Yes, Every Teacher IS a Reading Teacher

In 1988, an overconfident freshman encountered her first college classes. Armed with a yellow highlighter, I “read” my first college textbook. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was certain that the way to prepare for my class was to highlight the important details; it all seemed important. In the end, my pages were completely yellow and I had retained nothing. When it came time for discussions or quizzes, I was unprepared and unknowledgeable.

What was the problem?

Despite being a strong (and avid) reader, I didn’t know how to read informational texts, especially in large quantities. I didn’t know how to take notes, to process the information, or to make use of it afterwards. Over time I improved, though my greatest learning about this occurred long after I had graduated from college.

Do students still struggle with these problems today when reading informational texts?

Yes, many do! Thirty years after my own struggles, I see the same thing happening today. Although our students have learned to read, we often do not teach them how to read to learn, leaving them woefully deficient when required to read and glean information from texts. All too frequently,  our students resort to ineffective practices, such as copying definitions for key words and ignoring the rest, skimming the text, or ignoring the reading altogether.

Whose problem is this?

“Every teacher is a reading teacher.” Like many educational “trends,” this statement is a point of contention today. Some ELA teachers want other teachers to leave the teaching of reading to them, and many content teachers want to focus on the information and skills unique to their field; but the truth is that EVERYONE needs to be involved in the process. We all have a job to do! All content has a language and a reading style of its own. As specialists, we must apprentice our students to read in our content area. We must model the habits we want to see in our students, and guide them as they grow in the practice. If we take the time to teach the discrete skills necessary for specific content reading, our students will develop sound reading habits and experience greater understanding and independence.

What do we model?

This is a big topic to unpack, but I’d like to share some essential components. We must:

  1. Model pre-reading skills, which include identifying the type/style of text, and the purpose for reading. We can show them how previewing the entire text helps them to anticipate what they will find in the text.
  2. Demonstrate the habits of an active reader, which include metacognitive processes - thinking about our own thinking. Engaged readers often have “conversations” with the text in their minds. Our students need to see and hear us as we interact with the text.
  3. Suggest appropriate methods/styles of reading and note-taking while reading. Students need to understand that there are multiple approaches to reading texts, and that they will need to choose the most effective method for each text. The Cornell note-taking system often works with information-laden texts. Sometimes, creating Sketchnotes (see image) serves a better purpose. SQ3R is an excellent resource for multiple types of texts. When we read texts in Spanish, I often use Talk to the Text strategies, and encourage them to find connections between sentences and paragraphs, drawing knowledge from the text, rather than relying heavily on a translator. These are just a few strategies; we need to find the best fit for each text, our purpose, and our students.
  4. Discuss and apply the new knowledge gained. This should circle us back to the reading purpose. The students should be able to explain what they have learned and how they are going to apply it. Will they conduct a science lab? Defend a side in a debate? Write a response to the author?

What will be the outcome of this concerted effort?

This may seem like a frustrating and unnecessary step, perhaps not worthy of valuable class time. As content teachers, we always feel we have a lot to cover. However, the results will benefit both teachers and students. Students will learn to read independently. They will learn to think while they read. They will become confident readers. They will develop habits  they can transfer to other avenues of their lives. Teachers will gain time later as we employ the habits we’ve developed in our students. We will strengthen our own reading habits as well.

Is it really that important?

Yes! As content teachers, we cannot assume that our students know how to read our content, whether a text book or other source text. It is our responsibility to equip our students to read to learn. We must teach and model with intentionality the effective habits of readers.

If you are interested in taking a deeper look at this topic, here are two of my favorite resources:

Reading for Understanding (Ruth Schoenbach, Cynthia Greenleaf, Lynn Murphy)

I Read It, but I Don’t Get It (Cris Tovani)

I’d love to hear your ideas! How do you teach your students to read to learn? What have been your greatest successes and/or failures? Who/What impacted your own reading journey?

Barbara Kurtz has taught Spanish in grades 1-12, but happily resides at the 9th-12th grade level at Meadville Area Senior High School in northwest Pennsylvania. She loves to serve as a Mentor Teacher for new and preservice educators and has worked with the NNSTOY Mentorship pilot program and the NNSTOY-PA TEACH committee. Committed to continuous growth and learning, Barb is a National Board Certified Teacher and an avid reader. Barb presents workshops and conferences for educators and preservice teachers on topics of language education, classroom connections, professionalism, and technology in the classroom. Barb is the 2020 PSMLA (Pennsylvania State Modern Language Association) Teacher of the Year, and a 2018 Finalist for Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year. You can connect with Barb through her personal blog, Barbara Kurtz: Teacher Mentor,  or on Twitter,  @BJKURTZ .

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