Sue reads spy stories, detective novels, and true crime books in her limited free time. Meredith is partial to Young Adult (YA) literature, historical novels, and essays. We both read a lot. We read to learn, to gain insights. We read to be informed about our own field and the world. We read to escape, to fall into another world, only to emerge moments or hours later, a bit changed and richer for the experience.
No matter what, when we read, understanding what we’re reading is the fundamental point. Without understanding, no learning, no insights, no escape, no enjoyment.
Understanding is the very essence of why anyone reads.
But when we teach reading to children in America, we frequently lose that center of gravity. That essential purpose—the truth of what we should be getting students to pay attention to—seems to float far away. We drill down on strategies, sometimes co-opting the reading standards to act as a discrete checklist of activities. We forget the holistic nature of reading for understanding, and that comprehension strategies are only useful when we don’t understand something.
Much of classroom reading instruction fails to consider the text first. We aren’t engaging in practices that will yield students who can read what they want with deep comprehension. Only slightly more than a third of our students are reading at proficient levels as measured by the NAEP, and scores have been stubbornly flat for over two decades.
We argue too many teachers have not been made aware of the key ingredients of reading comprehension, all of which require placing text (and its meaning) at the center of classroom learning and teaching. These ideas, their causes, and solutions, are discussed at length in our new brief, Placing Text at the Center of the Standards-Aligned ELA Classroom. We wrote it to provide support to everyone who is working hard to change the way reading is approached in American education and to fulfill the promise to students of college- and career-readiness standards.
Time is a scarce commodity in classrooms. It needs to be spent in learning that yields fruit.
In the early years, the more students get to read or be read to, the more they will learn. That’s why reading aloud and then teaching students how to read solidly by grade 2 are both crucial. Those investments will yield accelerating returns from then on. As students go through school, they need to spend time actively reading content-rich, complex text so they discover how to learn from reading (and along the way, grow their knowledge, vocabulary, and understanding of syntax). Making sure students have a volume of reading opportunities with texts on a range of topics and at a variety of complexity levels is also critically important, so students can read on their own or with very limited teacher support.
All this instructed, classroom-based reading should be wrapped in plenty of conversation and be as active as possible. As students learn more, they will have greater access to more and richer texts. They will learn about the world around them and about themselves and their role in that world, and they will also learn more and more words, many of them wrapped in complex sentences. The more words students recognize and the more they see those words in a variety of sentences, the more comfortable they will become and the more learning they will accomplish.
The contrast between the purpose of this kind of reading—to understand and learn from what is read—and leveled reading programs, where the primary purpose is to practice a target strategy, is enormous. This core difference differentiates the approach we argue for in Placing Text at the Center of the Standards-Aligned ELA Classroom from a strategies-centered approach.
Teachers need to have resources and materials that support them in laying out a research-aligned plan for what to do when students do not understand what they have read (or do poorly on an assessment). What can we do to kickstart students’ reading abilities? Teachers should start with quick, high-leverage work, progressing to activities that take longer or are more complex. To help think through that, we developed a companion guide, a two-page chart of resources and ‘Do Now’s containing concrete suggestions to start to turn this tide toward what children most need to become competent readers and learners.
Those of us who love to read know the magic of a text—and we want that for our students. We need to make sure that, as early as possible, students see reading as more than an obligatory assignment to complete in a classroom. This requires us to give them access to great texts, and instruction that focuses squarely on how to enjoy and learn from them.