“The reader writes the story.”
~E. Annie Proulx, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction
I’ve been dipping into two wells of excellent writing on literacy instruction recently: Thomas Newkirk’s 2009 book Holding On To Good Ideas In A Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For, and Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It by Kelly Gallagher (foreword by Richard Allington). If we are serious about turning around our youngsters in our Read 180 program, we need to continue to grow our own knowledge and understanding of literacy learning and instruction. But remembering how hard it can be to stuff professional reading into your days–and nights–I’ve lifted one discussion from Gallagher’s book this week to demonstrate how the Read 180 program design does measure up in avoiding Gallagher’s “Readicide.”
Gallagher quotes Maryanne Wolf (2007) in her book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. She notes that “in some environments the average young middle-class child hears 32 million more spoken words than the young underprivileged child by age five.” A gap that forms before students even start school snowballs once school begins. Wolf:
It is not simply a matter of the number of words unheard and unlearned. When words are not heard, concepts are not learned. When syntactic forms are never encountered, there is less knowledge about the relationship of events in a story. When story forms are never known, there is less ability to infer and predict. When cultural traditions and the feelings of others are never experienced, there is less understanding of what other people feel. (2007, 102)
Gallagher points out that just as people who are undernourished need good food, readers who are undernourished need good books. Lots of them. But he believes that what many undernourished readers get are “remedial classes where the pace is slowed and where the reading focus moves away from books to a steady diet of small chunks of reading…Rather than lift up struggling readers, this approach contributes to widening the achievement gap.” Considering the 5-part instructional design of Read 180, four of those parts do allow us the professional autonomy to focus our students on books: whole-group, small-group, independent/modeled reading rotation, and wrap-up. The rBook’s design builds background knowledge through the Workshops. And therein is a crucial point, which Gallagher terms, “The Importance of Knowledge Capital.” He writes,
…reading (comprehension) consists of two factors: (1) being able to decode words on the page and (2) being able to connect the words you are reading with the prior knowledge you bring to the page. When schools narrow reading to “help” students prepare for tests, or cut social studies, science, or electives to raise reading scores, they are removing invaluable opportunities for students to widen and deepen knowledge that is foundational to developing readers. Without a broad knowledge base, our students stand no chance of being excellent readers.
Gallagher goes on to quote E.D. Hirsch (2006) in The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children:
Most current reading programs talk about activating the reader’s background knowledge so she can comprehend a text. But in practice, they are only paying lip service to the well-known scientific finding that background knowledge is essential to reading comprehension. Little attempt is made to enlarge the child’s background knowledge. (Hirsch 2006, 72)
Gallagher believes that “if schools opt for practice tests instead of time for reading books, drown students in test prep, they are ensuring students will not become excellent readers. Instead of enlarging the background knowledge, quite the opposite occurs. This approach shrinks our students’ understanding of the world. Students may pass the tests, but they’re being robbed of perhaps the only opportunity they may ever have of building that wide knowledge base that is foundational if they are to develop into critical readers of the world.”
Strong words. Gallagher cites two studies that show a strong correlation between time spent reading and performance on standardized tests: A famous study of fifth graders by Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding (1998), and in 2007, a study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, To Read or Not to Read. Researchers reached the same conclusion in both studies: students who read the most for fun scored the highest on standardized reading tests. Gallagher notes, “…these studies demonstrate that students who have the broadest reading experiences score the highest on standardized tests. Conversely, those students with the narrowest reading experiences scored the lowest.”
So…what? I’ve lobbied in previous posts for giving student in our Read 180 classes time to read books, free choice of what to read with teacher “nudges,” booktalks, providing a wide variety of books from which to choose, and advocated for the Reader’s Bill of Rights. We know that volume and quantity of books read will ultimately lead to more quality in students’ choices–they evolve. But volume has to come first. I’m adding to this list now: consistently weave the critical element of building background knowledge into your instruction. If a student avoids a book his social studies teacher suggests because it fits with the historical period or concept the class is currently studying, do your own homework–and set up the book for your Read 180 student, which you can do during small-group and individual reading conference time. Same is true of a book a student might choose, but you suspect might abandon unless you do some “frontloading” or probe for questions a student might have before he starts it. Use small-group for reading checkpoints–”how’s it going?” conferences on students’ individual book choices. Remember the example of the novel To Kill A Mockingbird? It is lexiled around 850, which would seem to put it well within the reach of many younger, and certainly older readers. Yet no student of today will draw meaning from that novel without some prior discussion of societal structure in the South during the 1930′s, what it meant pre-Civil Rights to be a black person in the South, politics of the time, and some understanding of the effects of poverty on every level of society during the Depression–and the list can go on. As Read 180 teachers, we have to remember that a lexile of a text measures two things only: sentence length/complexity, and familiarity with vocabulary (a child may know alligator, but not “caiman”). Lexiles do not measure background knowledge a reader brings to the text. That’s why you are so critical in each child’s reading journey.
Making deposits into students’ “Knowledge Capital” is well-illustrated in a program Val Downing and Nan Barron created to enhance their Read 180 instruction at LHS several years ago; they called it “Take Your Teacher Home.” Specifically to build a broader base of background knowledge for the rBook workshops and other readings, Val loaded podcasts, videos, and other web-based free resources related to content kids were exposed to in class onto ipods they took home to watch and listen to before the next class. This grew their curiosity, interest, and of course, “knowledge capital.” Val is now the District Technology Integration TOSA, and is willing to work with any R180 teacher who would like to explore this resource.
One final story about the truth of E. Annie Proulx’ quote at the top of this post. From Gallagher:
The importance of what a reader brings to the page is also highlighted in a study discussed by Hirsch in The Knowledge Deficit (2006). This study consisted of two groups of students who were asked to read a passage about baseball. The first group was made up of strong readers who knew little about baseball. The second group was composed of struggling readers who were knowledgeable about baseball. After reading the passage, students in each group had their comprehension tested. Guess which group scored higher? The struggling readers. Having strong reading skills was not enough for the students who came to the page with a knowledge deficit about the topic. Though the second group of readers were not strong readers, the prior knowledge they brought to the page enabled them to outscore readers with far better abilities. Prior knowledge, or in the case of the good readers, the lack of prior knowledge, was the x-factor.
Gallagher concludes: “If we are serious about building strong readers, we need to be serious about building strong knowledge foundations in our students. With this in mind, we should be mindful of the large wealth of knowledge capital that comes from the voluminous reading of books, newspapers, blogs, and magazines. These are the sources that build the critical foundations of serious readers…”
Next post will be devoted to resources to support “voluminous reading” in your Read 180 classroom without access to deep pockets. Stay tuned!