Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Declining Reading Skills

The purpose of this blog is to share interesting ideas I have found in American professional publications dealing with the teaching of English at all levels, elementary, secondary and college.

Topic: A significant reading problem.

Title: A Flannagan. “The Role of Research in Improving Adolescent Literacy.” Council Chronicle (March 2008), 6-9.

Summary: Declining students’ reading skills and habits between elementary and secondary schools is a serious problem.

Quote. Literacy in the media: “When stories about literacy appear in the media, the news is often not good. Recent reports from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) show a drastic drop in reading skills from elementary to secondary school, as well as a sharp decline in voluntary reading among adolescents. Experts in adolescent literacy agree there is a significant problem.” p. 6.

Quote. Approaching reading through inquiry: “Adolescent literacy expert Jeff Wilhelm thinks the most effective method teachers can use to engage young readers is to re-frame the text as a form of inquiry. In his own work with adolescents, for example, Wilhelm doesn’t say, ‘We’re going to read Romeo and Juliet.' He tells his students, ‘We’re going to explore what makes and breaks relationships.' ” p. 8.

Comment. I suggest a more systematic approach to inquiry with assigned reading. My experience in observing teachers when they introduce students to literary works has usually been that they give a list of assignments with dates on which they are due and tell them to open the book and begin reading. That’s not much motivation. So far as it goes, Wilhelm’s approach to Romeo and Juliet offers some motivation for reading. In my book, Teaching English How To…., I offer a more systematic approach to inquiry to motivate students to read.

My most radical suggestion—the novel: Five-minute samplings. Students read for five minutes near the beginning of the novel. They raise questions, which the teacher records as key words on the white board, blackboard, etc. Next students read for five minutes in the middle of the novel. Again, students raise questions about what they have read. Next, students read for five minutes about three-fourths through the novel. Again, they raise questions about what they have read. Finally, the students read for five minutes near the end, including the exact end if they want. Once again they raise questions about what they have read. Together, students and teacher organize the questions into questions of fact, questions of interpretation, questions of criticism. Now they read to answer their questions.

[Objections: If you know the plot, why bother to read it? Any novel that is worthwhile raises questions when sampling, rarely provides definitive answers. If one learns the entire plot by the sampling, the novel is probably not worth studying. If you have read a plot summary, don’t worry, you will still have many questions about what happened, why it happened and the value of what happened as well as style. I guarantee it.

Why five minutes a section? If you have students read for five or ten pages at a time, students who are slow readers will hold everybody else up.

What do you do when students become bored with reading the entire novel? When they become bored, tell them to start reading a paragraph a page. It won’t be long before the students become “hooked” again. Even if they don’t become hooked, they will have gained a great deal of information from reading one paragraph a page, enough to deal with the questions they have raised from the sampling.]

Nonfiction. Students read the first and last paragraph of the first chapter. Raise questions. Then either skim to find the answers or read the first sentence of each paragraph in the chapter to find where the answer is located. Keep in mind that several questions will have to do with the meaning of the text after the answer has been found. Do the same with each succeeding chapter. I could give the students questions to read for, but when students find their own questions, they are much more motivated.

Short stories: Students read one sentence a page or column and raise questions. Students read a paragraph a page or a column and add questions. Students read the first sentence of each paragraph. Students raise questions, organize the questions and re-read to find the answers, if necessary. Begin to discuss.

Poetry. Read the poem aloud, if it is short. Students read it silently several times. Students list questions, including vocabulary, images, phrases, literary techniques, the meaning of the whole. Organize the questions and start discussing.

I have tried every one of these techniques and they have always resulted in almost 100% involvement in the discussion. As a teacher, work to involve as many students as possible. Keep yourself out of the discussion until after the students have done their best to answer their questions.


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