Ideas on education, the English language, and the teaching profession.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Art of Reading

Many people often make the mistake of considering reading some sort of skill that can be learned and known forever after. Like fixing a flat tire on a bicycle or operating a dishwasher, they think that they can simply do the activity without having to really think about it. If reading really was such a simple activity that a person could know how to perform after the first or second grade, schools could easily do away with the ten years English classes that students still have to take afterwards. Unfortunately, reading is not such a simple activity that one can simply “know how to do.” Rather, reading is an art comprised of many separate skills, and it requires incessant practice and training to sufficiently master it.

Mastering reading does not arrive quickly to even the most talented reader. Every student must start as a beginner learning the sounds of letters and identifying words before they even start reading actual stories or articles, let alone whole sentences. A person cannot skip steps in this learning process, or they will struggle greatly in understanding what they see on the page. For this reason, beginners of reading start with short books with short words that rhyme (this helps a person learn the right pronunciation of words), short simple sentences to accommodate slow readers, an easy story with very few details or ideas, and big pictures to reinforce the meaning of the text. Once a reader can get through these simple books, they can progress to longer books with bigger words, longer sentences, and fewer pictures. These books will also require the reader to learn new skills that go beyond vocabulary and phonics (sounding out words) because these books will do much more complex things with language, compositional structure, and ideas. Highly advanced levels of reading will feature dense books that often manipulate and push the boundaries of language to present very complex ideas and challenge the reader to use many techniques for understanding. Getting to this point in reading which is necessary for college or professional studies, usually requires many years of practice and instruction.

When failing to understand that reading is an art, readers develop an attitude that they can avoid the practice and instruction necessary to improve and still somehow read more challenging texts. They might learn the basics and enjoy his picture books, but they will stop at that point, thinking they have learned enough. Once they are asked to read classic literature as a young adult, they will find out the hard way that they cannot do it. They will not understand many of the words, they will find it hard to follow the ideas and the story, and they will generally get very little meaning or enjoyment from the book. Although years have passed, and these readers are technically older, their minds have not grown, and they read at the same level they did when they were much younger. They will either have to change their reading habits (or lack thereof) and catch up, or suffer from ignorance for the rest of their lives.

A reader must learn many different skills to sufficiently understand and remember what he reads. For example, a beginning reader must first identify the correct pronunciation of words and the roles of punctuation marks like a beginning artist learns about lines and shapes. In understanding more complex fictional texts, a reader must learn different skills like outlining basic events in a story, identifying a character’s qualities, determining word meanings from context clues, finding the purpose behind certain sentence structures, examining details to see what they suggest, or seeing the relationships between certain characters. Students have to learn many more of these reading skills, especially when they start reading classics and various pieces of nonfiction. Learning them will not be fun or easy at first, but it will enable the reader to have much more fun reading once he has mastered them. The reader will then feel like an artist using colors, paints, and perspective to make something beautiful and unique instead of miserably drawing ugly stick figures; he will feel like a musician who can finally make beautiful music that he and other people like instead of making his audience cringe in disgust and ultimately embarrassing himself.

Eventually, all mature readers will be able to understand and work with all the different genres in literature. Most texts do have the same basic skills in comprehension, yet each genre emphasizes a specific set of skills for analysis. Both fiction and nonfiction have different genres within them that determine how a reader approaches the text. For example, a reader will look for the thesis, the outline of the argument, and the types of evidence used if he reads a persuasive speech; whereas he will look for plot, characterization, and stylistic elements if he reads a novel. A reader will certainly have a preference for one genre over others like an artist who prefers painting landscapes in an impressionist style over painting human figures in realistic style, yet having experience with all genres will still assist him in better understanding his owned preferred genre of reading and enable him to evolve intellectually. Moreover, many skills in reading will overlap genres; for instance, techniques used to interpret a poem also help in finding the argument in a persuasive essay.

At a very basic level, reaching a point of mastery in reading requires a good deal of instruction and constant practice. After a period of time, the lazy but talented reader will quickly come to nothing because reading demands work like any other artistic discipline. A violinist cannot play a fancy concerto without practicing for many hours, nor can he teach himself to play a concerto. Similarly, a reader cannot read a tragedy of Shakespeare without having read anything before, nor can he teach himself to read Shakespeare without the assistance of some kind of teacher. The brain functions like a muscle and thrives with rigorous discipline. It becomes stronger and has more endurance with regular use, but it becomes slow and weak upon neglect. Due to their lack of practice, many readers have a very hard time concentrating or understanding more difficult works of literature despite having attended ten years of English classes.

In essence, like all other arts, reading is primarily a process of creation. The painter creates paintings; the sculptor creates statues; the musician creates pleasant sounds; the poet creates poems. The reader creates ideas. Unlike watching television or playing a video game where the idea is already constructed and rendered on the screen, reading words on a page requires a person construct an idea, often with many more parts and intricacies, in his own mind. For this reason, watching a movie adaptation of a novel does not equal reading the novel; the mind does not actively construct anything but passively watches a screen, and the movie itself can only show a fraction of the ideas contained in the book.
On a practical level, reading triumphs over other arts because mastering the art of reading allows a person to learn anything. For this reason, schools heavily emphasize strong reading skills for all grade levels since it applies to every subject and is absolutely necessary for college studies and employment training. The art of reading also allows a certain freedom to the master, for what he reads provides new ideas that he can choose to use or not; the poor reader has fewer ideas to choose from and often lets others think for him while the strong reader can think for himself and be his own leader. When one cannot read and learn different things on his own, he sacrifices many things he can enjoy in life such as what he does for a living or understanding why life works the way it does. Therefore, all people must not simply learn the act of reading but master the art of reading and truly broaden the horizons of their existence.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Nipping the Problem in the Bud

A popular bromide has developed in education; it declares “raising one’s expectations for students will result in better performance.” However, a little experience in teaching will immediately trample this sanguine attitude because students will often fail before meeting those high expectations. They will rebel outwardly forcing substantial disciplinary action, they will rebel inwardly and not try the assignments and put in little effort, or they will try but fail in the objective all the same because they are years behind. Obviously, expectations eventually adjust with the level of the students, but the frustration of knowing they should be higher hits every concerned teacher. Naturally, the guilty culprits arise: parents, teachers, genetics, poverty, technology, media, NCLB, and society at large. Although all these factors deserve more far more serious attention than they receive already, they only address symptoms that manifest themselves later in life, usually adolescence. The real source of a child’s academic success, which can warrant any teacher’s ambitions of raising expectation, originates in his first years of schooling.

One of education’s gurus, Marva Collins, offers some great insight on this subject, which is actually rare among the millions of books on education. In her book, The Marva Collins Method, she describes her unusual approach to elementary school children: to actually teach and make them work. Most people ignore this aspect of the book, choosing rather to focus on the treacly stories of Marva connecting with neglected ghetto-children. For the few paying attention, they will see that Marva’s method is unusual because most elementary schools completely forego the critical instruction a child desperately needs. Most kids in elementary school hardly write, read, and many get by without learning a single rule of grammar. Rather, they play. For about six to eight years, the children grow into young adults neglect to use those absorbent brains that God gave them to learn. They enter high school, equipped with approximately the same skills they had when they entered the third grade. The only difference is that they are bigger, louder, and can procreate.

Fortunately for her little ones, Marva knew that she needed to teach phonics, grammar, and a good amount of classics. The average high school student struggles with all three. In basic, they will stumble on most words and forget to pause on periods revealing a terrifyingly shaky foundation in their literacy. Many of their minds will shut down within minutes of beginning of a classic novel, and they will put their heads down or stare at the ceiling—hence many teachers resort to using the tapes, so the students can enjoy “story time” like they did in kindergarten. In any assessment over grammar, even the most basic of grammar concepts, English teachers will usually need to prepare for the fact that over half of them will fail no matter how good the instruction.

Grammar in particular becomes prickly to teach because it is a discipline that requires some degree of memorization and a great deal of practice, very much like math. Unlike math, elementary teachers will take their chances and shove the burden of teaching grammar to the high schools. They can do this because most standardized tests will hardly test on grammar concepts before the second year of high school. Hence, many students enter come into through the door of English I, writing very much like small children. They make short sentences devoid of modifiers, phrases, additional clauses, and punctuation that strays from the period. Remedying this daunting gap in education requires Herculean efforts from a high school teacher because the students will fight it every step of the way. For the preservation of their sanity, many teachers forego any significant grammar instruction by this point, and pray that the rules will somehow come to students by them subconsciously internalizing some grammatical patterns through a book they read. Unfortunately, even if this were the case (and it isn’t), the students would actually have to read a decent amount of literature in the first place.

Most kids do not read very well, if at all. If they do, they read fairly easy texts written by Rowling or Meyers and their imitators. To say that these popular novels acclimate students to the many rules and conventions of reading classics would be like saying that a short walk through a parking lot acclimates a person to the rigors of a marathon runner. These books contain short sentences, limited vocabulary, easy morality, and a serve lack of complexity in the setting or characters. They serve ideally for escapes, but they do not challenge a reader to learn more than they know. Most elementary schools will eschew serious reading and the discipline it requires in favor of this kind of reading, or no reading at all. What this produces are children in high school that struggle with basic comprehension of adult texts and ideas; they struggle with very simple vocabulary; even discerning the moral message of a tiny fable by Aesop gives them fits.

The basic building block of reading, phonics, comes into question as districts entrust the high school teacher to acquaint callow unprepared youth to the works of Shakespeare. The na├»ve teachers will try to make the most of the Playwright’s plays by having the students play the parts and read out loud. They will learn most of the students only have a set list of words they can actually sound out and read, but they will ultimately fail with the unfamiliar words that abound in Shakespeare’s plays. The experience is thus tedious and painful for many in this exercise and betrays yet another gap in the students’ instruction. A teacher may teach many lessons half-heartedly without much of a repercussion, but they cannot do this with phonics. When they come short in that regard, they can cripple a child’s mind for a long while in the same way breaking their leg would make them lame permanently.

However, the teachers of an elementary school and their respective curriculum cannot take all the blame for such a paucity of knowledge. Most parents will gladly reinforce a lack of skills for their children. They nurture vices of attention deficiency with plenty of toys and few demands. Kids will be kids—forever. They stay lazy, distracted, and demanding throughout their academic careers. An elementary school will struggle with this, but a high school teacher will have no choice but succumb to it since the damage has become irreversible. Thus, the high school’s library is full of movie adaptations of classics, and the cabinets in most classrooms are filled construction paper and markers.

Marva Collins’s story demonstrates the difficult but ultimately necessary practice of really teaching the basics and disciplining the children at an early age. In her professional life, this eventually led to ostracism by her colleagues, so she had to start her own school. She succeeded with that school and now holds seminars. The district that pushed her out is notorious for violence, inefficiency, and poor academic performance. For the lucky few that have learned a few things in English, perhaps they can draw the moral lesson from her story and apply it their own younger students if they hope to change things for the better. High school English teachers and their students with underdeveloped intellects have suffered enough.

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