Reading skills and strategies are a means to an end
Catherine Gewertz has a piece in this week's Education Week describing a New York City pilot program that has teachers analyzing the complexity of the texts they will be assigned in their classrooms. As you probably remember, text complexity features prominently in the Common Core standards. In lay terms, text complexity measures help teachers understand at what age- or grade-level particularly texts are best taught.
Most people agree that current measures of text complexity are imperfect. They are frequently quantatitve measures that rely on rudimentary scores of word length, sentence length, or paragraph length and structure to assign appropriate age and grade levels. As part of the Common Core standards initiative, the CCSS authors are seeking to improve these measures of text complexity so that they include both quantitative and qualitative measures (such as themes) to give a more accurate picture of when particular texts should be taught. This is part of a larger effort to help ensure that students across grade levels are exposed to appropriately rigorous literary and informational reading that will help better prepare them for the reading that will be required of them in college.
According to the article, there is a pilot program in New York City where teachers are coming together to analyze texts using quantitative and their own qualitative metrics of text complexity.
This work is welcome if it leads more students to read more rigorous texts across all levels, but particularly in high school.
But before we get too excited about the transformative power of these metrics, we need to investigate whether these fancy new analytic tools are actually going to change teacher practice.
You see, the focus in far too many reading classrooms today is on using reading strategies and on teaching reading skills. And, while there is some role for skill-building and comprehension strategies, in too many classrooms, teaching these skills and strategies has become an end in itself, and students are neither being forced to apply these strategies to appropriately rigorous texts nor to learn the essential genre-specific content they need to know to read texts of all genres.
Unfortunately, some details from the article make me wonder whether we're primed to see a shift from teaching strategies to teaching essential, genre-specific content. For instance, while one teacher explained that:
?expecting 14-year-olds to grasp high-level material without discipline-specific strategies is tantamount to dropping them off unaccompanied in three different countries and expecting them to thrive. ?That's what we do every day in their schools,? he told the teachers. ?We move them from the land of math to science to history with no guides.?
The examples cited in this article of how teachers are going to help students access important science and history content seem rudimentary. In one ELA class, for instance, the teacher explains that she:
??helps 11th and 12th graders build work-attack skills and access key themes in a story about slavery. Together, they break down words such as ?demoralize? and ?dehumanize.?
To be sure, teaching students some comprehension strategies such as ?word attack skills? can be helpful. But these are more appropriate very short mini-lessons in early grades, and we should be careful not to let them become the primary focus of instruction. Particularly not with juniors and seniors in high school.
In the end, instructional time is a zero sum game and we should remember two things: First, that the best way to help students improve their comprehension is to have them read a ton of rigorous texts across all genres?but particularly informational texts that will help expand the depth and? breadth of their knowledge. And second, every minute spent focusing on strategies to the exclusion of content takes some of that precious instructional time away from reading itself.