8 myths about reading that may be holding your child back in school

John-is-not-dull

In her great book on reading comprehension, I Read It But I Don’t Get It, Cris Tovani tells a story of her own coming-of-age as a reader:

In fourth grade, I asked my teacher to show me how she figured out a difficult ending. She smiled and said, “Cris, you need to read between the lines.” I skipped happily back to my seat, thinking I had been given privileged information. I opened my book only to find to my disappointment that between the lines was just white space. (98)

I don’t think I risk controversy when I say that of all the activities that children do in school, learning to read well is the most important.

Reading forms the foundation of most, if not all, learning.

If a student’s reading skills fall behind, she risks falling behind in all the subjects for which strong reading skills depend.

Not only that, but the ability to read extends beyond words on the pages of books or screens. As we become independent, productive adults, we must also learn to read not only books and screens, but also people and situations.

In essence, reading is the ability to make sense of complex situations.

As an educator, I’m sensitive to the fact that many students struggle with reading. The reasons can be pedagogical—a failure on the part of those who teach reading, socioeconomic, or highly personal. Often, though, reading difficulties stem from the misconceptions students have about reading itself. In an assessment-driven learning environment, teachers are pressured into rushing through material, rather than taking the time to empower children to take ownership of their own reading. Teaching to the test often fails to give students the leisure they need to cultivate their natural curiosity about the world into a deeper understanding of it.

The following are some myths about reading that may be holding your child back in school.

Myth #1: The point of reading is to complete an assignment to earn a grade.

In the rush to please authorities like teachers and parents by performing well on tests, students lose sight of the underlying purpose of the reading they do in school. They forget that academic success is a special case of a more enduring form of learning, which I call intellectual rigor. Intellectual rigor is the capacity to engage with a topic in a way that: is sustained; accounts for multiple perspectives; and is logically coherent. It’s the ability to contribute to a vital conversation with real-world consequences at stake.

When students expect authorities to spur their learning, they fail to take ownership of their own learning. In some respects, the education system, as it is, discourages them from doing so. For example, in a predominantly assessment-driven classroom, students surmise that the teacher’s questions about a reading assignment are more important than the students’ own questions, questions which arise organically out of their own desire to understand. Perversely, children figure out that being curious about the world outside of class is not only different from what they read in class, but irrelevant. They learn that the strategies they develop to read in school have nothing to do with the thinking they do in “real life.”

Myth #2: The mind is a bucket, and reading is pouring information into the bucket.

Much of the learning that children do in a test-driven learning environment reinforces the misconception that the purpose of reading is to absorb, retain, and ultimately reproduce information. There is an implicit expectation that students are meant to memorize and regurgitate facts on quizzes and exams. As a consequence, students become masters at cramming. Once the test is finished and the grade arrives, they quickly forget the information they’ve memorized, because it’s superfluous.

Accordingly, students figure out that the specifics of what they read are more important than the process by which they come to make sense of what they read. Students struggle to prioritize the information presented in a text based on a broader learning context and its goals. Instead, they take a catch-all approach to their reading where every sentence is of equal value, since it may contain a fact they need to reproduce on a quiz or exam.

A more useful analogy for reading is to think of it as wrestling or dancing. As readers, we decide, often unconsciously, if we like or dislike an author’s point of view. Based on that decision, we either actively wrestle with what the author is saying in order to challenge it, or we dance along with the author because we trust where she’s leading us. In either scenario, whether wrestling or dancing, we’re actively identifying connections, asking questions, making inferences, and drawing conclusions, rather than letting information pour into a bucket.

Myth #3: Good readers are fast readers.

In the rush to accumulate information, students assume that reading faster is better, since it means they can absorb that much more information. This belief reinforces the myth that the mind is a bucket: faster pour, more information. But strong readers recognize that it’s their responsibility to make what they read meaningful, that reading is an active process. Strong readers adjust the rate at which they read to accommodate how they’re interacting with the text. When they get confused, bored, or distracted, they slow down and take the time to figure out how to make what they read meaningful again.

Myth #4: The answers are all there in the text itself.

When students see texts only as repositories of information, they learn that the answers to the questions foisted on them by teachers are to be found almost exclusively within the text itself. As a consequence, students come to see each text as existing in a vacuum. Accordingly, it’s pointless to call upon one’s own personal experience or knowledge when reading. Furthermore, one subject rarely has anything to do with another. In pursuit of bits of information to regurgitate on tests, students learn to stop making logical connections from one book to another, let alone from one subject to another, or from school to their own experiences and knowledge of the world.

Myth #5: If a text is boring, there’s nothing I, as a reader, can do about it.

Strong readers take responsibility for creating their own meaning from a text. They actively engage with the text by asking questions, making connections and inferences, and drawing conclusions about what they read. By actively thinking about a text, they’re much less likely to get distracted or to fall into the trap of reading as recitation—emptily mouthing a string of words in their heads.

Above all, strong readers know why they’re reading. They have their own reasons for reading that drive the desire to actively engage with the text and understand it. Often in school, since it’s assumed that the purpose of reading is to earn a grade, students and teachers don’t take the time to explore the deeper, often personal reasons that motivate our reading.

Myth #6: Being confused when reading is always obvious to the reader.

Without a clear purpose that they take the time to define for themselves, students often revert to the fill-the-bucket approach to reading. Since reading is supposed to be nothing more than accumulating information, it’s embarrassing to be confused or uncertain about a text. The best way, then, to overcome confusion is to bullishly forge ahead. When this approach fails, students often simply give up. They opt, instead, to fake their way through the teacher’s assessment of their understanding. Many students become quite adept at faking it.

Myth #7: Apart from doing a writing assignment, voluntarily writing about a text is a waste of time.

If I don’t take ownership of my own reading—I don’t have a clear sense of purpose, I’m not actively thinking about the meaning of what I read—then any effort I make beyond getting through the text as quickly as possible is a waste. Accordingly, jotting notes in the margins of a text or writing about what I’m reading in a journal seems pointless. But writing about what I read is a powerful way to actively engage with a text.

Myth #8: When reading, all opinions about the text have equal validity and should be respected.

As a last resort, weak readers will sometimes evoke social justice as a justification for their unwillingness to engage actively with a text. As Tovani writes:

Opinions are very important, but as you get older, people won’t take you seriously if your opinions aren’t based on the facts. You can’t just say anything and expect people to agree with you. I have a responsibility to teach you how to substantiate your thinking. In school, ideas need to be bolstered by facts and information. (98)

One thing that we can do as parents and teachers is take the time to step back and consider, along with our children, why we read and why it’s worth learning to read well. We can start this conversation by discussing these eight common myths about reading and how they might be influencing our children’s reading experience.

Dr. Sean

Dr. Sean

Co-Founder at Readerly
Dr. Sean has over a decade of teaching experience at universities in the US and Asia. He earned a BA with honors from Columbia University and a PhD from the University of London. You can read more about his teaching and research here.
Dr. Sean