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Reading Is Not a Spectator Sport

by Steve Loe

In my novel The Glimpsing Book, one of the main characters, Henrietta, reflects:

“The reader cannot just read words without truly thinking about them. It would be like eating without digesting. True reading is very active. A reader brings his or her own story to the author’s story. What a combination that makes! Millions of combinations! Reading is definitely not a spectator sport.”

The phrase “eating without digesting” came from a classroom experience several years ago while I was teaching language arts to juniors in high school. I explained to the class—during an unsuccessful discussion of a novel we had just read—that reading without discussion or reflection is like eating without digesting. I will never forget the response of one of the students: “Well, I guess I’m a reading bulimic, then.”

Although I did not appreciate the student making light of a serious illness, he was right. He understood that he was only decoding the words in the novel. No true comprehension. No reflection. No digestion.

Optometrist Dr. Kenneth A. Lane, creator of the LARS vision therapy program, has noted an important fact: “First, we have to realize that reading is the most difficult neurology process that humans must learn.”

Teaching reading is an arduous task. I was fortunate to be a part of the Comanche Elementary School staff for three years. This staff knew how to coach students to be good readers. Before Comanche, all of my years in education were at the secondary level. In my language arts classrooms, I did not teach reading; I taught literature. I assumed that students knew how to read the literature we tackled, and for some students, that assumption was true. But for others, it was not. Comanche had a dedicated and knowledgeable reading department, as well as classroom teachers who understood that building good readers was a process. Data-driven, the staff assessed each student’s reading level using information on that student’s area of need (i.e., whether the student had a decoding issue or a fluency issue, etc.). Then the staff prescribed, implemented, and monitored specific interventions to help the student in that area of need. That worked extremely well. One year, the students at a particular grade level began in August with 56% of students testing as intensive readers (significantly below grade level). By May, only 1% of students remained in that category.

As high school teachers in language arts classrooms, we cannot forget that many of our students need to be coached on how to attack a short story, poem, or novel. In fact, high school teachers across the various curricula must understand that many of their students need coaching in literacy skills. We cannot always assume that students know how to annotate text, take good notes, and digest the material. Currently, our high school staff is in the process of building a united, school-wide front of making better readers in all content areas.

Teaching sound literacy skills not only will create successful language arts students, but it will create successful science, social studies, and math students, and it will create successful employees in all industries.

Reading is not a spectator sport. Students must be actively engaged in this activity. High school teachers need to understand that teaching and coaching the fundamentals on a daily basis—like a coach does in daily basketball practices—is crucial to better game-day results, no matter the form in which these “game-day” performances appear. And, not insignificantly, literacy skills will improve essay responses to literature, a timed essay response in social studies, a final research report over a science lab, and a calculus chapter test filled with word problems.

Steve Loe has worked as an English teacher, associate principal, and principal.

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