Is it the English Teacher’s Fault?

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I want to start by saying I love reading. I have always loved reading. My mother has told stories of me as a 2.5 year old sitting in piles of books attempting to read to myself. During the summers, I looked forward to trips to the book mobile rather than summer craft camp or swimming at the local Y. As an elementary kid in 4th and 5th grade I read as many of the Baby Sitter’s Club series books that I could get my hands on. It was one of the very few books that had an African-American character. One summer I checked out Little Women to prove I could read a book longer than 400 pages. By middle school I was reading Stephen King when everyone else was reading Christopher Pike. I still remember in high school when I was introduced to Lord of the Flies and I stayed after class to talk with my teacher about biblical allusions. She must have thought I was an enigma. In college I excitedly signed up for a class where we read nothing but Shakespeare. My roommate thought I was weird. As an adult on the cusp of turning 30, I stood in the same line with miniature Harry Potter and Hermione look-alikes as we all clamored for the very final “book seven” of the series. I then proceeded to lock myself in my friend’s guest bedroom for 2 days to finish reading it. What can I say; I love books.

So, I have to admit that I don’t understand my students’ extreme dislike of reading. The very act of putting a book in their hands is equivalent of giving superman Kryptonite. I get that reading is hard, especially if you didn’t grow up with a book taped to the end of your baby bottle. It’s even harder when you’re still trying to learn English. So how can I make reading enjoyable for my students?

In Deaf education, we are constantly hounded by statistical data that says that many deaf students graduating from high school still cannot read above 4th-5th grade level. Despite the plethora of  methodology within deaf education, this statistic is still a reality. So, why aren’t these kids learning to read? Or better question, what can we do to improve?

Every so often something touches a nerve in the well of my gut and rattles my insides until I can’t stomach it anymore. I hate feeling troubled. It’s like a burn that seers even after the wound has blistered over. I’m troubled by the lack of gains in deaf education. More so, I’m troubled that my students seem to only pick up a book and read during the 90 minutes I see them every other day. I don’t think that 90 minutes will ever be enough to make the kind of gains that will demonstrate to the powers that be that what I do at our school means something. Most of all, I’m troubled by the archaic methods used to boost student’s reading scores. To me, there is something wrong about teaching students to read through vocabulary lists, basal or leveled readers, and strict assigned reading. I’m guilty of doing all three at some point in my misguided career and even this past year out of pure exhaustion. I must do better because I know better.

When we look at how good readers naturally develop reading skills, we find that the best readers in the world are people who read widely and frequently. No amount of flashcards will help you learn new words if you don’t read them frequently in a variety of contexts.

I recently read a fabulous article about how high school graduates (in the hearing community, but could also apply to deaf community) lack sufficient vocabulary skills to succeed in college. The typical knee-jerk reaction would be to immediately teach vocabulary through frequent word study. However, the article states that the best way to learn new vocabulary is to learn it in a familiar context. The article supports the concept of “content-based instruction.”

“…even more important advantage is that immersion in a topic provides the student with a referential and verbal context that is gradually made familiar, which encourages correct guesses of word meanings at a much more rapid pace than would be possible in an unfamiliar context.” (E. D. Hirsch, JR.)

While the article points to creating context in English Language Arts classrooms, I believe that true content-based instruction means reading and vocabulary instruction is the responsibility of ALL teachers. I can teach students to read and analyze literature. I can teach them the language of analytic and narrative writing, but a large majority of the vocabulary that they will need to become successful in college and even in the working world will need to come from other content areas. This is also true for teaching skills related to text analysis. I hope that social studies teachers are discussing with their students about warrants, claims, and evidence. I hope art teachers are showing students how to analyze visual media images and use a variety of mediums to approach a common theme. I hope science teachers are showing students how to compare and contrast current research articles, make connections, and judge validity. I hope math teachers are teaching students how to summarize data clearly and concisely. Students need all teachers to support and build students’ inferential skills. Perhaps more time could be given to independent reading of content specific texts (bring magazines into your classrooms). I think it would be awesome to experience cross curricular collaboration. It has to be more than just the English teacher’s fault if students are failing at reading and writing.

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I know the knot chaffing the lining of my stomach will not go away unless I can work up the gumption to do what’s right for my students. Reading needs to be a natural part of every day in the classroom as well as at home. Perhaps if we made reading more relevant and frequent, students would see books, not as Kryptonite, but as gateways to a world of possibilities.

At the end of the day, my goal is to get students to see the value of reading. If the student enjoys reading, I’m not so concerned about what a single assessment says about their reading level. Real reading gains are only going to come from intrinsic motivation from students.  However, a school-wide reading-rich environment will coax reluctant readers to take a second look at the benefits of daily reading.

 

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