Reading to teach or teaching to read…

Robert Pondiscio (ED of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Harlem’s Democracy Prep Public Schools, and a former fifth-grade teacher) writes this interesting article.

We usually think reading is an important way to teach a particular concept/issue etc. But what if we do not know what to read at the first place. He points how students have stopped reading important things and missing the broader picture. The more variety you read the better it gets.

Moreover, the focus of primary education remains on improving math scores. Not much credit is given to importance of reading. (Interestingly, this concept of reading to teach applies to economics as well..):


Educators, policy makers and business leaders often fret about the state of math education,” the New York Times reported in May. “But reading comprehension may be a larger stumbling block.” Indeed, schools and teachers consistently have better luck improving student skills in math than in reading. A fresh reminder of the difficulty came in August, when New York released scores from its first round of tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards, now adopted by most states. Students in schools across the state fared poorly on the tests; some of the city’s most celebrated charter schools posted disappointing results as well. The silver lining is that by adopting reading curricula aligned with the Common Core and abandoning failed approaches to literacy instruction, New York City could be poised to lead a reading renaissance in the coming years—but only if city schools also make significant shifts in classroom instruction and exercise patience.

Math is relentlessly hierarchical—you can’t understand multiplication, for example, if you don’t understand addition. Reading is mercilesslycumulative. Virtually everything a child sees and hears, in and out of school, contributes to his vocabulary and language proficiency. A child growing up in a book-filled home with articulate, educated parents who fill his early years with reading, travel, museum visits, and other forms of enrichment arrives at school with enormous advantages in knowledge and vocabulary. When schools fail to address gaps in knowledge and language, the deficits widen—a phenomenon that cognitive scientist Keith Stanovich calls the “Matthew Effect,” after a passage in the Gospel of Matthew: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” The nature of knowledge and vocabulary acquisition all but assures that children raised in language-rich homes gain in reading comprehension, while the language-poor fall further behind.

The focus is on training to read selectively rather than comprehensive reading:

To make matters worse, most reading curricula have focused on developing generalized, all-purpose reading-comprehension “skills” uncoupled from subject-specific knowledge—reducing a complex cognitive process to a collection of all-purpose “reading strategies” to be applied to any book or bit of text that a student might encounter. Attempts to teach reading comprehension as knowledge-neutral put an enormous premium on student engagement. For teachers, reading instruction can often feel more like cheerleading: sell kids on the magic of books, get them to read a lot, and—voilà!—they will emerge as verbally adroit adults with a lifelong love of reading. As generations of results show, this approach doesn’t work.

The “reader’s workshop” model, in which countless New York City elementary school teachers have been trained, is typical of this focus on “skills.” A workshop “mini-lesson” might begin with a teacher “modeling” a skill or reading habit as her wide-eyed charges gather around her. A lesson might be “good readers stay involved in a story by predicting” or “good readers make a picture in their mind while they read.” Teachers “model” these supposed good reading habits by reading to students, stopping frequently to do a “think aloud,” demonstrating how they are applying these strategies to make sense of a story. Then the children are sent off to practice the skill independently or in small groups, choosing from various “high-interest” books at their individual, “just-right” reading level. While the children read, teachers circulate, ensuring that their students understand the new skill. (It remains to be seen how, or if, the reader’s workshop model can be squared with the Common Core. The two approaches appear to be irreconcilable, but educators like Lucy Calkins claim otherwise.)

Is reading like cycling?

Most people think of reading as similar to riding a bike—something we learn to do as children and never forget. Moreover, you likely perceive both riding a bike and reading as transferable skills. Once we learn how to pedal and balance, we can apply those skills to every bike, and so it appears with reading. Once you know how, you can read a novel or a newspaper editorial with equal ease and fluency. Some may read faster, slower, or more or less carefully than others, but generally speaking, either you can do it or you can’t.

This view of reading is only partially accurate, however. Translating written symbols into sounds, or “decoding,” is indeed a transferable skill. This explains why it’s easy to agree on the pronunciation of made-up words such as “churbit” or “trodle.” Add an extra “d”—troddle—and we agree that the pronunciation changes from trow-duhl to trah-duhl. This is the magic of phonics, which remains the essential starting point in teaching children to read from the first days of school. The “reading wars” of recent memory, which pitted phonics against whole language, are largely settled. Phonics won, but the low reading scores that give educators such fits typically have less to do with decoding problems than with children’s inability to understand adequately what they are reading.

Students cannot relate to Huckleberry Finn these days:

Education is “not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire,” goes a popular teacher adage. Empty buckets seldom burst into flames. A stubborn refusal to be prescriptive about what children read, to put the accumulation of knowledge at the heart of the elementary and middle-school reading curriculum, has almost certainly hindered the reading ability of millions of children. Vast amounts of class time that might have been spent engaging kids with the world beyond their experience have been squandered. Instead, there is endless teaching, reteaching, and practicing the spurious skill of comprehension, hoping that children will somehow “catch” a love of reading.

Raising reading achievement means playing the long game. There are no quick fixes. It is a very different challenge from teaching math, where standards, curriculum, and assessments tend to be closely aligned. In reading, even the best standards leave the choice of specific texts to the discretion of individual teachers and schools. Thus reformers fight pitched battles over English class reading lists. More classics or more contemporary books? Is it better for a middle-schooler to read Twilight orThe Scarlet Letter? What these debates tend to overlook is the importance of background knowledge. Complaining that high school students no longer read, say, Huckleberry Finn is an empty criticism if a student comes to the book knowing nothing of nineteenth-century America, riverboats, or slavery, or cannot find the Mississippi River on a map. Absent this background knowledge, Mark Twain’s novel will be merely another book that students read but do not understand. Past generations of schoolchildren who enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy) Huckleberry Finn had this knowledge base as they read the book. Today, too many students from low-income households do not.

Same can be said of several characters which students cannot relate in India too..

Broadly, one can connect much of this to economic teaching too..

History of thought and history of economics is missing from most syllabi these days. Most economics has come down to understanding exotic equations and figuring the math. Students have no clue on why certain ideas have developed and what are their limitations. Readings in economics have become highly selective taking you to  combination of seminal papers and some current papers which only cover a broad idea but does not understand the issues. So most students miss the important historical events and lessons from them. Either they are shocked from a repeated event or think it is something new.


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