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Two kinds of reading rarely taught in schools

favicon If you’re a typical student in a typical urban public high school, here’s what you’re reading:

1. Teacher-assigned fiction. Usually in novel form, most likely in your English class.

2. Short teacher-assigned nonfiction. Usually handouts on paper, most likely in your other classes.

Here are two kinds of reading you’ll mostly never encounter:

1. News. Unless something huge happens in the world, you won’t read about current events. Teachers may use articles to enhance subject matter, but you won’t get your hands on a real-life newspaper or magazine, whether in print or digital form. Maybe you catch the news on TV?

2. Books You Choose. Even in schools that hold Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) or Drop Everything and Read (DEAR), you likely won’t read any books because (1) your school no longer has a library, (2) your teacher hasn’t built a classroom library with her own money, (3) you haven’t gone to your neighborhood public library in years because you’re scared the librarian will force you to pay your overdue fines, (4) adults in your life don’t much care if you read, (5) your friends think it’s uncool to read, and (6) it’s easier to fake-read than find a book you like. So fake read you do.

The problem with this model is not just that there isn’t enough reading happening in schools. It’s also that two really important kinds of reading aren’t happening in schools.

Current events teach young people about their world, and reading the news builds students’ background knowledge and expands their sphere of experience. And independent reading is the only way to consume enough words to build vocabulary, fluency, and analysis.

That’s why, the next time I teach, I’m going to (somehow) find a way to include current events and independent reading in my class curriculum. This will be even harder now that Common Core is pushing for more informational texts.

Then again, I can build from my past success with Article of the Week and The 1,000,000 Word Challenge. It’s just that my efforts need to be tighter and more robust. favicon

4 comments

  1. Lois

    Sounds like you’re getting a bit jaded! Many classrooms may be like you describe, but I have to take exception to several of them! If you’re right, which, in this case, I hope you’re not, too many teachers are missing exciting opportunities! I hate hearing this. The opportunities are endless and, after being retired for 7 years now, I still miss the nimerous teachable moments and they keep me awake at night , thinking about what I could be doing. We need a long lunch!

    • Mark Isero

      Hi Lois! Thank you for reading my post. No, I’m not getting jaded — just recognizing how much important work we all need to do! There are many examples of excellent teachers out there doing good work, but what’s necessary is a more unified, consistent effort — where reading goes big and whole-school.

      That’s why I think this year is such a great opportunity for me to be part of a larger effort. Very few schools have the resources to pay for someone like me to go around and talk with teachers and be their cheerleader. It’s a luxury!

  2. Alex T. Valencic

    Do you see this problem being primarily in the upper grades, or is it extending down to the primary classes, as well? My students in fourth grade do lots of independent reading of their own choosing, mostly in fiction. We are increasing their exposure to nonfiction this year.

    I haven’t thought about exposing them to news articles. I worry that fourth graders aren’t quite ready for the language of the news media but at the same time, I know they are growing aware of the world around them and want to know what’s going on. I don’t think that Scholastic News and Time for Kids are the answers, though. Definitely something to think about!

    • Mark Isero

      Thank you for your contribution, Alex. I think elementary schools do very well with independent reading. The shift begins in middle school. By high school, when English teachers begin focusing on “literature,” the amount of independent reading plummets.

      Question: Are you increasing nonfiction because of Common Core? Or for other reasons?

      You’re right that fourth grade might be a little too early for news. I know that I started reading the newspaper when I was in fifth or sixth grade — and that was mostly the sports section. Maybe local news? Feature stories about what’s going on in the community? Your kids might like writing news articles, too!

Please share your brilliant insights!