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October 1, 2005
Vol. 63
No. 2

EL Study Guide / Reading Comprehension

Lively engagement with books—not simply crack decoding—is the entryway to solid comprehension skills. How can we remove unnecessary obstacles and welcome students across this threshold?

Strategies for Adolescents: Spotting the Obstacles

  • Don't let students read
  • Make students read what they don't know about and don't care about
  • Make students read difficult books
  • Interrogate students about what they read
  • Buy a computer program and let it do all the work
Check out for yourself whether these strategies are, as Ivey and Fisher believe, "common practices that create barriers to engaged reading." Over about a month, have each member of your group go on a "scavenger hunt" to spot these five ineffective strategies in use in various settings. Observe in classes at your school and other schools at all levels, spend time observing in an after-school tutoring program, and look over packaged reading instruction programs. List as many instances as you can (without mentioning teacher or school names) where you see each of these strategies being practiced or being recommended.
Take notes on how students seem to respond to these strategies; if possible talk to some students, as Ivey and Fisher did, to get their response to the practice in question. Also keep a tally of how often you see the strategy of allotting time for sustained silent reading used, with some teacher support preceding it, as Steve Gardiner calls for in "A Skill for Life," p. 67.
At your next group meeting, discuss what you each found on your hunt. What amount of class time seemed to be devoted to the strategies Ivey and Fisher mention, and what effect on students did you observe? Why do you think these strategies are common in classrooms?
Discuss ways that the positive goals underlying these strategies—such as broadening students' reading choices beyond the lowest common denominator—might be achieved through modifying the practices slightly.

Toward Deeper Analysis

How can we push high school students to go beyond giving stock answers—or responding with silence—to questions about a text's content? How can we lead them into deeper, reasoned, critical analysis of texts? This is the very idea behind the strategy of Reciprocal Teaching Plus created by Gwynne Ellen Ash ("What Did Abigail Mean?", p. 36). Ash's strategy adds a fifth element—critically evaluating a text—to Reciprocal Teaching's four tasks of predicting, clarifying, questioning, and summarizing. Her strategy seems a natural way to sharpening students' reading.
  • Does the author believe certain things about the story/topic/world? How can you tell?
  • Whose story is not being told? Why?
  • Do you agree or disagree with the things that the author would like you to believe?
Videotape your group practice of this strategy. Have each teacher in your group show the tape to students as part of explaining Reciprocal Teaching Plus, then let students launch into the practice, using a text related to your course content that has some kind of identifiable opinion or bias.

Making Books Alluring From the Beginning

If we expect our students' reading comprehension to go beyond the literal level, we must instill in students at an early age the habit of mulling over and savoring the ideas in books. Patricia L.Scharer, Gay Su Pinnell, Carol Lyons, and Irene Fountas ("Becoming an Engaged Reader," p. 24) argue that children's first experiences sounding out words must involve words that delight and arouse curiosity, not simply words that are decodable according to a sequence of phonetic patterns.
Think back to your own experience learning to decode, recalling as specifically as possible what books, stories—or even individual words—you first encountered. Did you have any choice in what texts you began reading with? Were they interesting or appealing? How was the experience of learning to "crack the code" colored or affected by the content and presentation of these books?
The article by Scharer and colleagues mentions a school where teachers must use a scripted reading program in which students are directed to read unengaging but phonetically simple text. Bring in several packaged and highly scripted reading programs—or take a field trip to observe one in action. Brainstorm together ways that teachers could make students' earliest efforts as readers in school both emotionally positive and tied to student interest, even within the confines of such scripted programs.

Naomi Thiers is the managing editor of Educational Leadership.

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