“Drowning in shallow water”: How can we deepen literacy instruction?

“If we teach students like they’re morons, then that’s exactly what we’ll get.”

We are educators in an age of accountability that presents itself in the form of test data.  Students can unintentionally be viewed as data-makers and teachers, under incredible pressure, can too easily fall into “drill and kill” method of teaching in the hopes of creating an upward trend line.

Don’t get me wrong- I am a believer in the importance of accountability.  However, as the pendulum swings to one far side, we risk getting caught up in the detriment that is caused by those who value data and trend lines over the child himself.  The focus on standardized testing is so prevalent that teacher education programs are morphing to it– http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/standardized-tests/experts-detail-how-to-overhaul.html.  NCATE is currently calling for a major overhaul in teacher education programs– one that will turn the programs “upside down”– in the hopes of developing teachers who are able to instruct deeply without focusing on the shallow methods that often prevail due to multiple-choice driven assessments. http://www.ncate.org/Public/Newsroom/NCATENewsPressReleases/tabid/669/EntryId/125/Panel-Calls-for-Turning-Teacher-Education-Upside-Down-Centering-Curricula-around-Classroom-Ready-Training-and-Increasing-Oversight-and-Expectations.aspx

Kelly Gallagher, author of Readicide, takes a hard, honest look at today’s reading instruction.  He states, “Students immersed in massive test preparation classes receive massive amounts of shallow instruction.  In the quest to raise scores and make teachers and administrators look good, our students are paying a price.”  This form of instruction– driven by multiple-choice, surface information, look-and-find answers– is creating a generation of children who are being encouraged NOT to think deeply, NOT to analyze, NOT to synthesize information.  Our students are “drowning in shallow water” because they are not being allowed to swim.  “In an era in which our students will be competing for jobs in a global marketplace, our current approach to teaching reading promises long-lasting, deleterious effects on both our children and our nation.”

Folks, there is a reason why there is still a national achievement gap in reading.  The joy of reading is being slaughtered.  If the development of test-takers is valued over the development of readers, the achievement gap is guaranteed to not only exist, but to expand.  If students are taught only how to take tests, they will never be successful in reading and writing.  “A terrible price is paid when schools value the development of test-takers more than they value the development of readers.”  What a paradox it is that teachers are judged by these tests that measure students’ ability to take the tests rather than their ability to actually read, interpret, and analyze information!  When students are drowning in test preparation through skill sheets and multiple choice assessments, they are not being given opportunities to become readers.

So, how can we fix this?  We’ve admired the problem for way too long– let’s get to fixing it.  One thing is true about reading- if students spend more time reading, they will improve in it.  Sounds simple, right?  Unfortunately, student silent reading (the type of reading in which the student CHOOSES the book and has the opportunity to enjoy it without having to answer questions about it or map it on a graphic organizer) is all too often cut out of the school day.  Studies have demonstrated that schools in which Sustained Silent Reading exists produce stronger readers AND higher test scores.  Think about your school– is SSR a priority?  Is it the first thing to go by the wayside when the teacher is short on time?  Has it been canceled completely because it is “not a good use of instructional time”?  Gallagher has traveled across the country to examine schools’ reading programs and found that “one of the casualties of this testing era seems to be the death of sustained silent reading”.  Students are simply not doing enough reading in school.

Gallagher points out that another way that reading instruction is killing the joy of reading is that, in an effort to cover as many standards as possible, books are often “overtaught”.  See his recipe for the Kill-A-Reader casserole:

  1. Take a novel and dice it into as many pieces as possible.
  2. Douse with sticky notes.
  3. Remove book from oven every five minutes and insert worksheets.
  4. Add more sticky notes.
  5. Baste until novel is unrecognizable, far beyond well done..
  6. Serve in choppy, bite-size chunks.

Think about the last book you read for fun.  Now imagine if someone was looming by, forcing you to stop on every other page to answer questions, make notes, or complete a character analysis.  Would you enjoy the book?  I vividly remember hating The Red Pony and To Kill a Mockingbird as a student for this very reason.  However, I loved Bridge to Terabithia because I was trusted to read large chunks of it at a time.  So, allow me to propose a new recipe- one that just might lead to reading instruction that students will devour.

My Create-a-Reader casserole:

  1. Be a book lover and model that for your students.  Read aloud to them, yes even to high school students, and model questioning and deep thinking.  As the teacher, you are the best reader in the classroom, so demonstrate what that looks like.
  2. Surround your students with a huge variety of reading materials.  If your classroom library only consists of core program materials, I can promise you that the love of reading will not occur within your four walls.  Stock up on fun, popular trade books, magazines, newspapers, and have computers or Ipods available for students to access online sources.
  3. MAKE TIME FOR SILENT READING A PRIORITY.  Think about the length of a standardized reading test.  If we only give our students short passages followed by questions, not only are they learning to hate reading, but they are not building stamina.  Reading stamina can only be developed by silent reading–reading that is not interrupted every three minutes with questions and worksheets.
  4. TRUST STUDENTS to read large chunks of text at a time.
  5. Frontload your reading lessons by discussing any vocabulary words that students may encounter in their reading that might cause confusion.  Preteach any themes that you would like students to focus on- this offers a frame to the reading and allows students to recognize the theme as they are reading it.
  6. Steer clear of programs that offer extrinsic awards for reading.  If the joy of reading is not intrinsic, it is not lasting.

For now, standardized testing is a reality.  However, it should not the be only reality.  If students are taught to read deeply and devour books, they will become a society of readers, thinkers, and analyzers.  Oh, and… they will pass the test.


About Corrie

I love learning, leading, collaborating, and reading. My goal as an elementary reading interventionist and an adjunct university reading instructor is to help my students discover the joys of lifelong literacy.
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3 Responses to “Drowning in shallow water”: How can we deepen literacy instruction?

  1. Pingback: You Want Ideas? We Have Ideas! « Cooperative Catalyst

  2. Sonja says:

    Do you think that the Accelerated Reader program is an asset or a problem to SSR? Just curious …

    • Corrie says:

      Hi Sonja,
      I think AR, if being used, should be only one tool in the toolbox. If students’ primary reading materials are through AR, I believe that the extrinsic drive to earn points could too easily become the focus. If students choose to use AR during SSR in addition to receiving leveled reading instruction, then I don’t believe it would be a hindrance. It’s all about balance and creating an environment that values the intrinsic rewards of reading. 🙂

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