Monday, November 04, 2013

What Are Your Students Reading? And WHY?

What resources we use in the classroom are often dictated by forces beyond our control: budgets limit purchases of new novels, textbooks are over a decade old, photocopying is limited... But, teachers can be creative and source new materials -- especially those in the digital realm. New media has given us video, Tweets, blogs, and a variety of other "texts" for students to read and create on their own. Our challenge is to find the right text for the right student at the right time.

Cris Tovani writes about the importance for texts to be authentic. Students need challenging texts that will push their thinking in different subject areas. Current articles, in a variety of genres, can help pique students' interest.
"If we don't begin to find accessible text for all adolescent readers, they will continue to fail, only to become someone else's problem the following year. More students will become turned off to the content we love." (Tovani 42).
It's important to remember that even students who have difficulty reading may still be able to access challenging texts if we provide them with the appropriate supports. In secondary school, content area teachers can help teach reading strategies; in fact, they might be better positioned to do so. I know science teachers who are some of the most effective teachers of reading -- not only do they convey a passion for their subject area, but also, they bring in current readings and videos to ensure that their students are accessing current thinking, controversies and theories in science.

In addition to the need for texts to be authentic is the inclusion of student voice and choice in reading materials. We need to honour the choices they make and include new media forms. In fact, we need to help them decode, deconstruct, and dissect texts (in all forms). Moreover, we need to do this so they can then construct them. Good readers become good writers. There is a fallacy that because students are accessing text online, they are able to effectively read online.
Photo courtesy of Dallas Theological Seminary
"As new technologies increasingly become a part of classroom lessons, teachers are discovering that many students do not possess the new literacy skills required to successfully read and write with the many new technologies that regularly appear in today’s world." 
(International Reading Association [IRA], 2001, cited in Henry 615)

Laurie Henry provides a framework, SEARCH, for students to utilize online text effectively. Firstly, Henry outlines the need to locate information -- if a student is unable to locate useful, quality information, then all further activities related to research (comprehending, synthesizing and communicating ideas) becomes moot (616). Henry's framework is useful for adolescents as it's fairly straightforward:
1. Set a purpose for searching.
2. Employ effective search strategies.
3. Analyze search-engine results.
4. Read critically and synthesize information.
5. Cite your sources.
6. How successful was your search?
I would argue that the last step is especially important; not only do students need to be able to research independently, but they need to evaluate their own performance (metacognition). Of course, in order to reflect, students need to have been explicitly provided direction about the purpose for reading (which can easily be communicated through learning goals).

Understanding purposes for reading and writing will also help students become proficient readers and writers. Tovani quotes one of my favourite thinkers about reading, Kelly Gallagher (2003):

"We adults have already found a multitude of reasons to read. Sometimes we are conscious of these reasons; but often, I suspect, many of these reasons have become internalized. We often take them for granted because we have long ago acknowledged their value. We motivate ourselves to read, consciously or unconsciously, because the benefits of doing so are ingrained in us. Unfortunately, this is not often the case with our students. Just because we have internalized a number of reasons why reading  enriches our lives doesn't mean we should assume our students have done the same." (in Tovani 52)
Teachers need to scaffold purpose for students in the same way we scaffold other activities; students often need to be told the purpose for reading (especially if we are assigning the reading!). Eventually, though, we need to help them determine the purpose themselves. Tovani (p.61) outlines seven key ways to "hold your thinking" (that is, determine purpose, especially when reading a 'boring' text):
  1. Look for interesting details that could have multiple meanings.
  2. Ask questions about titles and subtitles.
  3. Ask questions about the piece.
  4. Look for the author's opinion.
  5. Read a piece to learn new information.
  6. Make a connection to the piece.
  7. Who is the author?
Photo courtesy
Students need to practice, discuss, and evaluate texts with a variety of purposes if we want them to internalize these processes. The use of protocols such as the 4A's Text Protocol (Assumptions, Agree, Argue, Actions) or the I Say, It Says, and So Protocol help students by providing structure to ensure they all participate to create understanding and therefore internalize good reading habits.

In the end, it's important that we expand our reading choices for students. Ignite their curiousity by giving them new and interesting readings that will challenge them intellectually. Provide opportunities for students to engage in lively discussion and debate to really explore authentic texts. Engage in new literacies and help students become proficient readers and writers of digital texts, whatever form they take.


Henry, Laurie A. (2006), "SEARCHing for an answer: The critical role of new literacies while reading on the Internet." International Reading Association. pp. 614–627.

Tovani, Cris (2004). Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension Grades 6-12. Markham: Pembroke.

Ministry of Education. Think Literacy: Language / English, grades 7-9. Queen's Printer.

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