Friday, May 31, 2013

Reading instruction without reading... like growing up without eating.  Much of the reading instruction discussed in yesterday's New York Times article sounded like what I'm afraid a lot of the English curriculum is like in a lot of schools: classroom activities that mimic a test. Trying to raise scores leads to even more test-mimicking curriculum.  In the Times article, there was only one extended description of a classroom activity.  It went like this:

"...the teacher, guided the students in a close reading of a few paragraphs. But when she asked them to select which of two descriptions fit Terabithia, the magic kingdom created by the two main characters, the class stumbled to draw inferences from the text."

This is at what sounds like a successful school, with a thoughtful teacher.  But notice the two important things that are not happening here:

a) The students are not reading very much.  "A few paragraphs" is not much.  Now, of course it's possible that the kids are reading a lot at other times.  But none of the many teachers and experts quoted in the article ever mentions actually reading, so I think it's possible these kids may manage to do what a third of my ninth grade class did in middle school, and get through years without completing a single book.

b)  The students are not themselves describing Terabitihia; they are asked to "select" from two possible descriptions.  In other words, the students are answering multiple choice questions, not open-ended questions.

This is not reading; it is taking a test.  Taking a test can be educational--I always urge my Juniors to take the AP English test, because I think one day focused on a high-quality test can be a learning experience--but this is not what you need day in and day out.  It's as if, trying to get malnourished children to grow taller, we carefully measured their height every day, without ever letting them eat.


  1. Yes... this is a very Common Core kind of question though. When I first read this piece I didn't pick up on what they meant by "draw an inference," because that's not exactly like, say, "find the lowest common denominator." On one hand it is a specific academic skill, on the other, people can't NOT draw inferences constantly just going about their business.

    1. Exactly. My students constantly draw inferences about one another's words or gestures, my clothing, and so on. And if you just go about the business of reading and discussing, you will constantly be drawing inferences! The point is that this typical Common Core kind of question will be handled better by students who have done a lot of reading than by students who do nothing but practice test questions, which I'm afraid is where we're going.