Monday, July 11, 2016

Reading contradictions

It's hard to know whether to blame deficient attention spans, insufficient practice with challenging texts, sloppy reading habits driven by online reading via key word searches rather than the parsing of entire sentences, and/or the bottleneck to fluent reading caused by insufficient phonics instruction, but reading comprehension skills continue to be in serious decline.

However, the decline in reading comprehension, in my experience, is not accompanied by a decline in reading confidence. Take a student who reads something--say in one of your comments on his or her paper--that sounds unreasonable or contradictory. Does that student first go back and re-read to make sure you're really saying what he or she thinks your saying before emailing you his or her objections? Perhaps many students still do that. But recently I'm starting to get messages like:
In your feedback, you contradict yourself. First you tell me I shouldn't have done X. But later you tell me I should have done more of X.
I look back at my comment, which reads something like:
You weren't supposed to be focusing on X. Instead, you were supposed to be focusing on Y. Given A, B, and C, it's odd that your paper should have focused so much on X.
And then I realize that my second sentence was too complex for my student. She hadn't processed it as a whole, but instead had extracted the embedded clause "your paper should have focused so much on X," and interpreted that as a contradiction of "You weren't supposed to be focusing on X."

I pointed this out to my student, who then said that my wording was confusing and that my sentence had been hard to follow since I had "broken it up with commas."

Up to a certain point, I can simplify sentences for reading impaired students, or explain things orally. But, as I wrote earlier:
Some ideas are so complex that they can only be expressed in a series of complex sentences. Sentences beyond a certain level of complexity can only be fully digested in written form, where readers can take them in at their own pace and reread as necessary. If you aren’t able to sustain the attention it takes to parse such sentences in all their complexity, or to develop the skills it takes to write them, you are shut off from whole worlds of ideas, across all sorts of disciplines, from economics to psychology; from chemistry to literary analysis.


Anonymous said...

Your student's inability to understand your written comment is due the methods(fads) used to teach reading. What you wrote made sense to me. But because of the nature of reading instruction: the teaching of only high frequency words, eschewing phonetics, and class work that does not challenge the students, you have a perfect storm of students who have no real reading comprehension. Now my question is what will happen to our economy and nation due to so many functioning illiterate students?

Bookish Babe

Auntie Ann said...

This is one area where I think Common Core got it right. It simply points out that if a student is going to be ready for college-level texts after high school, then in third grade, they should be reading--or able to read--third grade texts, sixth-grade texts in sixth, and eleventh-grade texts in eleventh. Without that progression, students won't be ready for advanced work. Likewise, though the Core has been misinterpreted to mean non-fiction should be read equally in English class, the emphasis on needing to read a great deal of non-fiction as well as fiction, I think, is well placed. Reading for information is a very different skill than reading for character, language, plot, etc.

Getting kids the ability to read at grade level is the problem.

GoogleMaster said...

This is where old-fashioned techniques such as identifying dependent and independent clauses and diagramming sentences come in handy. (The previous sentence was intentionally more complex than the average illiterate can comprehend.)

Anonymous said...

Wow. I think you can eliminate Foucault from the reading list for that class.

treehousekeeper said...

It seems to me that if you hadn't "broken it up with commas" it would have been even harder to understand.

I assume that this was a college student? The terrible writing that I see in my master's degree program (in education, no less) never ceases to amaze (and depress) me. It never occurred to me that my fellow students might also be having trouble reading.

Cold said...

Does anyone know what it looks like for the top 50,000 or so students? One expects a general decline as more people are required/encouraged to take the test. While the top group is going to be distorted by cheating -- likely much more prevalent than it used to be -- it would be nice to know how they are being affected by demographic trends or educational fads.

Anonymous said...

According to this book (and some other sources) the decline is mostly at the top:

This was from 2014. I ran into another source saying the same thing back in 1981.

Anonymous said...

The abandonment of leveled grouping, in favor of very-mixed-ability/preparation classes (including mainstreamed spec ed), means that the work is dominated by what "all" can do. This means that the top kids are too rarely given appropriately challenging material. From what I have read, many teachers refuse to let these kids even work independently. Unless it happens outside of school, they simply do not have the years of exposure to a rigorous curriculum - lit, history, sciences, art/music history/appreciation etc - that would lead to top SAT-V scores, which are correlated with the extent of general knowledge.

The SAT itself has been weakened - removal of the analogies section (which discriminates well at the top end), "re-centering" (free 100 points IIRC) and the removal of items on which only the topmost kids will score. A 730 in 1966 or 67 (whichever year was the highest score point) has been worth an 800 for some years now, which masks the real extent of the decline. When I was in grad school (79-88), my school used the Miller Analogies for admission (higher score needed for PhD entry), but that was soon replaced by the GRE. I was told that not enough applicants could make the cut scores on the Analogies.