Recently, someone at a major education technology company approached me with this query:

"We're looking to create something to address the needs of those middle school readers who can decode text, but aren't really comprehending. What can you suggest?"

This is an issue I address in the first chapter of my (just released!) book, Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach, and in this adapted excerpt from the first chapter over at Middleweb.  At the risk of oversimplifying what's involved in reading, I believe that the vast majority of students who can decode but don't seem to comprehend what they read are basically not paying any attention to what they read. They aren't actually experiencing the stories; they are simply scanning words on a page.  Many students have been cut off from stories in their reading for a long time (often focusing instead on strategies), so they don't associate the sensation of experiencing a good story with the act of reading.

How can we remedy this?  I don't think there are many tricks or shortcuts.  The answer is to give them stories--lots of them.  Help them reconnect reading with the feeling of following a good plot. Give them stories in a variety of forms, from the oral telling of folk tales, to reading picture books and longer stories aloud, to films, to graphic novels, to shorter and longer novels. I always begin with folk tales and include picture books in my curriculum, no matter the age of my students, to help them reconnect the oral form with the written forms of storytelling. 

Also, when it comes to students making the jump to hearing or seeing stories to reading books on their own, let them read something they can relate to. (Choice is great, but not always better than an appropriate teacher-selected title.) This cuts down on the amount of mental work the student needs to put in to "get the story."  If they have to focus attention on following the plot and also assimilating a lot of new information about something with which they have litte experience, it will be too much at first.  Move gradually from texts that allow for easy identification with main characters to texts that at first seem more foreign (even though most literature eventually helps us reflect back us back on our own realities).

Does letting students have stories conflict with the Common Core Standards? No! First, the skills of fiction reading transfer to non fiction (more on this in a later post.  Trust me; I'm working on it!)  Second, once students are hooked into fictional stories, you can easily draw connections to real world topics that connect to the stories in non fiction texts, and students will have a clear purpose for reading the non fiction, which is usually a prereqisite for effective reading of non fiction.  Third, the Common Core standards for English Language Arts require more non fiction than we've seen in the past, but this is across content areas, as David Coleman and Susan Pimental clarified almost a year ago. This means we need to collaborate with content area teachers, not that we should stop teaching fiction!

Let them read stories!

[cross posted at]  

AuthorAriel Sacks