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How Did I Learn to Read?

I was looking over a carefully written poster I’d made for a lesson on author’s purpose, when suddenly it struck me as rather strange. It’s not that the concept of author’s purpose is new to me. I’ve probably taught a couple dozen of lessons on author’s purpose in my limited tenure as a teacher. But if you asked me before I started teaching, “What is author’s purpose?”, I’m not sure I’d have a quick answer. I imagine non-teachers reading this blog might be unfamiliar with the phrase as well.

How is this possible? How did all of us manage to become such avid and proficient readers, without explicitly learning about author’s purpose? As a kid I don’t remember learning about author’s purpose, and I don’t remember learning about main idea and details, sequence, or any of the other soundbite strategies I teach my students. What I do remember is reading, writing, and talking about books.

So how and when did this change happen? It feels to me like the way we’re teaching the students, they lose the forest through the trees, or rather they’re losing a love of reading through the reading strategies.

Perhaps I’m wrong to dismiss the changes. Aren’t these changes in instruction progress? After all, I may not have learned to read via strategies, but I also wasn’t able to use the internet for research projects. In theory, literacy instruction has evolved over time to incorporate the latest and best research.

However, I’m not sure that strategy-based reading instruction is a methodology resulting from recent research. More likely, it’s a byproduct of standards-based instruction. The state standards are a worthwhile effort to give educators a clear idea of what their students need to learn. Unfortunately, I think in an effort to tie instruction to standards, schools have used the standards as a laundry list of learning, rather than the components of a cohesive view of literacy.

Under this thinking, first students will learn about main idea, then students will learn about sequence, after that students will learn about making predictions, and so on, and so on, until the students have “met the standards.” It’s possible that students can become proficient readers through this process. I know I’ve been teaching this way, and my students have certainly made progress. But even if proficiency is possible, I’m still unsure that students can develop an authentic, meaningful understanding of what reading really means by learning about strategies.

Once again, I have to think about myself as a reader to question this current approach. I may not have learned about the many strategies good readers use, but I know I could tell the difference between non-fiction and fiction, and identify the different purposes for those books. I may not have learned about identifying the main idea and details, but I could summarize a text with clarity. And so could readers for decades (centuries?) before me. So, is strategy-based literacy instruction the way to go? Or are we creating more confusion than clarity?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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