Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Comprendez Vous?

Our students' reading comprehension skills are, to be frank, pretty terrible. In fact, this year, for the first time in a long time, our students did worse on the reading comp portion of the state tests than they did the previous year. We usually make some gains, but nope, not this time. So we're focusing in on these skills, which makes me reflect for the millionth time in my career on what they really are. How do we comprehend what we read? How does a kid who is 12 make sense of the material presented to him/her on a state test, or by a teacher, or in a magazine? There are several reasons why students do poorly on these tests, of course. One is stamina. They are presented with several 2-3 page passages, usually BORING passages, and asked to read and answer a dozen questions about each. This takes hours. It is dull. And the kids have no staying power. They are used to reading for 10-15 minute stretches, maybe. They are used to being coached through everything they read. They are used to being given clues, prompts, encouragement, definitions, and visuals. They are rarely asked to slog through long or difficult passages on their own, and they are therefore ill equipped to do so on the tests. This is most kids of course. I also know kids who read for hours upon hours every day. These kids do fine on the tests though, and so I'm not too worried about them for the moment.

So, how do we comprehend what we read? And what to we do when we don't understand the meaning of a text, any text, including blogs, films, conversations? I ask these questions because I am about to embark on a difficult and possibly rewarding journey that will require a lot of work on my part and will inevitably stall all of the other projects I have started in the past several months. Luckily, I have been feeling disgruntled and blue a lot of the time lately, so I haven't really put too many irons in the fire, as is my habit. I intend to up the ante in the library. Instead of bringing classes to simply get book recommendations and check out books, how about bringing classes to LEARN A READING SKILL and then get book recommendations and check out books? Sounds radical, does it not?

The idea is this. When teachers sign up to bring their classes, I find out what the kids are doing in all of the content areas. So let's say they are studying post Civil War America in Social Studies. I can then prepare a lesson/activity on, say, historical fiction about that time period in which the students will learn to read heavily accented dialogue or dialect. We don't think about it much, but at one point in our lives, we didn't know how to tackle words that some crazy author deliberately misspelled! So I can teach them, using an exciting passage from an exciting book, and then - BAM! - I can recommend more books of that genre and get them reading something new and challenging.

Seriously, this may sound obvious, but it's just not been the way things have worked. So far in my life as a librarian, the only lessons I really get to teach are outside the purview of other classes. Things relating to technology usually, or maybe using reference materials. But a straight-up Language Arts skill? I haven't directly taught one of those in years. And I love to! Usually teachers aren't too interested in having their material usurped.

What I need to ponder now is what types of reading comprehension skills will fit this model. Some ideas that come to minds are:
  • dialect and accented dialogue
  • the nonsense vocabulary of Sci Fi and futuristic fiction
  • the use of textual clues (like italics or page breaks) to indicate flashback
  • non-standard dialogue (few or no "he said" "she said" indicators
  • textual clues indicating internal dialogue (again, often italics or parentheses)
  • interpreting allusions to other, perhaps unknown, literary/historical/artistic works
Um. I know there are many, many more. Any ideas?
I think this could be really cool.

1 comment:

mrcmyoung said...

I like the ideas you've listed, but let me suggest three more: nonfiction, nonfiction, nonfiction. So many of the passages they have to read for the state tests are nonfiction articles related to science, social studies, geography or argumentative essays, among others. I think most ELA teachers love fiction and spend a lot of their time on it. The textbook reading in classes like science and social studies are either not varied enough in structure or content or to broad to prepare students for what they will see on the high stakes tests. There are some great high interest articles on the kids sections of Time and National Geographic's websites.

Two cents from a science teacher.