In this blog article, Peter Dewitz explains, the goal of reading instruction is not to move from level to level, but to develop our appreciation and skill with written language, to learn to think, and to foster our humanity. Books can do this; passages can’t.
In 1957 Don Parker took his tomato crate of color coded folders containing leveled fiction and non-fiction passages, answer keys and charts for students to track their reading progress to Science Research Associates and thus was born SRA Reading Laboratory. For the next 50 years children skipped happily from the brown level to aqua and finally to gold, reading passages, answering comprehension questions, and feeling smarter. While some look back on the SRA Reading Laboratory with nostalgia, others wonder if this meaningless process contributed to students’ literacy development or nurtured their humanity.
If you long for this early attempted at differentiated instruction, (then called individualized instruction or programmed learning) take heart; it has never left. Today a teacher can print leveled passages with comprehension questions from websites like ReadWorks, Newsela, Reading A to Z. The developers of these websites still believe they are helping improve reading comprehension by having students read at the right level and answer questions. Moreover since our standardized tests are built around reading short passages developers of these websites believe they are preparing children for these tests.
The goal of reading instruction is not to move from level brown to gold, or in contemporary terms, from level 24 to 40 or L to R, but to develop our appreciation and skill with written language, to learn to think, and to foster our humanity. Books can do this; passages can’t. Let’s consider each of these goals.
Reading books develops a skill with and appreciation for written language that a diet of short passages cannot match. Literature is the product of the best writers wielding the best language. The vocabulary is rich and broad. A book like Kensuke’s Kingdom (Morpurgo, 1999) offers up, on just one page, the following words for a student to learn – apprehension, implications, dreadful, shimmering, extraordinary and elated. When we read literature we learn to comprehend a 45 word sentence and appreciate the power of a three word sentence. We recognize that language has rhythm and we grasp the power of metaphor and analogy. It is no wonder that all good writers are good readers.
Reading books teaches us to think. When the book stretches over 50 chapters and 233 pages chronicling the lives of ten major characters and three intersecting plots (I am writing about Holes, by Louis Sachar) the reader has much information to integrate and construct. Our reader must make many connections within the text and infer what the writer implies drawing from prior knowledge. We much keep track of these ideas for weeks slowly creating a narrative rich with an intricate tapestry of actions, ideas and thoughts.
This is deep reading. It requires concentration and thought. It takes years to develop this style of reading and thinking, and it can be easily upended by the shallow skimming and scanning that is the hallmark of our online world. Reading books on paper and reading online using a computer or a tablet are different. The former demands and develops thinking, concentration, and attention. Books stretch our minds building long-term memory and pushing working memory to grow. The latter, the online world, promotes the quick search for information. Both processes are essential in the modern world, but we must not let our rapture for the digital world and our eagerness to buy a Chromebook for every student to cause us to abandon the unique and powerful benefits of reading books. With books we develop our humanity and rehearse our lives.
Our humanity stems from understanding our place in overlapping and expanding worlds. The first world is our own mind. The act of reading triggers the same centers in our brain, as does the real event. Reading about a tennis match triggers responses in the motor cortex of the brain, and when we learn about Shiloh’s abuse the emotional centers in our brain are activated. Novels and literary non-fiction help us sort though the complex emotions that pulse through our mind.
We live in many worlds. We begin in the small world of our family and friends, move to the political world of school and activities, and then to the world of college and work. Ultimately we have to understand the world of politics within and among nations. We also exist in an economic world where Mom or Dad might lose their job or when a depression strikes the nation. Only literature, fiction and non-fiction can bring us into and help us grapple with these worlds. Books like Poppy (Avi, 1995) helps us explore selflessness, and confidence. The War with Grandpa (Smith, 1984) teaches us how to resolve disagreements peacefully, Manic Magee (Spinell, 1990) helps us learn about altruism and Streams to the River, River to the Sea (O’Dell, 1986), helps us consider how we make decisions under difficult circumstances.
The best reading programs are built on a rich and full diet of books and just enough digital reading to insure that students can navigate this newer world. Our students must become bi-literate. The digital world provides information; books help us slow down, savor and think.
Written by Peter Dewitz, Ph. D.
Director of Research