Children & reflection

Slow reading is not a good state of affairs in grade school, generally. Students who can’t read fluently by third grade are at a great disadvantage in almost all content areas. Their scores and school experience often get worse as they move into their middle school and high school years. They don’t like reading, so, despite the best efforts of some great teachers, they may lose ground each summer to the readers, some of whom knock down ten or fifteen books during their long break from school.

But another kind of slow reading — a “slow reading” closer to the sense of the term often used on this site — may be part of the solution. In his book Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4-12, Kelly Gallagher makes the case for drawing kids toward a more conscious and deliberate style of reading. It may not be the silver turtle that would reverse all of our country’s literacy trends, but it’s worth a shot.

At least our county’s school curriculum heads think so. They had all of the county’s English and Language Arts teachers meet together for the first time last month in order to hear Gallagher present his approach to teaching reading. This school year, all of our high school students will spend twenty minutes of each English class practicing silent reading. Our students will keep a reading log and will compete with other students and classes. The year-long competition is designed in part to reach some of the more competitive and less literate male students.

Fortunately, this school-wide marathon takes three major detours from the usual route these things run. First, the competition is based on time, not pages. Patrick can settle into a poem, giving it three, perhaps four reads, and he’ll receive as much credit as the speed reader sitting next to him. The second difference is that no teacher will be testing or otherwise assessing the students on what they read. We’ll ask students to match the twenty minutes in class with at least twenty minutes at home, and we’ll tell that they are only cheating themselves if they misrepresent their time spent reading. This self-policing, then, will be a way for kids to take more ownership of their education and to feel the pleasure of reading without fear of tests or other assessments. The third difference is that teachers have to model reading during the twenty-minute class time. I was somewhat annoyed by this at first — I have lots to do during a school day — but then I realized that my pleasure reading will no longer have to wait for the summer!

Gallagher has taught high school English for about twenty years, and he has put his ideas into practice in an inner-city high school in Anaheim. He seems to have made lifelong readers out of some of the steet-wise as well as some of the game-system-wise teens he has taught. He gave up an administrative position in his school system in order to return to the classroom a few years ago. His classroom experience makes him a credible and entertaining speaker. His book and presentation are also largely free of trendy educational buzzwords that tend to reinforce the public’s impression of education school as a facility for repackaging the obvious.

Gallagher’s methods and ideas are not often goundbreaking, but they are numerous and practical. His methods are also laid out in chapters defined by the logical stages a reader goes through in getting to know a text. This order tends to keep teachers focused on the process of reading, which is something Gallagher wants to introduce his students to as well. His chapters follow his flow chart for teaching challenging texts: framing beforehand, reading carefully, returning to the text, collaborating in the classroom, and responding metaphorically and reflectively.

Gallagher believes in a close link between reading and writing. The link is undeniable, but books about writing generally discuss it only in terms of how close reading can lead to modeling style and in terms of how writing can clarify and enhance reading. Gallagher, though, talks of how the activities of reading and writing are similar. He argues that both should be consciously taught, both should be reflected upon by the student at every stage, and both should require editing.

English teachers know that giving writing assignments without teaching writing skills beforehand leads to a set of bad papers to grade. Most of us may not have figured out that giving reading assignments without teaching reading skills beforehand leads to poor comprehension of the text. Like most English teachers, Gallagher probably set out to be a literature teacher, but he has since redefined himself as a literacy teacher. He thinks we are fooling ourselves if we think the job of teaching reading falls on teachers through only the third grade.

Gallagher has students go through activities designed to give them things to connect with as they open new books. He gives students specific themes or events to look out for while they are reading. He gets downright excited about confusion.

Every teacher is familiar with this interaction at the beginning of class:

“I tried reading [whatever] last night but I didn’t understand it.”

“What part didn’t you understand?”

“All of it.”

I learned quickly not to ask the above question, but I never really knew what else to do.

Gallagher, though, asks the question, and challenges the answer.

“Well, did you understand the first word?”

[Resigned sigh.] “Yes, Mr. Gallagher.”

“How about the first sentence?” And on he goes in a serious attempt at teaching students to be more conscious of themselves reading. An experienced reader realizes she is lost and returns to where she made a wrong turn. Not so an inexperienced reader. He is more likely to head off into oblivion with no sense of where he left the road. For these students, a book, a short story, or a set of bicycle assembly instructions is either something they monolithically get or don’t get.

Part of the metacognition (okay, there were a few buzzwords) Gallagher wishes to teach his students comes from having them become cool with confusion. He teaches students to become aware of and comfortable with their confusion by showing them how to color code text, how to fill out trouble slips, and how to prepare for discussion groups by filling out sentence starters such as “I don’t understand…,” “I noticed…,” and “I’m surprised that…” As a result, students begin to watch themselves read.

Good writing requires second drafts, and so does good reading, Gallagher believes. American students grow up in a culture that puts little value on reading anything once, much less twice. Some of us teachers have been satisfied with even our best students’ attitudes of “I read it; I’m done.” Gallagher allows them no such quarter:

Students need to return to the text to help them overcome their initial confusion, to work through the unfamiliarity of the work, to move beyond the literal, and to free up cognitive space for higher-level thinking.

Gallagher teaches the benefits of rereading on a small scale first. He shows students information that we take in too readily at our peril, such as advertisements and published statistics, and asks students to reread the material to find out what was not said as well as what was meant. For larger works, he assigns time lines layered with predictions, falling dominoes demonstrating plot progression, or positive-negative charts for tracking specific literary elements to foster a text’s second reading.

At every stage of the reading process, Gallagher wishes to open the world of metaphor to his students. Middle and high school students are concrete thinkers, generally, but we do them a disservice if we don’t push them towards more abstract thought through such means as metaphor. He compares the power of “Wow! Isn’t Juliet pretty!” with these lines from every ninth grade English textbook published in the last century or so:

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.

Metaphor such as Romeo’s pushes the reader to a new level of understanding. Gallagher gets students to think a bit more like Shakespeare by having them put some abstract and concrete nouns in separate columns and then having them associate words in the two columns with sentences based on “[Abstract noun] is like [concrete noun] because _________ .” Once students are familiar with this kind of thinking, Gallagher has them discover metaphors for things in an assigned text, such as the seen and unseen sides of a character’s personality. “Hamlet is like a see-saw because…” / “Hamlet is like a calculator because…” The exercise can become a prewriting strategy for an essay that a student might find easier to write than she might otherwise expect.

I teach to introduce something of slow reading to kids. It has often seemed an elusive goal. Many English teachers, including me, foam at the mouth extolling the beauty of something they see in a text, but the kids generally see only another deranged teacher. I do like seeing some wry grins and hearing a brave comment or two when I foam at the mouth — I figure I’m modeling a love for learning — but I really want them to see something of what I see in the text, too. Better said, I want them to see something different than what I see, but to see it at something like the depth of a mature reader. I can’t change their age, push along their life experience, or myelenate their cranial nerves before their time. With Mr. Gallagher’s encouragement, though, perhaps I can help clear paths to metaphorical and abstract thought that may lead to richer and more reflective adult lives.


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Posted September 2006