What happens when two reading teachers compromise?

Each side has lessons to share. What are they?

Our high school students are the closest to college. They are the closest to the voting booth. They are the closest to the work force, parenthood, and the driver’s seat. For all of these fast-approaching roles, reading well sure helps.

Yet as we move from elementary up to high school, students read less and less.  After working in a first grade class and twelfth grade class, I’m willing to make this claim about the problem: our teaching practices might be to blame.  Some of the common practices in the upper grades fail to make students better readers or engaged readers. See this article for more.

In the discussion of high school reading, one metric rules all: text complexity. Professors will ask students to read difficult texts, the argument goes, so teachers should get students as close to that college level of complexity as they can.

I suggest that this argument is used irresponsibly for two reasons. One, it ignores the other massive burden on college readers, which is reading volume. And two, it ignores that concept of starting where students are and working towards the desired end point.  See the gym class analogy for more.

These two challenges, text complexity and reading volume, manifest in the ends of the reading instruction spectrum: whole novels and programs like sustained silent reading (SSR). While each side has ardent supporters, we should embrace the lessons that both sides have to offer.  And by the way, everyone has tastes and preferences, but we can’t forget about reading a range of texts, either.

Here’s my thesis on complexityvolume, and range:

The only way to get students to read better (complexity) is to read more independently (volume) and to read widely with support (range).

Let’s see how we can get mediate the two opposing reading teachers to meet in the middle on this issue.

On one end of the spectrum is sustained silent reading.

I’m distinguishing sustained, silent reading (SSR) from other structures like reading workshop or independent reading because SSR is the most laissez-faire.  Let’s say that for SSR, the teacher gives students long, uninterrupted stretches of time to read books of their choice without any assessments or activities.

This is often part of a larger literacy curriculum but for the sake of this article, let’s examine it by itself.

There are some benefits to this approach.  For one, students are more likely to get into “the reading zone, which Nancie Atwell describes in her book of the same name. I suggest you read that book.  While Atwell does not run her classroom as a sustained silent reading program (it’s reading workshop as far as I can see), she does offer insight on the flow state that is possible when we give students time and choice for their reading:

“The only surefire way to induce a love of books is to invite students to select their own.”

And she says,

“A child sitting in a quiet room with a good book isn’t a flashy, or, more significantly, marketable teaching method. It’s just the only way that anyone ever grew up to become a reader.”

To become a reader. This is something that I want for my students. Not just because I want them to love books as I do, but because I’m convinced that strong literacy skills pave the path to a successful life by most measures.

So, two benefits of sustained silent reading are that students get the chance to achieve flow states, which we all need  in order to improve at a task, and students get the chance to develop reading tastes and preferences, which are part of the first steps towards a life-long reading habit.

This sounds excellent.  Are there any potential problems with the sustained silent reading approach, you ask? Here are some that come to mind:

  • Students miss out on the chance for large group discussions of ideas within a text
  • Students may be less likely to read something out of their comfort zone in genre or level 
  • Students might not receive as much instructional support if the teacher does not whole conferences
  • Students miss out on the scaffolded reading instruction that is possible with shared texts

Sustained silent reading helps students with the reading volume approach, and may help them develop tastes and preferences, which can be used as a baseline for addressing reading range. But complexity may be lacking here.

On the other end is whole class novel study.

Let’s say that whole class novel study is when students read one teacher-selected book at home and do activities and assessments during class.  The argument for this approach might be that these novels will push students to become better readers because the teacher often assigns challenging books. It’s the text complexity argument.

Want my full-length argument on why we teach (or don’t teach) whole novels? Read this post.

Ultimately, I think this arrangement works best for students who are reading at grade level and who have observable engagement with their school work.

To support the teaching of whole novels, some might say, “Isn’t it pandering to students’ laziness or holding them to a lower standard if we don’t make them read whole novels? Students who don’t read during college or in their knowledge work career will fail.”

If this practice helps to meet the instructional goal of getting students to read college level texts well, than that is a fair point.  So, will teaching novels help students to read more and read better so they are ready for college and workplace reading?

Education superhero Doug Fischer provided a lightbulb moment for me on this question with his article titled, “Farewell to Farewell to Arms: Deemphasizing the Whole Class Novel.”

Here’s Fischer, with the light bulb (emphasis mine):

“We know that students still struggling to read do not get better at reading from tackling difficult books…Life experiences that enable a reader to make sense of a book vary too greatly, and every class has students who read above or below their grade level. The bottom line is that, when teachers require all students to read the same book at the same time, English classes are neither standard-centered nor student-centered.”

Fischer suggests that we have to meet students where they are if we want to get them reading more and reading better. He goes on to introduce a potential solution to this conundrum:

“Class novels may actually limit or restrict the variety, depth, and quantity of students’ reading. We would argue that we can expand students’ reading by significantly increasing the number and variety of texts in English class rooms and by offering a greater number of creative opportunities to read in school.”

Here’s an unexpected, late-round comeback from the whole novels camp.  If they back off a bit on the 300-page classic and concede to short stories, poems, articles, graphic novels, and excerpts from longer texts, than they may achieve their goal of introducing more complex texts to students while also achieving another important objective: getting students to read widely.

So, following Fischer’s argument, shared texts (not necessarily whole novels) might be essential for meeting standards, as they allow the class to efficiently and effectively practice literacy skills. But whole class novels are likely neither an engaging nor an effective approach for helping students to meet those standards.  Additionally, by offering a range of short, shared texts of various genres and topics, we can not only (1) encourage reading complexity and (2) reading volume but also (3) reading range.

How do we sift through this burning pile of rubble?

Useful takeaways:

  • Students have to read a lot, and it is unlikely that they will do that unless we integrate choice reading 
  • Students have to read better and widely, and it is unlikely that they will do that unless we teach some shared texts 

Both of you teachers standing on the ends of the spectrum, refusing to budge to the middle: budge.  Do it in the best interest of your students.

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