What We Sometimes Forget to Teach About Reading

As I recently explained, my students and I have begun to talk about how we can use books as windows into the lives of other people.  The discussions we have been having have been absolutely enlightening for my students as well as for me.  Today, a discussion that I just did not expect began to unfold in front of me. It made me stop and think about the things that we sometimes forget to teach kids about reading. Well, to be fair, the things that I know I have forgotten to teach kids about reading.  Probably, others have been doing this for years!

One of my students, who is incredibly insightful and wise, suddenly looked at me with confusion and question in her eyes. We had been right in the middle of this incredible discussion about how the book One Green Apple not only helped us to better understand the lives of people who are new to our country, but it also helped us to better understand those people who go out of their way to make others feel comfortable and how very brave those people are and how much of our respect they deserve. It was a beautiful discussion, so I was surprised to see a look a confusion spread across this student’s face.

I asked her what she was thinking about and she responded with the following: “Well, I get what you are trying to get us to think about, but I don’t understand how these things are helping us to better understand what is going on in this book.”

Yeah. It took me by surprise. Honestly, I had to stop and really think for a moment before responding. There were a million things going through my head.

First of all, I realized that I had messed up.  No big surprise. My students show me this very fact multiple times a day.  I had missed something really huge and this lovely child was reminding me of that. I had forgotten to explain that while, yes, I believe that by looking at our texts as windows we will read with more care and attention and that will help us to better understand what we are reading, my ultimate goal was much larger than that. And I had forgotten to explain that to the very people who it mattered the most to.  My ultimate goal was to not make my students better readers, but better human beings. I knew that, but I had forgotten to tell that to my students.

The other thing that I began to think about (all while the 18 sweet faces of my students sat there staring up at me, waiting for me to respond to what was just said) was that I think we got this whole reading thing a little bit wrong.  We spend SO much time teaching our students how to be better readers. We teach our students to use their life experiences to better understand books. We teach our students to question to better understand the motivations and emotions of the characters in their texts. We teach our students to infer the author’s message and meaning to help them better understand their texts. And we teach them to determine the most important ideas in a text in order to be able to synthesize information and better understand what they read. These things are incredibly important, BUT they are not everything. We teach them to better understand their texts, BUT we often forget to teach them what they might be able to do with those better and deeper understandings. I realized that what this child was telling me was that she was desperately looking for a way to use what we were talking about to better understand the book that we had just read because that is what she is used to doing. That is what she is used to being asked to do. That is what she thought reading was all about.

These children believe that learning to read means that they are learning to better understand their texts. And that is ALL they think that reading is about. Because, often, that is all we teach them. That is all we ask of them.  We don’t often give them authentic reasons for reading other than to enjoy a book or to learn content that we want them to learn. So it was a real struggle for them to switch their thinking so that they were now being asked to use what they understood about their text in order to better understand people who live in our world.  They were now being asked to use what they understood about their text in order to build empathy for others. They were now being asked to use reading to become better people. And that was new to them and I didn’t give them the support they needed in understanding that.

So, as I often do, I apologized. I told them that I really missed something big. And then I shared with them all the things that I had just thought about and thanked them for helping me to realize these new things.  And, because they are so wonderful, they quickly adjusted to this new information and our conversation became even more meaningful after that. I could see the lightbulbs going off. These kids. They teach me all the time and they amaze me every day.

And as I move forward, continuously reflecting on what I am asking of my students and what I am teaching to my students, I have these new realizations to work with. I realize that I must do a better job in helping my students to see all of the things that they can do in this world because of the deep understandings they gain from their texts.  I realize that I owe it to my students to show them all of the authentic purposes that there are for reading. I realize that my students deserve to know all of the ways that reading can make them better, more understanding, more informed, more responsible human beings. I realize that if I don’t show my students what they can do when they deeply comprehend a text, then I am not giving them any real reason to work hard to gain the deep understanding that I so often demand from them. And that is just not fair.

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