The Skillification of Reading

According to NCTE’s 2014 Position Statement on Reading,

Reading is a complex act of constructing meaning from print. We read in order to better understand ourselves, and the world around us; we use the knowledge we gain from reading to change the world in which we live.

I love this definition for its conciseness and the way it echoes what writers like Ursula Le Guin has to say about the real purpose of reading. But I confess I have a quibble with what NCTE says teachers need to offer students in order to construct that meaning:

1. access to a wide range of texts that mirror the range of students’ abilities and interests;
2. ample time to read a wide range of materials, from the very simple to the very challenging;
3. teachers who help them develop an extensive repertoire of skills and strategies;
4. opportunities to learn how reading, writing, speaking, and listening support each other;
5. and access to the literacy skills needed in a technologically advanced society.

I’m all in with numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5, but number 3 gives me pause. This isn’t because I don’t think readers need skills. I recognize that reading involves a range of skills from decoding and using context clues to evaluating an author’s argument. But too often those skills are taught in ways that can actually undermine, rather than enhance, a reader’s ability to construct meaning.

Consider,for instance, this chart of reading skills (without getting side-tracked in the question of whether they’re actually skills or strategies). Then add to that list these other skills: Scanning, Skimming, Annotating, Note-Taking, Paraphrasing, Drawing Conclusions and Identifying Character Traits, Story Elements, Literary Devices, Point of View, Text Structures, Text Features, Key Details, and Themes.

These skills (along with individual standards) often wind up as the content of the lessons we teach. And whether we teach these in isolation, using worksheets and graphic organizers, or have students practice them in authentic texts, there’s much that’s problematic about skilled-based instruction.

First there’s the problem that Tim Shanahan shares on his blog: “Researchers have shown that, indeed, when you set a specific purpose for reading, students will do a better job of accomplishing that purpose. However, despite more kids getting correct answers, their overall reading comprehension tends to be depressed.” This means that while students may be able to, say, distinguish between fact and opinion or recognize the sequence of a text, their ability to construct meaning may be hampered.

To make this more concrete, let’s imagine we’ve brought a small group of kids together to practice the skill of identifying character traits, using the opening paragraph of Peter Lerangis’s The Sword Thief, the third book in The 39 Clues series:

Asking the group to consider what kind of character Amy is, students might infer from her exchange with her brother that she’s bossy, a know-it-all or stuck-up—and based on these details, they wouldn’t be wrong. But in order to construct meaning of this passage, a reader would need to figure out when and where they are (at the airport in Venice) and what’s happening (they’re worried that a samurai sword they’ve packed in the duffle bag might be found and confiscated in a random luggage search). And all of that could conceivably be missed if they’re only looking for details that suggest a character trait.

And then there’s this problem with skill-based instruction that NCTE notes in another Position Statement: 

[U]tilizing a model of reading instruction focused on basic skills can lead to the mislabeling of some readers as “struggling readers” and “non-readers” because they lack extensive reading experience, depend on different prior knowledge, and/or comprehend differently or in more complex ways . . . [and that] prescriptive, skills-based reading instruction mislocates the problem as the students’ failure to learn, rather than the institution’s failure to teach reading as the complex mental and social activity it is.

I think it’s important to remember this whenever we’re tempted to wring our hands over students who still can’t identify a main idea, despite being taught how to do so for years. This doesn’t mean, however, we should never teach skills. But we need to be mindful of what students may lose when we do—and consider if there are other ways to help them become skillful readers. In my last post, for instance, I suggested that rather than teaching analysis as a discrete skill, we see it as a by-product of the complex act of constructing meaning by interpreting. And many other skills that we teach in isolation can be by-products not only of interpretation, but also of reading for pleasure. According to the educational researcher Stephen Krashen, for instance,

When children read for pleasure, when they get “hooked on books”, they acquire, involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all of the so-called “language skills” many people are so concerned about: they will become adequate readers, acquire a large vocabulary, develop the ability to understand and use complex grammatical constructions, develop a good writing style, and become good (but not necessarily perfect) spellers.

Similarly, at CCIRA’s yearly conference in Denver, I had the privilege of hearing Peter Johnston, the author of Choice Words and Opening Minds, speak about a study he and Gay Ivey had conducted, which showed that when teachers shifted their instruction from teaching skills to socially and emotionally engaging students with high-interest texts, the following can happen:

And as the students developed social imaginations, additional outcomes were found:

So here’s my question: If all of these outcomes are natural outgrowths of students reading to construct meaning, why do we spend so much time and energy on teaching individual skills? Of course, I’m aware that some teachers have no choice, because they’re required to teach packaged programs ‘with fidelity’. Many also are driven to teach skills in isolation because of the role high-stakes test scores play in how they’re evaluated. But I have to wonder if it’s also because it gives us something concrete to teach.

This is something I think many teachers feel, and it’s important to know that you’re not alone. Even Nancie Atwell, one of the most respected reading teachers on the planet, succumbed to the allure of having something to teach when she first heard about comprehension strategies in the 1990’s. As she writes in The Reading Zone:

Despite everything I recognized and celebrated about the impact of frequent, voluminous, enjoyable experiences with books on my students’ abilities as readers, I still harbored a pocket of doubt about the rigor of reading workshop, especially about my role in it. . . I hadn’t yet defined, to my own satisfaction, exactly what I was supposed to do as the teacher in a reading workshop. So the comprehension strategies held immediate appeal: I could give myself a role by teaching these.”

Eventually, though, Atwell recognized that imposing any agenda on her students’ reading, beyond the construction of meaning, interfered with their ability to become the “skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers,” she wanted them to be. So she went back to doing what she’d been doing: giving kids abundant time to read and talk about what they were reading, trusting that reading would teach them how to read, without her needing to skillifying the process. And perhaps, we should do that as well.