Should All Teachers Teach Critical Reading Skills?

Welcome to my blog and inaugural post!  I am an English Language Arts teacher and have  been teaching for about 13 years.  Most of it has been at a K-9 school that used to be on the outskirts of a small city and is now a bustling construction zone with new neighbourhoods popping up. Our student population has also changed.  Now, about half of our population is  immigrant or first-generation Canadian, up from about a third.  What hasn’t changed, though, is the challenge of teaching students with a variety of learning needs to be critical thinkers and readers.

For several years now, I’ve heard from other subject-area teachers that it is the reading students have to do that sinks their scores on exams and Provincial Achievement Tests.  I’ve struggled to teach students to computer-bookstransfer critical reading and thinking strategies to other subjects, but I haven’t been very successful.  I’ve gone to numerous professional development courses seeking solutions, but I haven’t found the magic formula.

Knowing that struggling and good learners do not always transfer learning strategies effectively, I kept wondering if we were going about it the right way.  Why was it just English teachers who were charged with the task of teaching students to be critical readers?  How much more powerful would it be for students if they learned how to construct meaning from their science textbooks in science class?  Because of this, I’m convinced that all teachers need to teach reading skills, not just English teachers. Especially today when there is a plethora of information (good, bad, and ugly) available at the click of a computer key.

We are a PLC school with a small junior high staff and have been struggling to find ways to collaborate meaningfully to improve student learning.  So when my principal asked me last spring to be the lead teacher for the junior high, I said yes.  I was fairly confident he would support an idea I wanted try: all teachers collaborate around reading skills.  Why?

1.      It is the math, science, and social studies teachers who can best teach students to read their textbooks critically.  These teachers know what the essential learning outcomes are and what the students will be assessed on. They are the experts in identifying what information is essential to know and how to gain meaning from it.

 2.  Taking students out of other classes like science and social studies to give them more reading instruction puts gaps in their learning.  It can also deprive them of their natural curiosity to explore their world and their community.

3.      As students progress through school and into post-secondary, reading becomes more complex and less fictional.  Students will benefit from explicit instruction in reading and thinking strategies across all subjects.

4.      Students need multiple opportunities to read all kinds of age-appropriate, complex reading material in order to become proficient readers.  This cannot be achieved in the English class alone.

When I look at this, though, the overworked teacher in me (along with many of you, I’m sure) keeps showing up like unwanted spam in my mailbox reminding me that my plate is already full.  However, I can’t help thinking that this might be one way to take a little bit off my plate as students build critical reading and thinking skills.  This isn’t a magic formula, but it may be a more effective way to help students become better readers and thinkers.

What do you see as some challenges or benefits of a coordinated, all-teacher approach to teaching critical reading skills?

Join me next week!  I’ll be posting about some of the initial steps we took to get this idea off the ground.

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About Sherry Langland

I have been teaching English for 15 years and am passionate about teaching students to read critically, think critically, and live purposefully. I am also the lead teacher for our junior high department and am thankful to be part of such a dedicated group of teachers who are committed to collaborating around the most important part of our job: student learning. My biggest blessing is being the mother of 2 young men who are in their 20s and discovering their purpose.
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5 Responses to Should All Teachers Teach Critical Reading Skills?

  1. Pingback: THE TEACHER AS A READING MOTIVATOR | warped-mind_education

  2. Adrian Doyle says:

    Hi Sherry,

    it has been my perception that tech people, scientists, mathematicians, and those who teach those disciplines have focused on everything but how to communicate. For instance, many tech heads who try to teach often assume so much prior knowledge, that the lesson would be unnecessary if the student owned that prior knowledge. Even texts professing to be complete tutorial manuals leave enough holes that several other sources must be consulted to gather a full and coherent knowledge of a given subject. Math texts are hideous examples of what language communication should be. They are a bit like swiss cheese wrapped around exclusionist lingo. The text displays instructional gaps, much esoteric language, and abstract concepts, untethered to the real world, that give difficulty to people who were born to English, never mind those who are learning it as a second language. The great missing pieces are adequate vocabulary, and consecutive concepts that build one upon another. In the same way that a university student learns math in one school year that will be used in the sciences the following year, a high school student should be taught the vocabulary and English skills a year in advance of the math and science courses where they will be applied. Does anyone teach this way? Math is disgraceful in its lack of properly communicated concepts and un-illuminated abstract thought. Without sufficient vocabulary, abstract thought in a foreign language must be a terrible challenge. I am not saying that English as a subject is at fault, but I am saying that a math/science vocabulary taught in advance of those courses would eradicate a host of learning hurdles. Math texts hardly keep in mind the English skills of newly arrived students. [I think your thoughts on multiple approaches is thoroughly valid though.}

    From “Calculus”, by James Stewart:
    “Trigonometric functions; A review of trigonometry and the trigonometric functions is given in Appendix B. In Calculus, the convention is that radian measure is always used (except when otherwise indicated). For example, when we use the function f(x) = sin x, it is understood that sin x means the sine of the angle whose radian measure is x. Thus the graphs of the sine and cosine funtions are blah blah blah blah”……………………………………………….wth?

    If a student’s English skills are weak, being a new English student, the above directives are just a mishmash of indecipherable gobbledegook, a squashed mash of words and abstractions that would create more headache than understanding. (Not all pain is gain). The English programs have not prepared students for the intellectual rigors of math and science, and the math and science programs make no allowances for students whose English skills are less than advanced.
    Critical thinking used to be its own branch of knowledge by way of instruction in logic. Where did that go? And analysis of English was taught to me at what is now Norquest College, where I finished grade 12. I have seen that taught neither before nor after. Perhaps these things need to be reintroduced to the curriculum as separate courses, rather than being integrated into an already crowded English docket.

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    • Sherry Langland says:

      Hi Adrian! Thank you for your very insightful comments, much of which I agree. As a PLC school, we have worked diligently over the last 7-8 years to align curriculum from K-9 looking for gaps, overlaps, or omissions in skills or knowledge. From there, we pulled out the essential learning outcomes based on three criteria: readiness for the next level, applies across the subjects, and is enduring. We then created common assessments and assignments. In addition, we identified the need-to-know vocabulary specific to the subject and work to ensure students learn these terms. As you stated, it is very beneficial for students to know the vocabulary. I hop this addresses some of your concerns.

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  3. Hey Sherry! Welcome to the blogosphere!

    Good post! My comments and questions will probably reveal my woeful lack of knowledge on this topic…or there will be some sort of insight that comes from approaching a problem with a beginner’s mind.

    Over the last year, two of my colleagues (Karen Pedersen-Bayus [@kpbayus] and Roy McConnell) have been sharing their ideas about inclusive education, perceptual disabilities and text with me. I’m still wrapping my brain around it, so this is a stretch for me. Please bear with me.

    Should all teachers teach critical reading skills? Yes, I don’t think that all students should learn them.

    What is the difference between teaching critical thinking skills and teaching critical reading skills?

    When I think about this, the primary difference is the medium of representation, and that that medium of representation – print/text – does not work for every learner. Yet, we have elevated the written word to the be-all and end-all.

    Let’s think about this for a moment. If a student is blind do you teach her to read critically – or think critically? If a student is blind, we recognize that the medium of print/text does not work for that student and supply an alternate format. We “allow” these learners to express their learning using alternate formats.

    However, if a student has dyslexia, we say that there is something wrong in that learner’s brain and spend an inordinate amount of time trying to “fix” it. This comes at a high cost to the learner. Wouldn’t it make more sense to acknowledge that this is a difference in how this learner’s brain works (not a disability) and allow for this learner to access curriculum and express understanding through alternate formats?

    If this was the case, would you be teaching critical reading or critical thinking?

    And now I have another question: in an inclusive education system that recognizes differences and allows for multiple means of expression and representation, are we serving the learner’s long-term needs in a world that admittedly is quite biased to print/text?

    AGH! It’s a semi-circular argument. I’m thrashing around with this right now. Thanks for inspiring some more thrashing. 😉 Keep it coming!

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    • Sherry Langland says:

      Hi Angie! I finally figured out how to get the comments to show on my blog. And thank you for yours. Now comes the hard part – marketing it. The difference between critical reading and thinking skills is minimal, and there is a lot of inter-dependency between the two. To be able to assess what you have read requires understanding what the author has written. But, I agree with you about the medium and critical thinking is not solely developed by reading print or text. Listening, viewing, discussing are all ways students can develop higher order thinking skills. Then, once understanding occurs, offering students multiple ways to demonstrate their understanding. Our world is quite print biased and I think it’s going to continue to be so. However, we still need to attend to the learning needs of all students and provide learning in a context that helps ensure high levels of learning for all. A challenge that we continue to struggle with.

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