Wednesday, June 5, 2013

I've Committed Readicide, Have You?

I often sing the praises of Kelly Gallagher, a literacy expert who has traveled the country sharing his knowledge with educators and providing professional development workshops.  Over the years, Gallagher has written several books on improving literacy instruction, which include Reading Reasons: Motivational Mini-Lessons for Middle and High School  (2003), Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4-12 (2004), Teaching Adolescent Writers (2006), and, most recently, Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentor Texts (2011).  But the thing I love most about Kelly Gallagher is that he is a high school teacher in Anaheim, California.  He is a fellow practitioner who takes what he does in the real-world of his classroom and shares it with the rest of us to help better our practice.  

By reading Gallagher's books and from attending his workshops, I have come to realize that throughout my career as an 8th grade English teacher, I had committed readicide--on a daily basis.  (Check out Gallagher's book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It)

What is readicide?  To quote Gallagher, readicide is "the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools."

Some of these inane and mind-numbing practices include:
  1. valuing the development of test-takers over the development of lifelong readers
  2. mandating breadth over depth in instruction
  3. requiring students to read difficult texts without proper instructional support
  4. insisting that students focus solely on academic texts
  5. drowning great books with sticky notes, double-entry journals, and marginalia
  6. ignoring the importance of developing recreational reading
  7. losing sight of authentic instruction in the shadow of political pressures
For me in my 8th grade English class, I systematically killed the love of reading by committing readicide crime #5: drowning great books with sticky notes, double-entry journals, and marginalia.  Drowning great books is a perfect description of my daily lesson plans.  Not only did I go overboard with the "during reading" activities, but I also kept the students busy with "after reading" activities, such as quizzes, worksheets, and analysis writing.  This doesn't mean that we shouldn't give students activities and provide support throughout the reading of a book; however, we just don't want to go crazy with it.  We don't have to require students to analyze everything.  Instead, we need to find the "sweet spot" of instruction, which I will explain later on in this post.

According to Gallagher, when we over teach a book, we prevent our students from experiencing the “reading flow”--the feeling you get when you become so engaged in reading that you lose yourself in it.  When we overanalyze a book and spend weeks and weeks teaching it, we disrupt this flow.  When we force students to stop reading to fill out a chart or respond to a question, we don’t allow them to lose themselves in the text.  Reading books provides kids with “imaginative rehearsals” for the real world.  If reading the book takes too long, they will lose interest.  We teach books because they raise interesting issues, provide life lessons, and relate to modern day experiences.  We need to avoid focusing on the trivial and sacrificing what is meaningful.  How can I expect my students to appreciate the joy of reading when every time they experience the flow I kill it with a worksheet?

Here is what Kelly himself has to say about the drowning of great books:

On the flip side of over-teaching books is readicide crime #3: requiring students to read difficult texts without proper instructional support.  We can't just hand the student a book, sit back, and expect them to read it and learn from it.

The "Sweet Spot" of Instruction
When teaching a text, Gallagher encourages teachers to find that "sweet spot" of instruction by providing students with enough information to ease them into a text without overdoing it.  Advocates of the Common Core are often critical of teachers who provide so much front-loading and background knowledge of a text that there is no need to actually read the text.  In other words, we might let kids initially grapple with the text, but then we swoop in and help them before things get too challenging.  However, for some kids, we need to ease them into the text before we expect them to accept the challenge of reading it.  Many of our kids just won’t read without our help.  How can we strike this balance between providing enough support so that our kids can read the text while making sure we don't drown the book in a sea of worksheets, charts, and post-it notes? 

Gallagher suggests thinking about the following question when we plan a lesson:

Have I provided the kids with a reading purpose/reading focus?  What we do before the reading can be as important as the reading itself.

Gallagher calls this framing the reading:  

Sometimes the framing of the text is motivational in nature.  Motivated readers will understand what they read better than non-motivated readers.  For example, before teaching about African-American involvement in World War II, a history teacher could ask her students to stop and ask questions.  What are you wondering about?  Sometimes we have to answer the “so what” question before the reading commences.  

Framing helps gain surface-level comprehension.  When teaching a challenging text, such as a Shakespeare play, tell the kids in modern English what is happening.  Bullet list events from the novel and leave one blank.  Then tell the kids to read and figure out the blank.  Throughout the reading, leave more and more blanks and slowly remove yourself from the reading.  As a history teacher, provide a complete outline for students with a few blanks, and slowly leave out the blanks over time until the students are writing outlines on their own.  Gallagher suggests starting with a "guided tour" and ending with a "budgeted tour."  The teacher’s job as being the tour guide should slowly be removed and the kids start touring on their own.  

Framing also helps us identify the purpose in reading the book.  For example, provide kids with the final exam question before reading.  As you read aloud to the kids, stop and point out things that relate to the final exam question.  When the kids read at home alone, tell them a bit about what they will encounter and what they should look for as they read.  And tell them to come back with one comment or question about this.  For example, in Lord of the Flies, begin reading chapter 1 aloud and then stop and tell the kids that they are going to go home and read about how the boys will find a shell.  Hint—the shell is not really a shell.  It’s a symbol; it stands for something.  For tomorrow, come to class with a question or comment about the shell.

Adopt a big chunk/little chunk philosophy
Have the students read a chapter (a big chunk) of the book for homework.  The next day, choose a passage (little chunk) from the reading to analyze through a close reading.  Gallagher cautions teachers against close reading every day.  Remember, we don’t want to kill the book!

Building endurance
Gallagher believes that some of the reading has to be done at home in order to free up time for writing on class. He recommends building up students' endurance for reading by assigning only a few pages of homework a night and slowly increasing the amount of reading over time.

As a reading intervention teacher, I think about Gallagher's suggestions often.  The last thing any of us ever want to do is kill the love of reading in our students.  However, it seems that well-intentioned everyday practices in our classrooms might contribute to the decline in reading motivation as students progress through the grade levels.  I have committed readicide, but I have made it my goal to stop killing the love of reading and start learning how to reignite students' passion for books.

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