for improvement to occur. Here is an interview summarizing Shyamalan’s conclusions. I would extend this idea of not one but many strategies to reading programs. As we implement instructional changes in reading to address the demands of the Common Core State Standards, I would urge implementing a variety of strategies rather than focusing on a single strategy.
Kathleen Porter-Magee published the excellent ‘An update on the Common Core reading wars’ in the Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly that expresses a similar view. In her update Porter-Magee provides nice summaries of three approaches to teaching reading (close reading, core knowledge or ‘knowledge-first’, and reading strategies) arguing that the three are ultimately complementary and optimally compatible in a rich reading program. She concludes this way:
Does that mean that, despite all the heat of this apparent firestorm, there’s ultimately nothing incompatible between the “skills-and-strategies” approach described by Wiggins and either the “knowledge-first” or “close-reading” approaches emphasized above? I think so. In my view, all three could be thoughtfully and purposefully woven together to maximize students’ knowledge, build their vocabulary, and deepen their ability to read, understand, and analyze sufficiently complex texts—in other words, to become sophisticated, effective readers of things worth reading.
After this statement she goes on to excoriate a fourth approach, reading leveled text, which she terms ‘just right reading.’ Let me make a quick plea for using all four approaches to reading instruction by expanding the scope of a reading program.
Becoming ‘sophisticated, effective readers of things worth reading’ is one important goal of a comprehensive reading program, but it is not the only goal. Focusing too heavily on the three reading approaches above—particularly close reading and reading strategies—strikes me as an ‘eat your vegetables’ approach to teaching reading. Close reading lessons—as advocated by CCSS authors—are hard work for the teacher to structure and for the students as they unpack the text. Students may find close reading activities rewarding if they feel they have uncovered meaning in the target text or they may simply see such lessons as a plate of bland vegetables: good for you but not very satisfying.
Another goal of reading literacy instruction must be development of the belief that reading is an activity worth doing. Part of getting to that goal is a focus on fluency and reading for enjoyment. Reading shouldn’t always be approached as work we must do, but is better seen as an activity we enjoy doing and that is increasingly easy to do. What I am getting at is a focus on what the PISA framework for 2009 terms ‘engagement.’ For students this manifests itself as a set of attitudes and behaviors that demonstrate reading is a useful and valuable activity. Promoting a love of reading or an engaged attitude about reading may seem like a nebulous goal: nice to have but not necessary. However, the same PISA report asserts engagement correlates strongly with reading success in terms of test performance. That engagement correlates more strongly than almost all other factors except previous success should be no surprise. What we enjoy doing we do well.
To me, reading leveled or ‘just-right’ texts is the strategy that will most likely produce engagement and develop fluency as an intentional outcome of instruction. Again, refer to Porter-Magee’s article for a good thumbnail sketch of the strategies involved in reading leveled texts. My thought, echoing the ideas of Shyamalan, is that all four approaches to reading instruction are valuable and necessary when we consider the broader purposes of a reading program beyond ‘sophisticated, effective readers of things worth reading.’ It is striking the right balance of each approach that will be the challenge.
Photo credit to Martin Cathrae.