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October 1, 2006
Vol. 64
No. 2

When Thinking Skills Trump Reading Skills

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Adolescents and “back-to-basics” reading programs rarely mix. Four strategies stimulate thinking while teens learn to read.

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How should secondary school teachers respond when they face students reading three, five, or even seven years below grade level?
We suspect that many instructional leaders feel the urgency, as one district literacy director recently shared with us, to “bring kids up to speed.” Most likely, this means improving test scores.
Schools often respond to pressures to improve reading skills by adopting back-to-basics programs that focus mainly on discrete skills with little attention to critical reading and writing. The assumptions driving teachers to use this kind of back-to-basics intervention seem to be that (1) the basics must be learned before higher-level reading and writing work can begin, and (2) students did not “get” the basics in the early grades. But our observations indicate that the most popular programs define “the basics” quite differently, from sounding out long vowel words, to identifying a sequence of events in a story, to using similes and metaphors, to making an inference. In addition, we know of no evidence that proves that an approach focused on the technical aspects of literacy helps students become more sophisticated in their reading or score higher on tests created independently of the programs being used.
A troubling consequence of this back-to-basics approach is exemplified by the reaction of 15-year-old Luke,whom we recently observed. Luke does not yet read comfortably on a 1st grade level. Luke's teachers believe that he needs to read texts that are not a struggle for him—and we would be the first to agree (Ivey, 2000; Ivey & Fisher, 2006). Luke's teacher invited him to read a book “matched to his reading level,”Dan, the Flying Man by Joy Cowley, a simple picture book that one would likely find in a kindergarten classroom. When he read the title, Luke looked up, obviously perplexed, and asked, “Do you think he's on drugs?”
It did not even occur to Luke that his teacher would give him a book that made higher-order reasoning unnecessary. Dan, the Flying Man was no match for this teen's vast knowledge base and his ability—and desire—to think critically.

Torn Between Two Academic Needs

When older students are still acquiring fundamental knowledge about literacy, teachers may feel torn between trying to respond to two seemingly disparate academic needs. On the one hand, teachers know that struggling readers will not grow from literary experiences that are too hard, that require a level of reading expertise that they have not achieved. Yet teachers are keenly aware that older students must develop their abilities to think critically about a range of sophisticated concepts, even while they are still learning to read and write. It is difficult to imagine literary experiences that use accessible text yet bring sophisticated content to students.
We believe there is an alternative to the either/or perspective that pits developmental approaches to reading against instruction that connects literacy to higher-order thinking. We suggest four practices that simultaneously develop students' literacy skills and their higher-order cognitive skills. We have observed these practices in secondary classrooms and have noticed that they result in higher rates of student engagement.

Use Accessible Texts with Rich Concepts

If you asked a teacher why students should spend lots of time reading, you would probably get a response akin to the title of Richard Allington's (1977) classic article “If They Don't Read Much, How They Ever Gonna Get Good?” We concur. But if you asked adolescents why they should read, we doubt you would get the same answer. Students who value independent reading are more likely to tell you that time spent reading is crucial because it gives them a chance to think, learn, and fantasize (Ivey & Broaddus, 2001).
Like adults, teens read because it satisfies their minds. So when we recommend books to older, inexperienced readers, we want to show them that reading can stimulate their minds—make them laugh, puzzle, empathize, question, or reconsider previously held notions. We cannot think of any other reason that students would adopt the habit of reading.
But when students have world knowledge that far surpasses their abilities to read, how do you find appropriate materials? Consider how proficient adult readers choose their texts. As such a reader, do you find that only hard-to-read books cultivate your thinking? Do you select books on the basis of how easy or difficult they are? We suspect that most often the content and style of a text grab your attention, rather than word-level or syntactical complexity. What draws readers to a text is a sense of connection or curiosity.
For example, picture books with a mature sense of humor can fit with both the reading levels and the sensibilities of older struggling readers. Older kids can enjoy the “Saturday Night Live”–style wit of such books asThe Happy Hocky Family andSquids Will Be Squids. Adolescents and adults are more likely than elementary students to possess the cultural knowledge necessary to appreciate the satire in such books.
Students also appreciate exploring relevant social issues through conceptually rich, accessible texts. Two examples areThe House That Crack Built—a cumulative picture book that details the creation, distribution, and harmful effects of crack cocaine—and The First Part Last—a manageable read that highlights the hardships of becoming a teenage parent.
Students can also strike a balance between readability and conceptual richness through independent reading about specific content. For example, Ms. Grant, a physics teacher, makes a wide range of texts available to her students as they study motion. Instead of relying on a single text, which is often too hard for the majority of students in the class, Ms. Grant uses Web sites, picture books, and newspaper and journal articles. Students read and write daily in this classroom and learn to make sophisticated judgments about texts, content, and authors.
As Carrie, a 9th grader who reads at a 3rd grade level, said,I really didn't get this until I read about the roller coaster. See, you got to understand friction first, and then you get the laws of motion. That pop-up book [Galileo's Universe] helped me a lot with motion, but I couldn't get it in my brain. Then I read part of the book with all of the pictures [Eyewitness: Force & Motion]. I was on a roller coaster before, and I made a picture of that when I read.
Carrie's reading skills have progressed—but more important, she has engaged with the kind of content and thinking expected of students her age.

Use Alternative Texts to Spur Critical Reading

We have often seen teachers instruct unskilled teenage readers in comprehension processes and strategic reading using books that are too difficult. For instance, in a high school English class, students ranging in reading ability from 2nd grade through college-level, were assigned a chapter from The Grapes of Wrath. The next day, the teacher used this chapter to discuss how writers expect readers to infer as they read, and asked students, “What social commentary do you think Steinbeck was making here?” The problem was that nearly three-fourths of the class did not understand what they had read the previous night. Instead of developing the skill of inferring, students got tangled up trying to figure out unknown words and difficult concepts in the novel. At the other end of the continuum, we see students assigned to books that are easy to read, but not complex enough to offer a context for sophisticated reading processes.
Easy-to-read texts supported by compelling graphics and photographs are an excellent alternative for instructing students in critical reading. For instance, graphic novels, anime, and comics give students struggling to read grade-level texts access to engaging ideas (Frey & Fisher, 2004).
Notice how Mr. Jacobs, an English teacher, introduced inferring through the graphic novel Out From Boneville by Jeff Smith, the first book in a nine-volume series about three cousins who are run out of town and end up lost in an uncharted desert. The teacher points out to studentsSee this space right here, between the panels? We call that the gutter; it's the place where you might make an inference. The author can't tell us everything—some things we simply must infer or read between the lines. Let's look at this page. Is he the richest guy in town? If so, why is he sweating so much?
In her U.S. history classroom, Mrs. Everson usesStill I Rise: A Cartoon History of African Americans to preview content and build students' background knowledge. In one lesson, Mrs. Everson shared a cartoon from the book with the class and asked students to consider the impact of the end of World War I on African Americans. Jessica, a student who reads below her assigned grade, observed,It wasn't good. When the blacks came back, people wanted to hold them down. Look, there were lynchings.... They used to string our people up, just for being black.
Javier, who reads above grade level, added,Yeah, but the people had new expectations. They knew that they could do things and they made organizations to help. On that page, they talk about the NAACP.
When they share an interest in the content, students of various reading levels can converse and think critically together about the topic at hand. Of course, not all graphic novels are appropriate for the classroom—many contain adult themes and graphic content. See “Accessible Books with Sophisticated Concepts” for a list of several visually appealing content-rich books that are appropriate for secondary schools.

Read Alouds and Think Alouds

Teacher read alouds help students understand difficult texts (Ivey & Broaddus, 2001). Most secondary students enjoy listening, and teachers can capitalize on this enjoyment by modeling critical thinking. For example, as she introduced the book Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case by Chris Crowe, 8th grade civics teacher Ms. Farrell explained to students how she reasons her way through a book:I ask myself important questions that are inspired by the title: Did someone kill someone else and not go to prison for it? Was Emmett Till the person murdered? These questions give me a purpose for reading the book.
At the point at which two white men from Money, Mississippi, approach the house of a black family with a gun and a flashlight, asking for the boy “who done the talkin' in Money,” she paused and shared with the students more questions that came to mind for her: Are they going to kill the boy in the house? Are they going to kill him for “doing the talking”? What could he have said that was so bad they wanted to murder him?
Ms. Farrell explained that she will continue to think about the book, even after closing it:I have more complicated questions now. In this book, I've learned that Emmett Till was killed for whistling at a white woman. The murderers went unpunished. After reading, I keep wondering about these things. How could these men live with themselves and not feel sorry for what they had done? Are there other cases like this one? The first question is not easily answered, but we can talk about it. The second question makes me want to read and learn more. I remember seeing a movie about Medgar Evers, who was killed by a white supremacist. I might want to read more about that now.
This teacher not only made a difficult text more accessible, but she also showed students why reading is important in the first place: because it makes you think about significant issues. A program focused on basic skills might lead students to believe that the purpose of reading is to find the main idea, to use word analysis strategies, or to identify cause-and-effect paragraphs. Although these skills are important to the reading process, they don't necessarily translate into the ability or desire to read critically.
Listening to teachers reflect on sophisticated texts helps struggling readers and writers keep their eyes on the prize. An even more crucial benefit is that it helps students glean vocabulary and sophisticated concept knowledge that may not be contained within the kind of books that students can read alone—and we know that students learn most new vocabulary and concepts through reading (Nagy, Anderson, & Herman, 1987). Without such knowledge, even teens who can decode will be at a loss when it comes to higher-level reading. For this reason, we consider regular teacher read alouds across the content areas a nonnegotiable activity.

Use Writing to Tap Critical Knowledge

Like all readers, older struggling readers want to know about their world, understand the events around them, and engage with topics on their minds. When teachers connect reading and writing to the cultural knowledge that students bring to school, they not only help increase writing fluency, but they also help students think critically about course topics.
English teacher Mrs. ElWardi knew that her students, all English language learners, were interested in immigration policies. While teaching writing conventions and reading comprehension, she selectedThe Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child for her daily read aloud. As she read, she shared her thinking, summarizing and predicting out loud. In addition, she used informational texts—such as population statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, an opinion piece from the newspaper, and a political cartoon—for her shared readings.
Mrs. ElWardi knows that writing is thinking, that writing clarifies understanding, and that student writing can be used as a formative assessment to guide future instruction. So she gives students a daily writing prompt to do “quick-writes.” Several chapters into readingThe Circuit, Mrs. ElWardi asked students to write about a time when they had to say good-bye. These short pieces enabled students to connect their own lives with those of the characters in the book, who must frequently say good-bye. Students were invited to “find the poem” hidden in their writing, using only the most important words and phrases from their original pieces.
A poem by Ammale, a student from Ethiopia who had been in the United States for 14 months and whose mother was detained at the border, helped her to get in touch with and express her thoughts in a way prose writing could not. Ammale's quick-write was filled with the mistakes anyone learning a new language would make. Her found poem, however, was subtly powerful and showed the personal connection she had with the topic.
Although teachers like Mrs. Elwardi understand that there is more to writing than what gets assessed on standardized tests, we fear that the expectations and purposes for writing presented to most inexperienced writers are terribly limited. As Kirby, Kirby, and Liner (2004) argue,[Students] hear us talk, talk, and talk about thesis statements, topic sentences, outlines, 500 words, and five paragraphs; but they hear little talk about collecting, percolating, and generating information. (p. 196)

An Invitation

We do not believe the kinds of experiences that we have described—those that simultaneously support critical thinking and the development of reading expertise—are encouraged in the commercially based programs now available. Instead, most programs require a high volume of teacher control, some directing the teacher to guide students word by word or sentence by sentence through meaningless passages. We see little hope for students to become independent readers and thoughtful citizens in such a context.
We know positive practices like those we describe flourish in the classrooms of secondary reading specialists and classroom teachers who understand both literacy acquisition and the richness of the adolescent mind—and who are quietly uncovering the critical reader within students who have limited skills. These suggestions, however, have only scratched the surface. So we close with an invitation to teachers who have found ways to maintain a thought-provoking curriculum for older struggling readers while also helping them improve basic reading and writing skills: Let us know what has worked for you. As a secondary education community, we are thirsting for creative ways to “bring kids up to speed” in literacy.

Allington, R. L. (1977). If they don't read much, how they ever gonna get good? Journal of Reading, 21(1), pp. 57–61.

Frey, N., & Fisher, D. (2004). Using graphic novels, anime, teen magazines, and the Internet in an urban high school English class.English Journal, 93(3), pp. 19–25.

Ivey, G. (2000). Redesigning reading instruction.Educational Leadership, 58(1), pp. 42–45.

Ivey, G., & Broaddus, K. (2001). “Just plain reading”: A survey of what makes students want to read in middle school classrooms. Reading Research Quarterly, 36, pp. 350–377.

Ivey, G., & Fisher, D. (2006). Creating literacy-rich schools for adolescents. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Kirby, D., Kirby, D. L., & Liner, T. (2004).Inside out: Strategies for teaching writing (3rd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Nagy, W., Anderson, R. C., & Herman, P. A. (1987). Learning word meanings from context during normal reading. American Educational Research Journal, 24, pp. 237–270.

End Notes

1 All names in the article are pseudonyms.

Gay Ivey is the William E. Moran Distinguished Professor in Literacy at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. She is the co-author with Peter Johnston of Teens Choosing to Read: Fostering Social, Emotional, and Intellectual Growth Through Books (Teachers College Press, 2023).

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