Reading is not Monolithic.

“Reading is not monolithic.” These are some of the wise words that kicked off a lecture during my Masters course this week by guest lecturer Carol Leroy. I remember writing a paper in University about Louise Rosenblatt and the Transactional Reader-Response Theory. I laughed a few years ago when I stumbled upon it in my old teaching portfolio (the one Universities tell you to have for interviews but NO ONE ever wants), the concept remains to me as one of the simplest ways to view reading, that reading is about interaction. Interaction between the text and themselves, their knowledge, their experiences, their life. An interaction.

When I sit in my classroom and just watch the students reading I see these interactions. When we discuss moments in books I participate in these interactions. Students who still are working at developing their accuracy and fluency are still interacting with their texts and with their classmates around shared reading experiences. Unfortunately there are people that feel that reading must follow one way of instruction. Separating the meaning making from the word recognition. Claiming that without excellence in the latter the former is not possible. I am here to tell you this is just a marketing ploy to sell programs. The notion that students should be reading nonsense words and strictly decodable books and levelled texts does not sound like the room of readers engaged with their texts I mentioned earlier. As my lecture came to an end a final point was made, “limit time spent on phonics in isolation because it will impact student success when we go back to real reading” Real Reading.

Those in the SoR (Science of Reading) community will advocate for phonics and spelling instruction in isolation from K-8, just the other day Orton-Gillingham, a leading voice in the SoR movement tweeted this very point. PHONICS in isolation until 8th Grade. My 8th graders where reading and writing their own poetry, crafting multimodal/multigenre pieces, reading countless novels, sitting in on book clubs. I can’t imagine cutting out any of these things for isolated phonics work. In K-3 sure but beyond that?

In a recent Reading Research Quarterly article Kathryn H. Au and Taffy E. Raphael state, “Inequities in reading proficiency in higher grades, as well as a lack of motivation to read, can easily result when students gain a mistaken impression that reading is simply accurate word calling.” If we spend the majority of our time in the younger grades our students will stop interacting with text because reading stops becoming a living breathing thing. It becomes robotic.

I remember my sister “reading” a King Midas story to us when she was 4. She had largely memorized the story and mistakes that made sense in context certainly happened but she was telling us a story and reading many of the words. She read that book probably a million times until it fell apart. I wonder if any kids choose Cat Sat Mat books to read a million times? Now as a grown up she leads book clubs with friends. She became a reader because people allowed her to read. She was given a choice to interact with texts.

This year I had a student in my class who has always struggled to read, has had all sort of intervention time and yet frustratingly struggles with novels because of accuracy and fluency issues. I shifted to poetry collections by folks like Rudy Francisco and the incredible Nikki Grimes. He devoured them. Finally referring to himself as a reader. Before that with our singular focus on phonics he resented it, refused to interact. Our children are whole people, why on earth do we only focus on their struggles?

IN the end I believe we must look at reading as both code and meaning focused. The idea that it can only be taught one way is reductive. This all or nothing mentality leads to teachers responding less to the needs of their students and more to the demands of a program and that will cause harm. Despite what some “experts” claim kids can and do make meaning from text without perfecting the ability to decode. However if we make them wait for perfection before allowing exploration we will lose them.

Reading is about experiences it is not limited to just a set of skills and strategies.

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