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October 1, 2005
Vol. 63
No. 2

Perspectives / Required Reading

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"Schools shift approach as adolescent readers fail to improve."—The Washington Post"State to unveil new reading strategy."—The Tennessean"To pump up reading, schools cut back fun."—St. Petersburg Times
News headlines tell us that a fresh emphasis on reading is coming soon to middle and secondary schools. The new approaches include 90-minute reading classes each day, tutoring for low-performing students, a reduction of elective courses to create room in the curriculum for reading classes, and increased training in the teaching of reading for middle and high school teachers.
A new $25 million federal initiative, Striving Readers, will also seek to jump-start targeted interventions for middle and high school students who are at least two years below grade level in reading.
Looking at the statistics that predict the demise of literacy, the emphasis on reading comprehension—if not the slashing of electives—is coming none too soon. According to the Reading Next panel, more than 8 million U.S. students in grades 4–12 are struggling readers, and 70 percent of 8th graders read below the proficient level (see p. 16).
Not only do many students fail to read well, but an increasing number of students also say they don't like to read, read only when they have to, or don't read at all. Young people ages 15–24 spend an average of eight and one-half minutes a day reading for enjoyment, a new report tells us (see p. 88).
Too often, even students who have learned to read by 3rd grade have an incomplete notion of what reading actually means. Having learned to decode the words, they do not realize the complexities of reading to learn. Perhaps this is because, as a recent RAND report (see p. 89) notes, teaching students to read to learn has historically been an "orphaned responsibility"—one that middle and high school teachers have believed to be the job of the primary school teacher, English teacher, or reading specialist.
But how do you teach an older student that words on the page are not just a puzzle to be decoded; that thinking about what you are reading is not the same as scanning information; and that, most important, untold learning and enjoyment await the skilled reader?
The fact that many students don't enjoy reading—and don't find skilled analytical reading relevant in the age of iPods—should warn us that punitive approaches and more-of-the-same tactics will not be effective with adolescents. This issue of Educational Leadership looks at the positive strategies that are effective with these students, as suggested by research and experience.
Gay Ivey and Douglas Fisher (p. 8) begin with a reminder about what reading comprehension entails. "People often confuse teaching comprehension skills with testing comprehension," they tell us. Comprehension is a proactive, continual process. Mostly a self-directed activity, it requires using prior knowledge, metacognitive awareness, and reflection to make sense of text.
The instruction menu recommended by the Reading Next panel, as author Gina Biancarosa relates (p. 16), includes explicit strategies, intensive writing, diverse texts, tutoring, and technology. The elements must be chosen and mixed together with care; they are not one-shot solutions, the panel explains.
Giving students choice in reading and providing time to independently practice reading are other recommendations that our authors stand by. And as German language teacher Susan Ferguson (p. 63) knows, preparing students to read—whether by dressing in character to pique their imagination or by more subtly motivating students to see the relevance of what they will read—makes all the difference in whether students see the new emphasis on "required reading" as drudgery, or not.
So out with the simplistic scenario of rote, characterized by the teacher telling students what to do: Read the book, answer the questions, write the paper. As Carolyn Coutant and Natalia Perchemlides (p. 42) urge,Teachers need to show their students how to push their involvement with texts from "an unconscious process" toward active engagement that yields authentic questions and meaningful connections.
Here's to better—and happier—readers! May they be one and the same.

Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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