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March 1, 2012
Vol. 69
No. 6

Perspectives / Turning the Page on Reading

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      Read like a detective. Write like an investigative reporter." That's how David Coleman, one of the lead authors of the common core state standards, described in a nutshell the approach to the teaching of reading and writing ushered in by the standards. The new emphasis, especially in the upper grades, is on teaching students to read complex nonfiction texts (read like a detective) and to master informative writing (write like a reporter).
      "These are not bad goals, but how do we get there?" EL author Doug Fisher commented, noting that currently only 34 percent of U.S. 8th graders read at or above the proficient level. He added a worry: "If all we do is teach students to deconstruct text, will we remove all desire to read books?"
      The teaching of reading—once primarily dedicated to helping beginners and nonreaders learn how to decode—is shifting to embrace the vital capacities to analyze and comprehend. This emphasis on higher-level skills responds to a need to prepare all students to compete in a world where knowledge is expanding and information is available in multiple formats everywhere and anytime. Twenty-first century learners must not only know how to scan and skim billions of bytes but they also must know how to negotiate complex, difficult text. And—a goal not to be left out, we hope—they need to learn to understand and appreciate demanding and rich literature.
      This issue of Educational Leadership addresses the huge challenge of adopting wise practice in the face of a new mandate. Here's the advice from our authors.
      First, they must read. Richard Allington and Rachael Gabriel (p. 10) lead off by reminding us that everything depends on every child experiencing certain elements of instruction every day. At some time every day, students must be able to choose what they read. At some time every day, they must read something they understand, write something personally meaningful, talk with classmates about their reading and writing, and hear a fluent adult reader read aloud. This is the simple recipe to follow if students are ever going to become competent, independent readers who—of their own free will—choose to read. Worksheets and test prep? Not so much.
      Build stamina and trust. In "Taming the Wild Text," Pam Allyn (p. 16) takes up a battle cry for all strugglers who feel defenseless around print. To create a reading culture in which students aren't afraid of challenging text, we must give them a tool kit that contains everything from alphabet charts to word boxes to e-readers. Those who struggle with reading should not be underestimated, but instead be given the opportunity to dive deep and build on their strengths (p. 44).
      Use strategies strategically. Several of our authors offer lessons on teaching students to read to learn. Gina Biancarosa (p. 22) addresses the challenges adolescents face in navigating subject-area reading. Nell K. Duke and her fellow researchers (p. 34) explain how to teach reading and writing with attention to the real-world reasons for each genre. Timothy Shanahan, Douglas Fisher, and Nancy Frey (p. 58) look at the factors that affect students' ability to comprehend complex text: from vocabulary and sentence structure to background knowledge. Authors also talk about how to make both the time spent reading textbooks more compelling (pp. 52, 64) and the time using digital resources more meaningful (pp. 70, 75).
      Choose excellent works to read … Thomas Newkirk (p. 28) writes about the real reason for reading nonfiction. "Everything written is as good as it is dramatic," he quotes Robert Frost. "Reading is not a treasure hunt for the main ideas. It is a journey we take with a writer." Giving our students technical manuals to read is not the way to add rigor to classroom reading. Nonfiction, yes, but excellent nonfiction is what we must teach in the classroom.
      … and reread. Carol Jago (p. 40) has her own take on choosing what to teach: "Look for aesthetic splendor, cognitive power, and wisdom," she quotes Harold Bloom. Jago assigns her students two books to read at once—one a classic to study in class and one a popular book with a similar theme to read on their own. She knows students need literary works of quality, complexity, and range, and she knows they need to enjoy reading.
      The pages we are turning on the teaching of reading are flipping by rather quickly. Following these authors' recommendations is an opportunity to get reading right in more classrooms.
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      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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