Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Proposed fast tracks to reading comprehension

Renouncing drill and practice, as current fads dictate, means believing in alternative fast tracks to mastery. At least, that is, when it comes to what few academic skills our education system still values--reading comprehension often being first on the list (as arguably it should be).

This belief in an alternative fast track, I believe, is where the working-back-from-what-good-readers-do mentality comes from: the mentality that confuses correlation with causation. Good readers become so not because of their "habits of mind," but because they've read a lot and because they've absorbed a lot of background knowledge.

Another proposed fast-track to reading comprehension is to teach students how to make inferences--minus the drill and practice, of course. How does this work? According to presentations I've seen, the teacher "models" a handful of different sorts of inferences (text-to-text, text-to-world, and, most horrifically, text-to-self) and the child spends a couple of lessons practicing these, and then that's the end of the story. If the child continues to struggle with reading comprehension, it must be the result of a learning disability, or ADHD, or poverty.

Of course, the inferences that actually make a difference in education are (1) those that make the text coherent and (2) those that uncover its implied messages (its subtext). Mastering such inferences, again, means reading a lot and absorbing a lot of background knowledge. Reading a lot gives you the intensive drill and practice you need; absorbing a lot of background knowledge increases the chances that you will know the specific background knowledge assumed by a text. No amount of modeling plus practice worksheets can substitute for this.

One big problem in reading comprehension is that, in today's enticing distraction-filled world, students are reading less and less extended, challenging prose on their own. But the other problem is what's not happening in schools. Schools, for all their weekly book logs and 100-book challenges, are assigning less and less extended, challenging prose and making sure students really digest it. And they are teaching less and less of the core, background knowledge that the most interesting, challenging texts take as their point of departure.

1 comment:

Auntie Ann said...

I'm trying to get our 6th grader ready for the ISEE in December. I have read the traditional reading comprehension book and his school last year was definitely in this camp; he had to do text-to-self-type exercises. As a left-brainer, this is not his favorite type of exercise!! (His school isn't very left-brain friendly: as part of his summer work he has to make a map of the Community in "The Giver".) The most useful points in the book were: 1) keep your attention on the words, if you feel yourself drifting, back up and start the section over (duh!) 2) keep your mind active and thinking about what you're reading, ask questions, if appropriate keep a visual picture in your mind (duh!) In other words, the book wasn't much use.

Now, I'm working through a reading comp workbook for high schoolers with him; I wanted a high-school level book, so he could get used to reading at a more-advanced level. ( ). It seems more helpful because it's much more specific about *how* to pay attention to the text. 1) look at the structure: headers, bullet points, call outs can tell you what the author is focusing on. 2) As you read, look for the main idea (the book points out that this is separate from the topic. A piece can be about trees, but the main idea is that trees are a renewable resource.) 3) Determine whether the piece is fact or opinion. 4) What is the author's point of view and tone. 5) If it's a persuasive piece, is the author using logic or emotion?

Notice, it's not doing the usual: text-to-text, text-to-world, text-to-self mumbo-jumbo. Much of that also seems to be the sort of questions that get asked in Reading Comp sections of standardized texts. It also gives him the opportunity to read pieces similar to the test and practice analyzing them.

Now, I'm also going to start supplementing by printing articles from the NYTimes and, I'm thinking, the Encyclopedia Britannica. I want him to actually read high-quality pieces from which he can gain knowledge and with complex sentence structure and vocabulary.

We'll see how it goes.