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Reading: Whose questions do we answer?

 Here’s a typical way that reading is done in classrooms: The teacher assigns a reading, the students read the selection, and then the teacher assigns reading questions to determine how well the students understood the passage.

A newer approach, influenced by reader-response theory, goes something like this: The teacher introduces questioning as a reading strategy, the students practice coming up with questions as they read a selection, and then the class discusses the student-generated questions.

We know that both approaches can be effective. After all, sometimes the teacher wants to direct the lesson and emphasize specific pieces of the reading. On the other hand, sometimes it’s best to allow students to interact with the text themselves to find their own meaning.

The Common Core standards, which go into effect in 2014, emphasize close reading of challenging nonfiction texts. David Coleman, the architect of the English Language Arts standards, argues that classroom activities should be based on text-dependent questions. In other words, the curriculum should come from the texts and authors themselves, not from the students or teachers. Instead of injecting ourselves into the reading, we should find out what the reading and author intended.

This might be a good theory, but many reading experts have begun to protest. I’m finding out that most opponents of Mr. Coleman are teachers who work with struggling readers. Here’s a recent tweet from Kylene Beers, author of When Kids Can’t Read, What Teachers Can Do. (I hope it’s big enough to read.)

Ms. Beers makes a good point. If the questions should come from the text, and if the text is challenging, doesn’t that just mean that teachers will continue to generate the questions, thereby making students passive in their reading?

I know it’s not as simple as that — that good teachers will continue to encourage students to read actively. Nevertheless, Mr. Coleman wants students not to include their personal feelings and experiences into their reading.

While I appreciate that Common Core and Mr. Coleman have articulated a strong stance on reading, I worry that they’ve missed a big point. It’s not enough to assume that great authors, texts, and teachers will engage struggling readers. If a student hates reading or can’t read well, then text-dependent questions will do little to garner interest.

Maybe it’s true that teachers abandon texts too quickly, opting too soon to ask students how they feel. Maybe it’s not best to have students connect the reading with their own lives.

But on the other hand, I believe that there is a relationship between the author and the reader — a transaction that takes place. If students are going to read on their own and to care about what they read, they must be allowed to bring themselves to texts, to think about where and how they enter, and to wonder what the author is trying to tell them.

Please let me know what you think! 

Please share your brilliant insights!