Thursday, January 5, 2012

    Thursday Thirteen: Thirteen Things I Bet You Don't Know (or Just Plain Forgot) About Reading

    Reading is a simple thing, right? You learn to read in grade school, and that's that. Some people are born good readers, and others are born bad readers, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. Right?


    Reading is a skill that develops throughout our lives, and it has as many layers to it as any other skill. Here are some things I bet you just plain forgot about reading over the years.

    1. Reading is the great equalizer. It doesn't matter where you come from, or what you have, or what you know--as long as you can read, you have access to all the same knowledge, information, and worlds as the richest woman on the planet. And if you live in a town that's blessed with a library, then you have FREE access to all of this amazing information. It doesn't get better than that, does it?

    We live in a time and place that allows us to get our grubby little hands on nearly any book that has ever been written. If you choose not to take advantage of that, you are missing out.

    2. You should read different things at different rates. This is something that really surprised me early in my reading specialist career--many readers, especially struggling readers, read every single thing at exactly the same rate. They read the back of the cereal box with the same intensity as a complicated bioethics textbook. This is just plain silly.

    Let's pretend we're on a hike and we come to a fireswamp. The place is filled with firespurts, quicksand, and Rodents of Unusual Size. (The Princess Bride, anyone? Anyway . . . ) We definitely aren't going to walk through the fireswamp as quickly and easily as we can walk down an empty sidewalk. Think of your most difficult texts as fireswamps, it takes great care to navigate through and end up on the other side with a solid comprehension of the material. On the other hand, it would be ridiculous to walk down an empty sidewalk using as much caution as you would in a fireswamp.

    3. Don't bore yourself when reading silently. This is another thing that really shocked me when I first started working with reading students--some readers bore the heck out of themselves while reading silently. They read with no more expression than Ben Stein used as Ferris Bueller's teacher in the movie. (Side note: Students, if you haven't seen Ferris Bueller's Day off, please do. And don't tell me you haven't, it just makes me feel old.)

    So, when you read silently, do yourself a favor and read with expression. I consistently find that students who read with expression have an easier time comprehending the material. This seems like such a no-brainer that I always feel silly discussing it, but the truth is that so many of my students lack expressiveness and phrasing while reading. (These things are called prosody, by the way. Just in case you're wondering.)

    Bottom line: Don't be boring. Pause at end stops and commas. Raise the tone of your voice when you get to an intense or important moment in the text. Bring some emotion to your reading. You'll thank me, because you'll understand more and you won't bore yourself to tears in the process.

    4. Reading is an invention. (The greatest invention in history!) Unlike speech, which is a natural process, reading and writing are human inventions. This means that we won't naturally develop our reading and writing skills without putting some effort into the process. So if you find yourself discouraged by the fact that you aren't reading or writing as well as you'd like, take comfort in this: You can always develop these skills. Think of the effort you put in to learning to draw, or cook, or drive, or play an instrument or sport. It requires the same kind of effort to become a skilled reader and writer.

    5. Your reading level varies based on what you read. Yes, educators often use reading assessments to identify a student's reading level, but know this: Your interest in a text, your motivation to read a text, and your perception of how relevant the text is to your life all affect your reading level. This means that the things you bring to a reading (interest, motivation, perception) greatly affect how we perceive your reading ability.

    I've met many students who are labeled as struggling readers, and they do struggle with reading books for school, yet they read constantly and with great success outside of school. How can this be? Clearly, they have the motivation and interest needed to read those books outside of school, yet they can't muster up enough interest to read well in school. The good news is that you have control over these things. If this is the reason you struggle with reading for school, it's time you reconsider the way you think about the things you read. I believe some would call this an attitude adjustment.

    6. Reading is not rocket science. This is good news for anyone out there who is struggling to become a better reader. As with most things, it might seem an extremely difficult task to improve your reading skills once you've fallen a bit behind, but the fact is: You can do it. People do it every day. I've seen students transform from struggling readers to stellar readers in one short semester. It takes a lot of practice, yes, but it isn't impossible. In my opinion, the one thing that most often stands between a student and her goal to become a better reader is plain and simple: time. If you're willing to put in the time, to read daily and to apply the skills we learn in class, you will become a better reader. Guaranteed.

    7. Forget the labels. If someone has labeled you a struggling reader that doesn't mean you can't read, and it definitely doesn't mean you'll never be able to read at grade level. Sometimes, educators assess students' reading levels and then label the students based on the results. If you've ever been labeled as an at-risk, remedial, developmental, or below-grade-level reader, know this: The label doesn't matter. What matters is your decision to become a better reader. You always have a choice to prove them right, or prove them wrong. Which will it be?

    8. You are never too old to read a book. Ignore those signs in the library: if a book interests you, read it. I read more novels labeled young adult than anything else, even though I no longer fall into the young adult age group. I also read middle grade novels, and children's books, and anything I can get my hands on that looks interesting enough to read.

    In fact, I've always felt that books for children and young adults are the greatest books out there. Children and young adults are pickier, they don't waste their time slogging through books that are anything less than wonderful, and so they hold their writers to higher standards. In my opinion, of course.

    9. Reading is one of the oldest hobbies on the planet. Remember when I told you that reading is an invention? Well, it was invented around 6,000 years ago with the invention of writing in the 4th millennium BC. As a reader, you are partaking in one of the oldest hobbies on the planet. Talk about having a cool connection to the past.

    10. There is no magic bullet. This may sound repetitive, but if you want to become a better reader, there is only one way to do it: READ. Read often, read regularly, and read widely. I will give you the tools you need to improve your reading, but they won't mean anything if you don't actually use them. A hammer that sits in a toolbox is worthless, right? So is a reading skill that is never applied to actual reading. Remember that.

    11. Reading is magic. You've probably heard some variation on this theme before, but I'm here to tell you that it is the truth. If you haven't experienced the magic of reading yet, then you just haven't done it right. Magic exists, and it exists in books. I have traveled through time and space, to the past and the future, to worlds unknown to modern science, and I have done it all through reading. I have escaped dark times in my own life, and accomplished previously unheard of goals for myself, and I have done it all through reading. You can too. It starts with picking up a book.

    12. Reading is a process. As a process, it involves several steps or actions on the reader's part to actually happen. There is no such thing as a bad reader, there are just readers who haven't yet practiced enough. It is so important that you understand this. If you continue reading for the rest of your life, you will be a different reader in one year than you are today. You hone your skill with every new piece you read.

    13. Speaking of processes, there are five components to the reading process: Comprehension, fluency, vocabulary, phonics, and phonemic awareness. If you're reading this, you have already mastered the last two--CONGRATULATIONS! If you find yourself struggling as a reader, keep in mind that the three remaining components work together in a beautiful, fluid orchestra of skills to allow you to read. If you want to become a better reader, work not only on your comprehension, but also your fluency and your vocabulary. This is the only way. If you're in my reading class, we are going to spend the next semester doing just that. Lucky you.


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