Not All Reading Is Equal

We often hear about how important it is for children to develop a love of reading. But like so many statements about education, a vital ingredient is missing from this apparently laudable aspiration. It is comparable to bland proclamations that children should learn to be creative. What is missing is specific content.

Creating what? Reading what?

There are many things which I would not want my pupils to read. Reading is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. And the end is knowledge.

There are many kinds of knowledge which reading can bring, which are difficult to access in other ways. Great literature brings knowledge about the fundamental questions of human existence. Historical writing, scientific writing, philosophical writing and even journalism can carry new insights into the nature of the universe and humanity’s place within it. A fluent reader can gain access to thought that will open her mind and raise her aspirations. But she can also gain access to fake news and poisonous propaganda. Reading can poison the mind as well as nourishing it.

There is nothing intrinsically good about reading. It depends what you are reading, and it depends on how accurately you can interpret it.

Of course we want all our pupils to be able to decode fluently. But beyond this, we must think about how we nourish their thinking so that they can use this wonderful opportunity to expand their minds, not to poison or pollute them. A regular diet of knowledge will give them a taste for reality, so that they are increasingly able to discriminate between different authors, and reject what is false.

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Allowing Our Pupils to Listen

Man_inserting_earplugsDavid Didau has been at it again, slaying educational sacred cows . . . he has argued that it is not beneficial to require pupils to follow along when reading out loud to them, because it overloads their working memory by asking them to do two things which they cannot in fact do simultaneously.

This is a great example of how Didau reexamines our common teaching practices from first principles. The first principles in this case are:

  1. Working memory is extremely limited.
  2. No-one can multitask.
  3. Reading means hearing, either mentally or out loud.

Didau’s argument is that when we read silently, as pupils must do if they are actually to be following along, we are actually ‘hearing’ the words in our thoughts. To hear them properly, we must block out the voice of the person who is reading aloud to us, because we can’t focus on both at once. So when it appears that pupils are following along well, what they are actually doing is successfully blocking out our voice and reading the text themselves, with the additional mental burden of having to check periodically that they are at the same place as we are in the text. They can manage to do this if they are confident readers, but if they are not so confident, they are likely to end up either failing to follow and just listening, or getting in a hopeless muddle between trying unsuccessfully to follow and also half listening to the person reading aloud.

I’m not the only one of Didau’s readers who reacted against these conclusions when I first read his blog post. It’s worth reading the comments as well as the post to see how the discussion developed over there. I was going to comment, but I had so much to say, I thought I’d better write my own blog post, working through the objections that occurred to me.

1. Following along builds vocabulary and improves comprehension

It may seem that weaker readers need to listen and follow along, because we want them to be connecting the sound of the word with the word on the page, and building up their familiarity with the appearance of a wider range of vocabulary than they are capable of reading independently.

But this depends upon the fallacious idea that reading is a visual activity, when it is in fact aural. If we want weaker readers to be able to comprehend a larger vocabulary on the page, we need to give them the space to do one thing at a time. They can focus all their attention on listening to begin with, and later they can be given time to re-read the text in silence. Having already encountered the new vocabulary aurally, they are more likely to be able to decode it when reading the text themselves.

It’s not the following along which improves understanding for weaker readers, it’s the listening. And if we really want them to listen, we shouldn’t require them to follow along.

2. Following along ensures pupils are paying attention

We have to ask here, paying attention to what? Pupils cannot be paying attention to the spoken voice and reading simultaneously, so they must be doing one or the other, or a more or less muddled mixture of the two.

I’ve often asked pupils, “What’s the next word?” if I think they are not following along. I’ve expended a fair amount of effort monitoring this, because I want to insist that everyone is paying attention. But there are other ways of doing this, if we are not requiring pupils to follow along. We can ask them a quick comprehension question about what we have just read to them, for example. This is actually a more sophisticated way of monitoring attention than the mechanical focus on whether the are on the right line or the right page.

3. Pupils need to follow along so they can annotate

No, they don’t. If we are going to study a text in depth, we can begin by reading it aloud without following along, then require pupils to re-read it in silence, then go through it together as a class, discussing it in detail and annotating it. Let’s just do one thing at a time!

4. It’s the only way I can make sure they read

But following along doesn’t actually make sure they read. If they are strong readers, this isn’t an issue anyway, and if they are weak readers, they will be unable to block out your voice and concentrate on decoding, so they will end up in a muddle.

5. I prefer to follow along, so why shouldn’t my pupils be allowed to?

This is an interesting one. I must admit that when I want to study something in depth, I don’t like just listening to someone read without the anchor of the text in front of me. But what am I actually doing when I have the text there? In fact, as an advanced reader, I am impatient to begin reading the text independently and figuring it out for myself. So this actually illustrates the main point. I want to have the text in front of me because I don’t want to listen. If I’m going to listen properly, I’d better not be looking at it!

Conclusion: let them hear!

I would be very interested in further objections and counter arguments, but I can’t think of any which refute the fundamental principle that if we want to do things properly, we need to do them one at a time, and following along requires pupils to do two things simultaneously.

This is not an argument against reading out loud. Far from it: it’s a principle which gives reading out loud its proper place, without muddling it with other practices, which are also very beneficial, but need to be separated from just listening to the text.

If we allow our pupils just to listen, they can really, really listen, as I used to listen to my father when he read stories to me as a child. The main reason I have a wide vocabulary is that I began by listening to him. The main reason so many of our pupils have lower vocabularies is because they have not been given such opportunities really to listen to the voices of articulate adults.

General Reading Tests Are Always Unfair

roger-moore

Should pupils be taught who this man is? Maybe . . .

General reading tests are always unfair because there is no such thing as general reading skill. Every text will be much clearer to those who have relevant background knowledge. Whatever text you choose, you will favour those pupils who know something about its topic beforehand. The test will therefore not be fair, because it will privilege those who just happen to know something about that subject.

The idea that you can create a general reading test which will fairly assess reading ability across the school population is based upon a false notion of what reading entails. Once you have mastered decoding, the most important factor is knowledge. You could be brilliant at reading texts about football, but hopeless at reading texts about politics.

E D Hirsch describes how several recent studies have conclusively shown that background knowledge is the number one factor in reading ability, trumping academic ability and IQ in pupils, and complexity in texts. In 1998 the Recht-Leslie study showed that ‘poor’ readers could read well when they were familiar with the topic, which was baseball. They ‘illustrated the general principle: when a topic is familiar, “poor” readers become “good” readers; moreover, when a topic is unfamiliar, normally better readers lose their advantage’ (Why Knowledge Matters, p88). In 1999 Schneider et al proved the same point, but with IQ, while in 2011 Arya et al showed that text complexity was relatively unimportant compared to domain knowledge (see Hirsch, p88-89). These three studies show that if you know about something, you will be a good reader of texts concerning that topic.

Now consider what happens in the English language GCSE, as currently constituted. It is entirely ‘unseen’, so specific preparation of knowledge is impossible. The reading texts could be about anything. Let’s say the examination board selects a text about spies. Some pupils will know a lot about spies. Some may even be spy geeks. Others will have no interest in the topic, and will not have developed much domain knowledge. The English teacher may have spent one or two lessons doing some reading about espionage and discussing the topic, or they may not. We can hardly blame them if they haven’t, as they had no idea that this topic, among the thousands of possibilities, would come up in the examination. The spy geeks will ace that test, while others’ performance will be based mostly on the random criterion of how much they happen to know about spies.

The pupils who do well will be congratulated on their performance, but to a large extent, they just got lucky. The English teachers may even be congratulated if they happened to be teaching a large number of spy geeks. They may even get a pay rise or promotion based on this coincidence.

This is completely unjust, both to pupils and to teachers. General examinations given to the whole population should always be based on specified content. The more specific the content is, the fairer the examination will be, as it will enable all pupils to master that knowledge, and help all teachers to teach it effectively. As well as being fairer, only testing specific topics would promote education as the transmission of knowledge, rather than the development of mythical generic skills.

Because of the absence of specific content, preparation for general reading tests ends up being largely a process of tedious drills in how to serve up to the examiner what they are looking for. ‘Make sure you mention structure’, advise the English teachers, or ‘look out for similes and metaphors, and make sure you comment on them.’ How dull, compared to the richness and variety of content on which we could be focusing. But such a box-ticking approach seems inevitable when faced with general reading tests, because the knowledge required has not been specified in advance.

But we must not lose hope. We must make things better despite the unfair assessment system which currently exists, and we must work to persuade policy makers that fairness and the promotion of knowledge depend upon making tests as specific as possible.

How can schools best cope with the situation until such a time as assessment policy catches up with the findings of cognitive psychology?

The answer must lie in giving as much coherent knowledge as possible to pupils, especially in the earlier years, and in spending the minimum amount of time on tedious drills in examination skills. We can also make sure that any internal tests which we set are based on specific content which pupils are expected to master.

Instruction in how to give the examiner what they want should be left to the months immediately prior to the exam. The rest of schooling should be devoted to making pupils as knowledgeable as possible, because if we want our pupils to be creative and to think critically, if we want them to read well and write well, it is knowledge which counts.

Further reading:

Against Analysis, or Why William Doesn’t Engage the Reader

Comprehension Worksh**ts

Learning to Love Literature

That hotel, which is pure surface, apparently.

In Seven Myths, Daisy Christodoulou rightly identifies the philosophy underlying progressivism as postmodernism, because of its rejection of truth, which then leads to a refusal to pass on definite knowledge, seeing in this merely the imposition of one person’s beliefs upon another. Thus the central purpose of education, which as Chesterton points out, is only ‘truth in a state of transmission’, is lost.

But there is another aspect of postmodernism which poisons education: the declaration that there is no depth, only surface, as in Fredric Jameson’s famous analysis of the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles in The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Staying on the surface means gazing at the forms of literature, and declining to enter into its deeper meaning. Indeed, English undergraduates are taught to reject the whole concept of deeper meaning which can appeal across ages and generations as a humanist myth that has been disproved by the more advanced thinking of the cultural materialists. Materialism denies the soul, and therefore denies the existence of any transhistorical human nature to which great writers could appeal across the centuries. We are left only with shifting surfaces, supplemented by reductionist sociological readings that turn literature into a mere historical artefact, and usually one which supports the evil oppressors.

Thus the very existence of a deeper content to literature is systematically attacked by university English departments, and we are left with two things: form, and sub-Marxist historical context. Two boxes which GCSE and A level examiners are endlessly ticking. There isn’t any message. Or if there is, the medium is the message. Or the message is the same message over and over again: that everything is written to support the powerful and crush the poor.

How excruciatingly dull and lifeless.

All my teaching career, I’ve battled with the expectation to place form and context so prominently, when what I really want to talk about is content. Does anyone read anything because they want to admire its form or comment on how it relates to economic arrangements? Or do we read things because we’re interested in their subject – I mean their human subject? Of course there is a connection between the form, context and content, and for the fullest understanding of meaning, we need a sensitivity to the forms of literature as well as its living, human context, but the form is never an end in itself and the artwork can never be reduced to historical documentation. The form is merely a means by which the artist communicates. The artist wishes to communicate something to the reader. He is an artist because he is highly skilled at shaping language to communicate. What he communicates can have multiple meanings, layers of meaning, certainly, but meaning there is, and meaning is what the reader is looking for.

Meaning at its highest level is significance: philosophical significance, moral significance, human significance. The meanings of great literature are endless and inexhaustible. That’s why people keep reading it generation after generation. They don’t keep reading it so they can say, “Wow, look how he used personification there” or make erudite comments on how the base has shaped the superstructure. They read it for meaning, deep meaning which changes their lives.

That’s where the love of reading comes from. And that’s why we so often kill it in schools. David Didau has written about this recently, inspired by a controversial lecture from the ever interesting Frank Furedi. One of the points David considered was whether we do not think enough about what pupils are reading, because we are too concerned about how they learn to read. This is so crucial. In every area of the curriculum, but especially in the arts and humanities, the how has replaced the what. Form has replaced content: this is the skills agenda. It is one of the progressive mantras, and it is thoroughly postmodern. It doesn’t matter what you read. What matters is that you develop skills of literary and contextual analysis, and you can do that with any material, so the argument goes.

It’s certainly true that you can analyse anything, even the most trivial products of popular culture. George Orwell was one of the first to do this, with his essays on seaside postcards. These artefacts have an interest for their cultural meaning. But they are not of interest in themselves. They do not have the intrinsic interest of great literature. They do not have a meaning which can appeal across the generations, because it is deep enough to speak to any human soul. When we favour form over content, analysis over meaning, context over artwork, we take the power out of the hands of the artist and place it in the hands of the scholar and the critic. Thus does literature crumble into dust; thus does it turn into a dead butterfly pinned to the page.

The life of literature is in its meaning. That’s why we love it, if we love it at all. Everyone who has fallen in love with literature will say that it has changed their life. And they’ll never say it changed their life because of the subtle use of a concluding couplet or the skilful deployment of metaphor. Those techniques may have helped it to have the impact it did. But it was never the artist’s intention that we should stop at the surface and never enter the depth.

How are we to lead our pupils into these depths, so that they can discover the joy of reading? Firstly, we need to do a lot of reading great stories out loud, from a young age. Right from the start, children can start meeting Goldilocks and Robin Hood and St George and King Arthur and Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver and Ebenezer Scrooge. Exposure to a wide range of great stories from a young age will open their minds to all the wonderful experiences of literature. They should be listening to stories that are well beyond their ability to read, because it gives them a glimpse of the exciting territory that lies ahead once they have mastered that skill.

Secondly, we need to do a lot of memorisation, and this can begin even before children can read. Memorisation can be done entirely orally, and it gives possession of beautiful and meaningful words to the child. They can own them, and turn them around in their heads, speak them loud and soft, taste them in a way that cannot be achieved without this ancient, wise practice of committing to heart.

There it is. Simple. At primary school, alongside thorough training in the skills of decoding, lots of reading out loud and lots of memorising. And there’s no reason not to continue sharing stories and committing poetry to heart at secondary school.

Further reading:

Against Analysis, Or Why William Doesn’t Engage the Reader

To Educate Human Beings, You Must Believe in Their Existence

(Image from Wikimedia).

Direct Instruction: The Great Equaliser

SnowflakeClever people are good at identifying patterns. That’s why aptitude tests always include exercises in pattern spotting. Whatever the pattern might be, the sharper people are more likely to spot it with less need to have it explained to them.

But whatever someone’s aptitude, they can grasp a pattern if it is clearly explained to them and they practise sufficiently.

That’s the difference between look and say and systematic phonics. A clever person will teach themselves to decode letters if they see enough print. They are spotting the patterns, and effectively giving themselves a course in phonics. But someone who is less good at identifying patterns will only know how to read the whole words that they have seen, or very similar ones. Because they have not been systematically trained in phonics, and they do not have the ability to teach themselves to decode, they are crippled by their ignorance of the alphabetic code, and unable to read unfamiliar words.

In the middle of the twentieth century, after several decades of look and say dominance, many American educators were openly saying that a large proportion of the population were simply non-literate. They had come to this conclusion because they had been using methods that only worked effectively with the most intelligent pupils. They had been using methods which denied effective reading skills to many, while giving a disproportionate advantage to a cognitive elite. This, of course, suited the requirements of big business and big government — the bureaucrats and corporations who had pushed this approach — as it created easily managed and manipulated employees and consumers for business, and easily led clients for the swollen state apparatus.

But many parents weren’t happy with it. It had been foisted upon their children without their say. Reactionary fools that they were, they didn’t like to be told that their children were ‘non-literate’, and, in opposition to the stifling hegemony of the progressive pedagogical experts, they still wanted their children to learn their ABCs.

This battle has been going on for a century. It’s still going on, on both sides of the Atlantic, despite Jeanne Chall’s research and Project Follow Through, because of progressive repugnance for the principles of direct instruction: whole class teaching, careful sequencing, repetitive drill, and large amounts of practice. If you think children should go at their own pace, and that learning should be fun, you just won’t want to teach like this. Especially because, as a university graduate, you’re one of those people who spotted the patterns with little help, so why shouldn’t your pupils do the same?

The issues at stake in the reading wars apply across the curriculum. Will we use thorough, explicit and carefully sequenced methods that allow everyone to make progress, or will we continue with an incoherent curriculum in which only the highly intelligent can spot the patterns?

Encouraging Normal People to Love Literature

We have recently been encouraged as fathers, not for the first time, to be ‘seen reading’ in a family context. I am sure I am not the only father who has at times felt a twinge of guilt that they are not sitting around reading novels in front of their children. I’m rather busy during the day, with five young children. The older children have plenty to do as well, helping around the house, and I often have to tell them to put down their book, because there’s work to be done.

I very rarely read in front of my children, but I regularly read to them. I have continued to do this as they have got older. My eldest is now ten, and each evening I read The Lord of the Rings to the three oldest of my five children. They could all read the book themselves, and indeed they struggle to resist the temptation to do so. If any one of them lets slip a piece of knowledge that could only have come from reading ahead, he or she is roundly condemned by the others for spoiling the shared experience of discovering the book together. (At this point I should confess to never having read it myself before now – so I’m sharing the experience too).

Family reading is a natural and enjoyable activity which was common before the advent of television. It was not confined to small children. Why should they have all the fun? Dickens’ Household Words was squarely aimed at the families who would read out loud each episode of his novels, savouring the plot as it was gradually unveiled, much in the way that a family might watch Coronation Street together (although with multiplying channels and electronic devices in family homes, even that shared experience is less and less common nowadays).

Reading silently is a very solitary activity. It has its pleasures and it has its purpose, but is perfectly understandable that there are many who do not wish to remain solitary for long periods of time: boys and girls, children and adults, may wish to be sociable more often than they are alone. If literature is presented primarily as being solitary and silent, why are we surprised that many say ‘No thanks, I’d rather watch a film or play a video game with my mates’?

Literature was rarely consumed in silent solitude until the advent of the novel, which, combined with industrialisation and mass literacy, turned it into a commodity for mass production and individual consumption. Before that innovation, literature consisted of poetry and drama, both intended for public performance and communal enjoyment.

I used to wonder why it was that although I have always enjoyed poetry, and I even wrote a PhD on it, I have very rarely spent much time reading it when I was not preparing an essay on it or teaching it. Now I have found the answer. Poetry is not intended for silent, solitary consumption. It is intended for memorisation and recitation. At last, I have found the key to enjoying poetry. It is almost as odd to sit and read poetry silently as it would be to sit and read a Mozart score rather than listening to a performance or humming a tune from your favourite concerto. Reading a musical score is the sort of rarefied activity that a few initiates might enjoy, but one would never expect it to become a popular pastime.

Every truly human activity is a communal, shared activity at root, whether it is politics, religion or art. When these activities become privatised, they lose their vital energy, and cease to appeal to the majority of people. We should not, therefore, be surprised at how few people read serious literature.

Along with the family home, school is an ideal place in which to rediscover the original purpose of literature. In a school, poetry can be shared through a communal effort at memorisation and recitation. Novels can be shared by reading passages out loud in a dramatic and vivid style. Literature can be released from its silent, rather gloomy modern prison and can once more become public property, in a form which appeals to people just because they’re human, not because they’re scholars who enjoy spending many hours at a stretch in silent solitude poring over the written word, or bored consumers with so much time to kill that they can afford to spend half of their day in a private fantasy world.