A pivotal point in a reader's journey is when she realizes, either intuitively or explicitly, that the goal of reading is to obtain meaning. If we're not gaining meaning in a novel or a textbook or an article, then we're not really reading. You've not read something until you've understood it.
When our students reach this understanding, it's as if something clicks into place inside of them, and suddenly the reading that we assign becomes much more effective at promoting their long-term flourishing because it makes them smarter and more knowledgeable and so on. It yields fruit. When a student reads to understand, each article of the week builds background knowledge, each textbook passage improves vocabulary, each poem becomes a possibility, each annotation becomes purposeful. In short, understanding the goal of reading moves our students from Reading as Compliance to Reading as Learning — a critical shift.
This shift in student thinking, says Daniel Willingham , is probably “the main effect of strategy instruction.” We've all had professional development on reading strategies — e.g., re-reading when confused, looking for clues in a text, looking up unfamiliar words, using graphic organizers, summarizing — and, if you're like me, it may have all seemed a bit overwhelming. But Willingham wonders if the primary purpose in teaching our students reading strategies might simply be that the strategies push our students to see that reading isn't just about having words fly from a page and through our head — it's about comprehension. As Willingham mildly puts it, understanding that a non-understood text is a non-read text “confers a significant advantage to comprehension.”
A new poster for my classroom, perhaps:
Which means that we…
- Re-read confusing or difficult passages
- Look up unfamiliar words
- Locate unfamiliar place names (I teach world history)
- Take notes that summarize main ideas of textbook excerpts
- Use graphic organizers for comparison, causation, continuity/change, and periodization
- Identify unsolvable questions and take them to friends or Mr. Stuart
The goal of these things is to clarify for our kids what the goal of all reading is. That's a simplification that helps me teach.
Update: Here's a picture.
- Willingham's “The Usefulness of Brief Instruction in Reading Comprehension Strategies” greatly informed this whole post.