Thursday, January 27, 2011

Fake Reading

We have just finished the End of Course SOL series for our 11th grade students.  The barrier test for graduation lies in the English SOLs.  All students must pass both the Writing and Reading tests prior to graduating or they will not receive a valid diploma.  The two tests represent a minimum competency.

Basic literacy is the most important outcome for any education.  All graduates should be able to read and write well enough to both receive and extend a clear message.

But as I work with students who struggle on the Reading test, I have more and more misgivings about what we are learning about their abilities to negotiate a world which will require them to read.  (And for this post I will not even get into the validity question that is begged when a student can literally fail the test one day and pass the next. It happens frequently and with a wide swing of scores.)

Reading tests do not mirror an authentic reading situation.

When we read in the real world we read for a number of reasons: for pleasure, to gather information, to consider different points of view, to reach our own self-selected goals.

The first step in any authentic reading situation involves a measure of choice on the part of the reader.  Do I want to read this?  Why am I reading it?  What do I hope to get from the reading to which I am devoting my intellectual energies?

Real reading also exists in a context.  Is this reading for work? For recreation? To complete a task I very much want to complete?   Why do I need to read this?

None of these situations exist in a Reading Comprehension test.

The purpose of the reading is to pass the test.  Nothing more.

For that reason, test takers are interested in only one thing: What is the right answer?  To me, this perverts the entire process.

In helping students master the test I often find myself exhorting them: "Pretend to be interested in what you're reading. Try to find something you care about."  The key to their success lies in whether or not they can engage in the reading before answering the questions.

Most students choose the expedient method:  Read the questions (not the passage) and then go looking for the answer.  This would explain why so many students struggle with inference questions.  These questions rely on the student's understanding of the piece as a whole along with its implications.

For the struggling student, finding the motivation to read a passage that is of no interest to them is a huge hurdle.  For school-friendly students--those who have accepted the game the grownups seem to be playing--motivating themselves to read through passages that are of no particular interest is not a problem.  In many cases they have been doing this (and doing it well enough) their entire schooling lives.

The state test requires students to read forms, sometimes an application form, sometimes a flyer for an upcoming program, and so forth.  I suspect that if a student wanted a job or to attend a concert and had to read and fill out an application form to meet those goals, their comprehension would soar.  In an earlier version of the state test students had to read and answer questions about an application for volunteer services directed largely to retirees.  Really?  The average age of a typical reader of that form would be, I suspect, 60 years old.  These are sixteen year old boys and girls who have yet to start a career much less retire from one.  Who cares?

Perhaps this explains the boys in particular who have been unable to pass the state reading test while concurrently passing an EMT or Firefighter test.  Both of these civil service tests are formidable, and yet, (according to test scores) our worst students seem capable of passing them in order to gain entry into a career the young men are passionate about.

Reading Comprehension tests have never been my favorite.  Inevitably they make me feel stupid.  Especially the main idea questions where I, and frequently my students, struggle in deciding which answer is more right than another.

For one whole year in elementary school (maybe it was fourth or fifth grade) Montgomery County schools insisted on the SRA reading program.  We read (out of context) selections on cards and followed them with mini-reading comprehension tests. They sat on a shelf in colored boxes, each color showing the progression through grade-leveled readings.  (I am still amused by the methods used to shield students from their "levels."  We all knew which colors were harder just as we knew the Bluebird reading group was comprised of the top performers.)

Despite being a voracious reader at the time, I did not progress very quickly through the colored boxes because you had to hit a certain score before moving on.  I came to dread that shelf of boxes and clearly came away with the idea that "I am not a very good reader."

During the day I was forming a poor image of myself as a reader while every night I was zooming through the Little House on the Prairie series, all of Ray Bradbury, every Nancy Drew book I could find, Boxcar Children, Cherry Ames Student Nurse, all the Beverly Cleary books, historical fiction about the westward migration, and twenty-five cent comic books which introduced me to all the great works of literature in the form of Illustrated Classics.

Test taking has taken its toll in classroom use of time that could be better spent in helping students--especially struggling students--find authentic purposes for reading.


  1. Great post, Mary!

    That's exactly what we reading teachers out here are thinking. In my experience we talk about reading and writing tests as a genre unto themselves. The skills needed for those are so different from those needed for authentic reading and writing.

    What we're really teaching our kids is hoop-jumping. Unfortunately, too many of them trip on the hoop and fall.

    Cindi Rigsbee
    Reading Teacher/Literacy Coach
    Orange County Schools, NC

  2. My daughter started AP World History today. She was sitting on the sofa working on answering questions related to reading she was supposed to have done. As she was asking questions of my wife and I it became pretty clear that she was reading the questions one at a time and then hunting in the reading for the answers. I immediately thought of this post and told her to stop and read the entire passage before she looked at another question. She replied but this is how we've been taught to do this stuff. My fourth grader sitting on the floor piped up with - "that's what my teacher says to do too". I told her she would never see the big picture if she just read in chunks, that she would not be able to remember the reading when she needed to see how it related to subsequent readings. The thing is she knew this and was not at all surprised to hear me say it - she just didn't want to believe it. If you have a chance go visit Mr. McKiernan's 1st block class and tell them. Maybe she'll believe it if someone other than her dad tells her.

  3. Mary:
    Your post is so timely for me. Just this week, the latest round of cutting librarians, book budgets, and access to libraries has begun. It's striking me as extremely ironic that my district makes a big deal out of "summer learning loss" when they aren't necessarily letting kids read anything of choice during the school year itself.
    I have passed this post on to several others via email, twitter, etc., and have had several agree.