BY JASON WILLIAMS, ENGLISH TEACHER, WASHINGTON MIDDLE SCHOOL
I’m sorry. Mea culpa! I am an English teacher and I have a confession to make. My crime: attempted murder. No, not of another human being, but definitely of their ideas. Ladies and gentlemen, I am guilty of attempted readicide. My penance is to write this article and hopefully get parents and more teachers (my fellow readicidal maniacs) on board in tipping the scales back in favor of the students.
I am sitting here thumbing through a very eye-opening book, Readicide, by Kelly Gallagher. In his book, Gallagher talks at great length about how our nation’s children’s interest in reading is being systematically wiped out. Beyond their interest, we are also doing major damage to their ability to understand and use what they have read effectively. The major culprits are standardized tests. Across the country, states are requiring most grade levels in almost every school district to give standardized tests for almost every subject. These tests, even the math tests, are very reading intensive. Therefore, many schools have launched countless different reading incentive programs. “E” for effort, but most of them do not address the problem. A lot of these reading programs are aimed at helping students improve their results on these tests, which is great in terms of those magical, ambiguous numbers that we like to post everywhere to show how well our schools are doing, but not so great in regards to how effectively it teaches students how to read and, most importantly, how effectively they comprehend the material.
There are two things to keep in mind when it comes to building strong readers. This first is that multiple choice questions are not the best way to reinforce the material the students’ have read. The standardized tests are chock full of multiple choice questions about articles that the students were asked to read, but only a handful of open-ended questions that actually ask for the students to interpret what they have read. For example, by asking the students about what one of the themes was for a particular article and giving them four possible correct answers, you are basically testing them on four skills: how well they understand what a “theme” is, the students’ ability to revisit the text and recognize the
theme, eliminating answers (a test-taking skill), and intelligent guessing. However, if you take the same idea behind the original question and leave it open ended, it forces the students to take what they have read and use their own ideas to explain the piece. All of a sudden, by asking the students to choose their own theme from a piece and to explain how the author develops that theme throughout the reading, you are now testing their knowledge of what a “theme” is, their ability to revisit the text and find support for their answer, an analysis of the piece, their ability to find relevant evidence from the text, how well they synthesize ideas, and their ability to put their ideas together in a coherent essay. Basically, you are forcing them to think and allowing them to express their ideas more thoroughly. Kind of sounds like something that we need to do in “the real world,” doesn’t it? How many times have you been asked something for work when your boss only gives you a 1 in 4 chance to answer?
The other thing we need to do, and this goes as much for parents as it does for teachers, is to create a text-rich environment. Like Gallagher says in Readicide, Michael Phelps doesn’t just swim in the competitions, he logs thousands of laps in at the pool getting ready for the main event. If we wait for our teenagers to do their biggest amount of reading at the actual test, the results will not be too pretty. We have to keep texts in teenagers hands whenever possible; a wide variety of texts. There are magazines focusing on every imaginable topic, find one that interests your teenager and give them a subscription. Also, help point them toward books that might catch their interest – just follow the trends. The Twilight saga and the Percy Jackson series have picked up the torch left by Harry Potter with the older teens. As for the younger teens, check out the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. Don’t sell short comic books or “foolish” stories like Captain Underpants. There is no such thing as a non-educational text; the only way to improve a child’s reading is by having them read. The more opportunity that they have to read what they want, the more willing they will be to read the “educational” texts. However, the best way to create a text-rich environment in your homes is to join your teens – find something you like and join in the fight against “readicide.” Share what you are reading with your teenagers and vice versa – quiz each other about what you found in your respective texts– the best teaching happens at home.
Jason Williams is an 8th grade English Teacher at Washington Middle School. He is a life-long Chautauqua County resident along with his wife, Holly, and their son, Drew. He holds two degrees in education specializing in instructing adolescents.He is the owner and director of Lights of Broadway Productions and an avid supporter of Team DJ the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.