There is a huge difference between assigning reading and teaching reading, and students need teachers who recognize the balance between chopping books to death and handing books to students without the proper level of support. ~Kelly Gallagher in Readicide (2009)
Assigner? Or teacher? In his book, Gallagher lays out guidelines to demonstrate how critical it is for teachers of reading to find what he calls the “sweet spot of instruction” between overteaching and underteaching–both which he believes leads to “readicide.” I was dope-slapped by the second part of this statement at the beginning of Chapter 4 in Readicide:
Underteaching can be as damaging as overteaching, and this chapter will explore what we, as teachers, can do to give our students the proper level of instructional support without abandoning them or without drowning them in a sea of sticky notes, double-entry journals, and worksheets.
“Underteaching” is something I think a lot about–I know for a student who is a “developing reader” (make that “struggling” in most of our jargon) in middle and high school to ever have a shot at becoming hooked on a book, there is a galaxy of things a reading teacher can and must do for him.
Gallagher defines his own list in Readicide:
•Recognize the Importance of framing the text
•Remember the value found in second-draft (and third-draft) reading
•Adopt a big chunk/little chunk philosophy
•Start with the guided tour, but ease students into the budget tour to find the sweet spot of instruction
But here is his key statement: These suggestions about avoiding the perils of underteaching are really suggestions that prove valuable in reading difficult text. But…a reminder of the 50/50 rule: half the reading I want my students to do is recreational. That means there is no framing, no second- and third-draft reading, no big chunk/little chunk approach, no guided tour, and no time examining metacognition. No stop signs whatsoever. These approaches are valuable when reading academic texts, but let’s not forget in the shadow of all this testing that our primary goal is to help our students to become lifelong readers. This will not occur if they are only doing academic reading...Ignoring the recreational side of reading is a recipe for readicide.
Gallagher also warns that in avoiding the “perils of underteaching” we can go too far–overteach–when we apply the same levels of instructional support to kids’ recreational reading. In so doing, we are missing that “sweet spot” of instruction, and worse, commiting “readicide.”
I remember Stephanie Harvey asking in a Thinking Strategy Institute I attended years ago, “When you curl up at night with a novel, then startle awake at 2 AM in the morning with your glasses crooked across your face, did you race downstairs to the dining room to create a diorama to help you understand it?”
Nancie Atwell discusses this same issue in The Reading Zone (2007), making her case based on literary theorist Louise Rosenblatt’s work in Literature as Exploration (1938) (1983). Atwell notes,
Rosenblatt defines two modes of reading: efferent and aesthetic. She observes that these are parallel frames of mind, existing on a continuum, which any reader brings to bear during every act of reading in order to create meaning. When we approach a text in an efferent frame of mind…we’re reading in order to acquire information. We focus our attention on what we’ll learn. The aesthetic stance parallels that of efferent reading; when a reader assumes it, he or she fuses affective and cognitive elements together into what Rosenblatt calls “a personally lived-through poem or story.” We read aesthetically for its own sake, for the pleasures and rewards of living vicariously inside someone else’s literary world. I think the aesthetic mode has a lot in common with the state that my students, as readers of stories, have named “the reading zone.” In considering the reading of schoolchildren, Rosenblatt noted the difficulties that arise when teachers direct students to read from an efferent stance texts that kids are inclined to approach aesthetically–that is, to find and carry away information from a story. She was concerned that teachers were asking students not to “live through” and love literature but to find facts: main ideas, supporting details, causes and effects, plot events, settings, character motivations.
I was the grateful recipient of heavy doses of professional development through PEBC, mostly in my last 5 years of teaching, which focused on helping students make meaning in literacy and all other content areas with a list of defined and explicitly taught thinking strategies. We made strategy posters for every classroom, held book studies, and organized classroom observation labs using the thinking strategies as the core driver of instruction. A number of schools across the district have had similar experiences and as a result, we have a common language around these strategies which goes beyond individual schools. This initiative was valuable and the dollars well-spent. But as with all good things, sometimes there are unintended consequences. Gallagher and Atwell remind us we cannot overlook, forget, or miss an essential piece of the thinking strategy instructional credo: teaching a youngster to be strategic in his reading does not mean ALL his reading experiences must be conducted with the same tools–sticky notes, double-entry journals, and highlighters. Or worksheets.
Atwell goes on:
The problem is that when we tell kids they have to seek connections as readers, we’re teaching them to stop engaging in stories and start looking for distractions. And no one can be engaged and distracted at the same time. As Frank Smith observes, “When a book grabs us, we leave the everyday world around us and enter the world of the book. We are caught up in it. It is not possible to experience the world around us and the extended world of a book simultaneously. One always interferes with the other.”
The caveat here is that a reader has to know, or be able to understand without too much effort, the meanings of about 90 percent of the words in a book, if comprehension is going to be possible (Carver, 2000). Atwell points out that when kids can’t understand what they’re reading, the material is beyond them; they can’t figure out the meanings of enough of the words, NOT that they aren’t activating appropriate comprehension strategies. Numerous researchers have identified the lack of background knowledge as the Number One deficit in the comprehension of a struggling reader. So if it is the job of the teacher to help students choose books that will hook them, it follows that those books must be “just right.” The Read 180 program levels texts in its library that will help students self-select and comprehend within their identified lexile range so they can experience that “just right” niche independently. If they want to read beyond their lexile range, then they will probably need support from their teacher, such as building background knowledge about the book, providing audio support, and allowing them to abandon that book if they get too frustrated.
The crux is finding that “sweet spot.” Gallagher and Atwell both conclude that students need some support for recreational reading–Atwell does it with mini-lessons at the start of her reading workshops, focusing on many useful discussions about books, reading, and readers, often generated from what she gleans from the students during their reading time. Gallagher has a very similar approach. But the support students need for instructional and content reading is different than the support they need to get into the “reading zone,” and must be kept separate to be effective. That zone is the place where reading becomes fun. And if kids find reading is fun…
Then you’ve found a sweet spot. And hit a home run.