How Literacy Trends Reveal Larger Lessons For Teaching Reading
The strong emphasis placed on reading in U.S. schools, especially in the context of the Common Core, is widely accepted and applauded. Reading is the stepping stone to so many of the skills students need as they engage with different subjects, and reading ability is also highly measurable, making it easy to test and monitor.
But with national reading scores remaining largely flat for years, especially for High School Seniors, a new debate on how we teach reading is coming into focus. As schools strive to keep students engaged and prepare them for a media-driven world in which critical reading abilities are essential, two larger, research-driven themes around literacy trends have emerged. These themes highlight areas for improvement—and could change the way schools approach teaching students to read.
Providing Students with Diverse, Information-Rich Texts
Teachers know that not all reading is equal. A student’s relationship with reading begins with their interest in and engagement with a text, and several recent trends in literacy push for a more diverse, relevant, and personalized approach to student reading materials.
Making reading relevant for students begins when schools provide narratives that represent the diverse experiences and backgrounds of their student body. “When students can see themselves mirrored in the things they are reading and learning, not only are they better able to identify with the materials, they are more engaged,” writes Autumn Arnett in a piece on literacy education trends for Education Dive.
Conversely, a sustained disconnect between students and what they’re reading has fallout far beyond the English classroom. Writes Arnett, “when none of the characters they’re reading about seem to have anything in common with the students...[it] does more harm than just disinteresting them from reading the assigned text; it makes them feel like school is not designed for them, and it risks losing them altogether.”
Another way to create more relevance around reading? Teaching through the news. Providing students with articles from reputable sources—and supplementing with plenty of classroom discussion—helps promote media literacy and critical thinking, and it also broadens students’ knowledge base and views of the world. As Arnett notes, “teaching students how to interrogate sources and assess the credibility of the information they read is an important part of teaching students to think critically.”
Taking advantage of digital texts also empowers teachers to personalize reading, helping them tailor literacy exercises to students’ needs and learning styles. “Because teachers have access to timely data,” write the authors of a column on best practices in reading on Reading Rockets, “they can personalize learning for more students at any given time.”
Reaching every student with content that’s accessible and engaging to them may seem a distant dream, but with digital texts that dream is one step closer to becoming reality. “Using digital textbooks in reading instruction...is a best practice that can personalize student learning, increase relevant instructional time, and support differentiation to meet students' specific needs.”
Emphasizing Knowledge by Breaking Down Subject Silos
In addition to reexamining the relevance of reading materials, many education researchers have started calling attention to the types of subjects students are exposed to when learning to read. While the English Language Arts Standards have started to incorporate “more complex texts that provide facts and background knowledge in areas such as science and social studies,” the importance of breaking down subject silos in reading has yet to be fully understood and embraced by many schools.
In order to become a successful, skilled reader, a student doesn’t just need to learn how to decode the words on the page—they need to be able to draw on diverse background knowledge to make connections. By separating reading skills from a broader understanding of different topics, schools can inadvertently deprive students of the context required to excel in reading comprehension.
“The long-standing view has been that the first several years of elementary school should be devoted to basic reading skills. History, science, and the arts can wait.” In her article for The Atlantic exploring why reading scores in the U.S. haven’t improved for years, Natalie Wexler explains that “when test scores fail to rise after third grade—as they often do, especially in high-poverty schools—subjects like history and science may continue to be relegated to the far back burner through middle school.”
In an op-ed for The New York Times titled “How to Get Your Mind to Read,” author and psychology professor Daniel T. Willingham argues that this delayed engagement with other subjects to “prioritize” reading has the opposite of its intended effect. “Current education practices show that reading comprehension is misunderstood. It’s treated like a general skill that can be applied with equal success to all texts. Rather, comprehension is intimately intertwined with knowledge.”
Willingham writes that the “disproportionate emphasis on literacy backfires in later grades, when children’s lack of subject matter knowledge impedes comprehension.” If, instead, schools broadened literacy education to include history, civics, science, and the arts—supplementing basic reading skills with exposure to a wide variety of subjects—it would actually help students read better, giving them the knowledge base to understand what they’re reading.
As Wexler concludes, “The implication is clear. The best way to boost students’ reading comprehension is to expand their knowledge and vocabulary by teaching them history, science, literature, and the arts, using curricula that guide kids through a logical sequence from one year to the next.”
The Larger Lessons for Schools
In some ways, this new thinking around literacy requires a flip in perspective: in the same way that reading informs other subjects, engagement with other subjects supports reading. Fortunately, there are more resources than ever for schools to ensure students learn to read in ways that capture their interest—and ways that engage and introduce them to a wide range of topics. Whether through diverse, personalized digital texts or via narratives that cover the spectrum of human experience, teaching reading can expose students to more of the world than ever before, while also preparing them to engage with it in new, meaningful ways.