Sunday, June 12, 2011

What IS and ISN'T Reading

Like just about everything that makes up the artificial world of modern schooling, READING has been completely misunderstood and then fabricated into an activity that barely resembles what it is really all about.  If you learned to read at school, I would challenge you to contemplate and compare the READING that you did in your school days to the reading that you do now as an adult.

Reading is not a performance.  When was the last time that someone gave you a challenging piece of writing that you had never seen before, asked you to read it aloud, and then critiqued and evaluated your performance?  If you are an adult, the answer would be "I can't remember."  If you are a child between 5 and 18 years of age, the answer would be "Everyday.  Or at least a few times a week."  What an unnecessary stress for a child!  And what does it prove?

A few years ago we were at a wedding where Partner-Guy was the MC.  One of the ushers in the wedding party wanted to tell a story about when he had first met the bride but he was nervous about going to the microphone.  So Partner-Guy wrote out the story for him and the usher practised it a few times.  Then he went to the microphone......and we all held our breath in utter embarrassment for him as he stumbled through the reading of the very story that he had just talked about with a friend.

Can that guy read?  OF COURSE!  He reads the newspaper everyday, he accesses information online, he reads the directions on any number of things.  Can he read aloud in public?  Apparently not.  Public read-alouds do not prove whether or not a child OR adult can read.

Reading is not a re-tell.  Sometimes I read something in The Toronto Star or in Maclean's magazine that I want to share with Partner-Guy.  And often while I am telling him about what I read he asks "Is that what the article said or is that your interpretation?"  Or he says, "I don't get it.  Did you leave out something?"  So even though I am an articulate, intelligent adult with multiple University degrees, re-telling what I have read does not prove that I can read.  It only proves that certain details of what I have read stay with me.  And in re-telling, I still bring my own interpretation.

Reading is not opinion-forming.  Remember the usher I mentioned above?  One time he and I were discussing a book we had both read about Sir Wilfrid Laurier (the 7th Prime Minister of Canada, 1896-1911).  He disagreed with me about the reason why Laurier's government was defeated prior to World War I.  The fact that he and I each formed opinions about what we had read does not prove that either of can read.  And our differing opinions do not prove that one of us can read but the other can't.

Reading is not a writing exercise.  Recently Partner-Guy was administering the standardized test for Ontario Grade 3 students at the school where he works.  The students were given a story about an old woman who lived near the sea and witnessed a shipwreck during a storm.  She went to the beach and built a huge fire to guide the sailors toward the shore and she even swam into the water to help rescue some men. 

The students were asked How was the old woman a hero?  Give details from the story.  One boy wrote "The woman lived alone.  The beach was dark.  Even the cabin-boy was rescued."  You are probably thinking that none of the boy's answers prove that the old woman was a hero.  He would be given a 'D' for his answer.  But the problem is with the question itself.  The boy gave details from the story, thus fulfilling the part of the question that stuck in his brain when he went to write his answer on the test paper.  Does that mean he can't read?  OF COURSE NOT!  But when his parents and teachers see the grade of 'D' for reading, they will think that it means that he cannot read.  He will be labelled and remediated.  He will believe that reading is hard for him.  He will see himself as not being as smart as other kids.

And all because someone who doesn't know him judged that his written answer to a poorly written question proves that he didn't understand the story.  Nuts, eh?

So what is reading?  I'm glad you stayed with me long enough to ask. 

Reading is when your eyes and your past experiences work together to form meaning from symbols.  Reading is meaningful only when it creates meaning for the person who is reading.  Coerced reading is not meaningful.  Bored reading is not meaningful.  Creating meaning from reading is a unique process for every person.  If you and I both read the same thing but learn different things it only proves that we have different experiences through which to filter what we read.

So how do we know if kids can read if we don't find a way to test them?
Easy.  We all read for different reasons.  We read the directions that come with our IKEA furniture so that we can built it correctly.  We read the ingredients on the loaf bread to see if it contains things that we want to eat.  We read a novel for entertainment.  Reading is purposeful.  For children it is no different.  We know that children can read when they do things because of reading that they couldn't have done without reading.

Anna (7 yrs) has never read anything aloud to me, yet I've noticed that she can now do some of the activities in her little workbooks without asking me to read for her. She does things that serve a purpose for her, not because I want her to show me whether or not she can do it.  Similarly, I'll know that she can do alphabetization when she can look up our number in the phonebook.  I'll know that she can do math in her head when she calculates her change at the toystore.

Reading is a personal, productive activity.  Children who grow up in a literate culture where they observe reading for a variety of purposes are going to learn to read AND are going to want to read increasingly complex things as their lives and ideas expand and mature.

There is no test required.


  1. I agree about reading for meaning and having a purpose. I was a terrible reader as a child and did not connect to my reading. I hated reading outloud. Somehow I love reading now. I don't think I learned to connect and read for meaning until college.
    I hope it's okay if I share a post from my blog with you. You'll find some free online stories and my favorite book to help children connect to their reading.
    Sometimes the purpose for reading is to read aloud and sound good doing it. Encouraging children to do this when they are ready can be fun and will prepare them for situtations like the usher you mentioned at the wedding or reading to siblings or their own kids someday.
    P.S I think it's great that you unschool. My kids go to public school. It's not ideal, but at least they have a somewhat sane mom. I give you my respect and admiration.

  2. I am always saddened at how an "educational" system can ruin the joy of reading for people with forced assignments and evaluations, critiques. It's worse when it makes them feel incompetent. I agree that reading well aloud is not synonymous with reading well at all, but people definitely do correlate the two.

  3. What a great blog. You described my son, the kids who would give you the detail of the story and no answer to the questions. Who does not read unless he is made to OR better still he sees something he wants to know about. I will be putting more things in front of him that he wants to read so that he can better himself all on his own. I know you unschool but thought if by chance you have a reader in your world you might like some of the books from The few books my son will read have come from there and he will tell me that it is because other homeschoolers have written them. Oh btw found you from a carnival of homeschooling!

    Lil' Momma
    Living with a hard working husband, 1 toddler, 1 preschooler and 1 middle schooler who are Five in Training for HIM