Author Archives: zsander


My original proposal was meant to explore the methods undertaken to improve reading ability, and their effectiveness. So far it’s been an ever-unfolding investigation where I’ve found some of my old ideas (like giving students choices to improve readership) were not so simple (it’s not just about choice; It’s also interest, motivation, and other, less tangible factors as well).

The more I read about all the attempts to improve reading, the more it starts to look like Hercules trying to cut the heads off of the Hydra. For every new idea trotted out, more complications arise from the various options explored to help students. Multiple tools for reading and learning mean an ever-increasing need for multiple literacies as well—not just the literal ability to read and write, but the ability to understand and make efficient use of new tools meant to enhance literacy and reading. Everyone’s obsessed with the latest gadgetry, apps, and tools meant to improve and ease our lives, but for students (and sometimes educators too), there’s a learning curve with all that technology.

Little-known historical fact: Iolaus was also Hercules’ T.A.

Are the simplest methods easiest? It may seem a trivial solution to just hand students stacks of books to encourage more reading when they have the time. James Kim’s ‘Effects of a Summer Reading Intervention’ examined the availability of printed reading material and its effect on the abilities of students who were given more opportunity to read. By providing several recreational texts to students who might lapse or regress in their reading, the program in this study was able to help students improve their reading proficiencies, especially those who were non-white and/or of low socioeconomic status (and thus without as much reading material as the more affluent families). This sort of ‘intervention’ required only that basic textual literacy, a self-reinforcing trait—the more you read, the more you can read—but programs like this only shore up reading deficiencies, and then only by handing students a heap of books and saying, “Here, read these.”

Where’s Levar Burton when you need him?

In the search for more streamlined methods, some people point to modern technology and computer-based instruction. And indeed, use of the computer as the popular teaching tool has dramatically increased in the last several years, but in comparison to traditional materials, just how helpful is this methodology? Alison Kuehner’s investigation into computer instruction and its influence on reading skills takes a look at the computer rather than books as the fount of knowledge and inspiration, claiming that the use of computers may act as a time-saving tool for reading (although precisely how, she didn’t say), and improve vocabulary and comprehension through specialized programs (not to mention all that reading on one screen just being good because, well, it’s all that reading on one screen). Sounds good and fast, and better than a pile of books, right? Not necessarily. Computers crash, programming is inflexible, and costly machines and software become outdated. The article also says the claims are still countered or debated by naysayers, who point to multiple studies on computer use having lacked controls. Students were highly interested in using computers, but that doesn’t meant this method was effective. Some instruction was also skewed to guiding the student users—essentially, taking more time to teach them or using tutorials, which means they needed to give students further “literacy” in those educational programs too.

Reading on how to read? I must be dreaming.

It’s all well and good to have more and different tools in your kit (better to have an inverse ratchet samophlange and not need it), but aside from whether or not these tools are effective, what if students don’t know how to make the best use of them—or any use at all? In the case of learning to use continually-updating series of computer-based reading and writing programs, students need a different sort of literacy to go with the traditional one—a meta-literacy of sorts, and one that needs constant updating to go with new programs and tools. My own college career has shifted over time, transitioning from a concentration in handwritten materials and texts, toward a greater emphasis on blogs, websites, online reading and writing activities and more. Leu and company mention this change in  ‘Toward a Theory of New Literacies’: “Many graduates started their school career with the literacies of paper, pencil, and book technologies but will finish having encountered the literacies demanded by a wide variety of information and communication technologies.” Improving reading ability by providing more access to materials and methods (instead of just hoping students will improve by just reading traditional texts) is a great goal and a useful means to an end, but this rapidly evolving suite of technologies has forced me (and countless other students) to have to become literate in those new tools as well—then possibly abandon each tool and its literacy thanks to planned obsolescence or the next trendy idea. We risk getting caught up in the technology rather than making judicious use of it.

Ye mythical samophlange shall solve all thy reading dilemmas… and ne’er shall be obsolete!

Does a new computer with the latest reading application actually make the instructor’s job easier or provide another obstacle to the instructor’s work? Does it improve students’ reading ability, or do they have to become literate in its use before they can apply it to their studies? There’s an ever-growing need to provide constant access to reading materials and means, whether physical or electronic, as well as an accompanying growth in the ability and time to make use of them. Is there a way to integrate all this into the classroom, from childhood onward? Computer literacy classes are a start, but what about improved access throughout the curriculum, a general trend rather than one or two focused courses (similar to reading and writing across the curriculum, rather than a minor set of composition-only classes)? We can hand students all the books or technology we think will help, but aside from the general aim—getting them to read—how best can we make genuine, consistent, effective use of all these materials? Is it even possible?

Yo Dawg, I heard you liked critical analysis, so we put a book in your computer so you can read while you read…

We can tailor classes to include tutorials on computer and application usage, but not every student is going to come in knowing how to use them at the same literacy level—just as every student’s reading  ability is unique. The mention of Snow’s Aptitude Treatment Interaction stood out to me in our last lecture in regard to this. That extra time needed to teach this meta-literacy to students will either take too long (for students already versed in it) or not enough time (for students with less previous experience). Having to customize that education for each student adds unnecessary complication, and the march of technology means dealing with the risk of obsolescence (Apple IIs, anyone?) or changes in popularity (MySpace? What’s that?) or just not being all that useful (I’m looking at you, Google+), in addition to traditional lesson planning and education. Meanwhile (as someone said out loud during this week’s class), you can still teach using the same book twenty years after print (and it doesn’t crash, run out of battery power, fall prey to a virus, or fail to patch). It seems best to keep technology in order to supplement, not supplant. There’s no need to burden either students or educators with more technology to ‘help’ students read when, as Kuehner’s study would suggest, the only tools you may really need are a text and a competent instructor.


Blog the Sixth: “I Will Choose Free Will” … or Will I?

Speaking personally, I’ve always felt better about work I must perform when there’s been an element of choice involved. Even if faced with a range of unappealing options, I still get to make the best of the situation if I get to pick one I find least difficult, or at least arrange them in an order I prefer.

It could be worse...

As I’ve mentioned before in both my previous posting and the in-class literacy activity, choice is very important to me, and has also seemed helpful in my own education, so I believe that idea could likewise be extended to other students. This concept is also one that’s undergone rigorous examination by more qualified individuals than myself, in a variety of carefully conducted studies, so it’s not just my personal belief in the idea and personal curiosity in whether it extends to others.

Flowerday, Schraw and Stevens’ ‘The Role of Choice and Interest in Reader Engagement‘ investigates this concept quite thoroughly. In this article they say that psychologists and educators alike agree on the positivity involved in having a choice. Various sources they have examined state that “Students learn more or perform more efficiently when given choices” and “report more enjoyment in learning.” (94) and that teachers “believe it increases motivation, effort, and learning.” (94) Their work even goes further, asking an important question about choice in reading: is it the opportunity for the actual choice itself the thing that improves performance, or is it the level of interest in what one has chosen? Apparently many previous studies conflated the two, rather than clearly separating and examining the two concepts and possible effects on one another (and the affected individual). This actually caught me by surprise, because I had never clearly thought of it in that way. The most clearly I had been able to articulate on the matter was that I picked the things that interested me the most, and enjoyed my work all the more for being able to make the choice.

You've got your Choice in my Interest! No, you've got your Interest in my Choice!

There is continuing debate over whether or not choice actually does improve performance, but overall attitude, motivation, and engagement with the subject material definitely improves (95).  Meanwhile, interest in the material improves engagement, recall of the text’s main ideas and ability to critically apply that information (96). (As an aside, students with lower interest were better at memorizing micro-details and raw data—facts and figures—but no mention is made of critical application). Interest is also subdivided into topic and situation; that is, the material itself, or its presentation (novelty, structure, etc). Both of these subcategories were seen as positive effectors for engagement and learning.

With these factors in mind, Flowerday et al performed a set of experiments in which they gave a pool of students a choice between two packets of reading materials (unbeknownst to them, the packets were the same either way), followed by an interest survey; a multiple-choice review test; a pair of short essays to respectively describe content of, and reaction to, the text; and a final attitude checklist. A second pool of students was given either one packet or the other, with no choice allowed (but with the remaining materials and procedures the same). The experiment was repeated with a few alterations (reading material and related multiple-choice test questions, with a possible effect on situational interest). Scores were compared for the various tests and essays, along with measures of topic interest; situational interest; and attitude. In either case, by keeping the contents of the reading secret (since both packets had the same materials and were just labeled A or B), this study removed the possibility of interest as a confound, and was able to look purely at whether choice itself was a useful factor in determining student efficacy (and whether it had an effect on interest as well).

They did the math, so you don't have to.

In both cases, they found that students in both choice and non-choice groups scored closely with each other on all tests (with the exception of the non-choice students scoring higher on the descriptive essay—possibly related to the phenomenon of non-choosing students and connection to data rather than critical application of information). The overall conclusions made were that situational interest did have an effect on attitude and engagement, while topical interest was a much lesser factor. Choice itself, however, had very little measurable effect on performance (although the article does concede that low-stakes testing like these experiments may not be the best measure of the efficacy of choice).

For me (and apparently for many educators, as the article concluded), this goes against some of what I believed I knew. The difference between choice and interest also helped me to understand that, yes, I choose mostly what interests me most (or disinterests me least); if I were given a blind-choice test like the students above, I might actually be annoyed at not knowing what I was getting into (or feel like it’s not much of a choice when I don’t know what my options really are). Choice may not necessarily be the end-all-be-all in improving student reading and performance. In some cases, choice might even present ‘option paralysis’ or discourage students, or perhaps even distress those who expect more direct control from their instructors (though this may be a culturally-situated idea). Interest, meanwhile, seems to be what helps students to do better. What can we take from this? At the very least, that educators have a responsibility to lead, not just open the gates and hope their charges find their way.

Not exactly the kind of 'Shepard' I had in mind...

Further examination of choice vs interest is definitely in order, but this article and its related experiments did go a long way toward separating the two. Educators are not one-hundred-percent responsible for finding ways to help motivate their students and improve their attitude and performance, but they do share some of the burden. Choice might still be useful (within a very narrow range, kept in appropriate context, and used judiciously), but at the very least, judging by this study, keeping them interested is a large part of the process.

Blog #5: Enjoyment and Efficacy

At all levels of education, students are expected to read as part of their classwork or homework. They’re supposed to be able to comprehend and make use of their assigned reading, whether for discourse, critical analysis, or any number of essays or research papers. Yet, I don’t think it’s enough that students should *have* to read in order to complete their assignments—mandatory reading is fine and understood and assumed to be part of the curriculum. Instead, students should *want*to read in order to improve their understanding, not just because they must do so, but because they find it enjoyable and of genuine fascination or interest, rather than a desultory slog through yet another article in order to glean whatever details they need just to complete their work.

I’m a nonstop reader, but when I’ve been handed an assignment, told to read and report back, it’s admittedly sometimes been a bit of a challenge. I’m sure we all know students can sometimes feel like automatons, fed in data for analysis without much choice in the matter, and if they don’t have much interest in the subject, then they don’t engage well, they don’t assimilate that information, and don’t make good use of it. GIGO.

This is, of course, not a new problem at all. As one of the pieces I’ve studied shows, the desire to encourage students to increase their autonomy and enjoyment in reading has been around for decades, presumably even longer. Clarence Calder’s “Self-Directed Reading Materials”, from 1967, goes into some detail in the effort to understand the phenomenon. His study involved allowing students to choose from a selection of reading materials for an assignment (versus a control group with non-chosen, assigned reading), and offered two hypotheses: first, that self-directed students will improve their reading over the directed students; and second, that self-directed students would “develop a more positive attitude toward reading” (248) than the control group.

Although Calder’s results (carefully analyzed for statistical significance) fell short of his first hypothesis, the experiment did indeed show that those students given a choice of reading/task materials ended up actually enjoying reading more, and feeling more positive about doing so, even with difficult vocabulary or unusual tasks. They may not have advanced significantly compared to their peers in this short period, but an overall good attitude toward one’s own effectiveness and willingness  is a very important step in any  task, including reading. Calder’s study is decades old, but the point still stands.

In a way, this also dovetails with the literacy assignment my group detailed before the class just last week. Our proposed exercise did not just give a single task or prompt to the theoretical students/class, but instead offered an array of choices that still conformed to the general demands of the assignment. The exercise was not open-ended, either, thus resulting in what some call “option paralysis”; by offering a limited selection, the student would have the ability to choose the reading that interests them the most, thus increasing their desire to do the reading (and perhaps supplementing it with additional materials if they so chose).

One thing I’ve found is that accomplishing one task does actually promote a feeling of confidence and achievement, thus increasing the chance that any other related work may proceed with greater efficacy. If a student has a little freedom, exercises those options and enjoys doing so, they’ll likely feel better about future assignments as well. Granted, there’s still some restriction in what their choices are, but this is of necessity. Too little and the restriction may reduce that chance of success and increased confidence due to frustration; too much choice (or total freedom of choice) and they may come back with something entirely unsuited to the curriculum, or no reading at all. Students still need some direction, though some might also call it the illusion of choice, but it seems to have worked 45 years ago, and is likely to continue to be a successful tactic in encouraging readership.

You can get a horse to… a library… wait, that’s not it…

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink it,” so the old saying goes. So too, can you assign plenty of reading to a student’s syllabus or schedule, but you can’t make them read it, much less synthesize any useful meaning from those assignments. Reading is as the core of our educational system, the primary means by which we disseminate information, stimulate learning, and provide topics and contexts for students to base their own writing in turn. But how can you get a student to read?

Even I admit to having some trouble with this from time to time, years after beginning my post-secondary education (and hell, even during my primary and secondary). Even as a recreational reader, I wasn’t that interested in some of the abstruse, abstract, absurd material teachers handed us (and I’m sure that the other students who didn’t read for pleasure were even less interested). I enjoyed my own reading, as well as reading ahead through our class texts, finding pieces which drew me to them, not just those which were joylessly slogged through after being assigned. (as an aside, I remember being chastised, and once even *penalized* for reading ahead. How dare I?)

People (and students) are motivated by the things that interest them. Students choose courses, majors, and paths of study because of what they want, not because of some outside source telling them what to do (well, aside from the structure of necessary majoring programs, or oppressive parents saying they can be anything they want as long as it’s a doctor). Students become most effective when they are allowed a degree of freedom, and allowed to express themselves and their interests and their points of view on subject matter when they are given choices (heck, just take a look at how this assignment in particular has shaped that concept).

To that end, I’ll be looking further into this phenomenon (although I might be altering my own reading list from time to time of course), seeing how self-motivation, choice, etc. help to improve students’ reading and thus, their efficacy in learning as well. I’ve already done some preliminary reading, and a few links below (though some are a little dated, so it’ll certainly not hurt to find more).

Effects of a Voluntary Summer Reading Intervention on Reading Achievement: Results from a Randomized Field Trial

Self-Directed Reading Materials

The Role of Choice and Interest in Reader Engagement

Self-Directed Student Groups and College Learning

Influencing Postsecondary Students’ Motivation to Learn in the Classroom

Response to Blog Post #1

My original post examined the difference between the more rigidly defined uses of language and communication in French students, versus the looser, more informal and emotive writing done by American students, outside the typical written/classroom format, in blog postings or instant messages. The differences between the usual formal styles of expression and explanation, and the less rigid behaviors practiced outside traditional academic structure seem like different ways of dressing language, code switching.

James Gee’s article, ‘Reading as Situated Language’ did actually answer some of the curiosity I had in mind about these differences in expression. His beginning statement that, “It is often claimed that the idea of human language is to convey information,” sounds almost like a way of explaining what we are trying to do with our academic writing and speaking structures—present a formalized way of giving information to others in our fields of study. However, he immediately counters this, and goes on to explain the point of view that language is, as we discussed in the class, an expression of experience, not just information.

This turned out to be a really in-depth discussion, one that I hadn’t had before in such detail with so many other people, and I found it quite useful in reinforcing that idea. It also reminded me of a quote from a science fiction book I have somewhere in my collection (and unfortunately I can’t remember where or which book just now), but one character says something to another along the lines of, “You know, all conversations are basically people exchanging stories.”

Communication is just that: telling the story of our experience to another person, whether in speech or writing (or occasionally song or even other non verbal means). The emotional tone that the American students used seems to me to have been an easier one, outside the more rigidly defined academic structures, because it allowed more expression for them. We often create meaning by trying to convey to others just how strongly something affects us emotionally, and that has to be done either by finding the right words (and sometimes words fail us, as we find), or expressing emotively. It’s plainly obvious that the more invested someone is in an idea, the more vociferously they’ll speak to defend it, or the more emotionally active they’ll be in trying to convey the experience to another. Even negatively affecting experiences or ideas will give us reason to emote, whether in anger or disgust or boredom or frustration (sometimes because the idea or experience being examined is either of a disagreeable type or because it’s not being communicated to US clearly enough for our tastes).

The use of emotional language or expression, and emotive grammar (like ? and !) in the American students non-formal blog/forum/instant message was a way for them to try to convey their point of view in a less restrictive fashion. In formal academic language, it’s often difficult to get across just how something affects the writer or speaker because of the way our language is codified. We’re supposed to use big words, don’t run on, stay away from personal statements, anecdotes, or the use of “I”—be part of an unemotional, didactic collective. But sometimes, when you read something that’s been written, you can see, just a little, how someone’s writing is trying to ¬still get across how they feel about it, whether negative or positive, and with that attempt masked behind formal academic language, the expression can come off seeming a little sterile or bland.

I can’t speak for the French students’ more formal behavior, even outside rigorous classroom speech/writing (aside from instant messaging, where the rigor breaks down because it comes to two people interacting, if not face-to-face, then at least mind-to-mind). Perhaps American students do fulfill a bit of the overeager, gung-ho “U-S-A!” type, and I can’t exactly say why that is. Maybe it’s just a cultural identity thing, which would take a great deal more examination of psychology, history, culture, etc. But every bit of writing and speech (or other expression) is about trying to get our point across, and sometimes rigid language, while a useful framework for organizing thought, is also potentially a framework for restricting thought, or at least restricting the expression of that thought. No wonder some students get fed up with academic language, frustration borne of inexperience or displeasure at its potential inadequacies for expression. Even I do from time to time, and I’ve been using the structure for more years than I care to think about :]

13-year-old student writes essay, gets award, school kicks her out…

Quote: “Long story short, they took an exceptional student, with the radical idea that kids should learn to read, and put her in a school of throwaway students who are even more unmanageable than the average student in her previous school.”

All this just happened within the last month, an event which I find incredible and disturbing. Her concluding phrase in her essay that asks for students to learn, and teachers to do their part, apparently was just too much for the faculty to stand. <sarcasm> How dare she call out any educational deficiencies or encourage students to read and teachers to give their all. </sarcasm>

Signs, Objects, Mind, and Reading

“The brain does much more than just recollect. It inter-compares, it synthesizes, it analyzes, it generates abstractions.” — Carl Sagan

It interests me that one cannot think about thinking, without thinking about thinking about thinking. It gets more complex from there; metacognition, to me, becomes something like that weird effect you get when you open your bathroom’s medicine cabinet and point its mirror toward another reflective surface. This endless hall of mirrors springs up, a matryoshka-doll-mirror-continuum.

This came to mind when I was looking over Rosenblatt’s “Writing and Reading” and her discussion of how reading seems to work. She first mentions the French semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure and his assertion of the “signifier and signified” (Dyadic) relationship in communication; she then compares it to Charles Sanders Peirce and his own interpretation of language as a three-way connection, between object, signifier, and the mind (of the individual examining the concept).

What further interested me was the examination of the reading process later on in the article, examining the ‘transaction’ occurring between the writing and the reader, and comparing it to McVee et al.’s ‘Schema Theory Revisited’ wherein they talk about “mental structures … activated and organized during the reading process” (p.542), an idea developed in 70s/80s era schema theory.

The thing that stands out to me is that reading, as an attempt to create meaning from a text, is a metacognitive act in and of itself. It seems that it’s not about an interaction between mind, sign, and the object, but about mind <–> sign… or, since schema and language are things constructed in the mind from experience, then mind <–> mind, a back-and-forth transaction between one part of the reader’s mind and another that examines the part doing the reading.

Reading and the construction of meaning, then, isn’t so much about interacting with text as it is about interacting with oneself (or at least, oneself’s experience or point of view). Perhaps this is just another way of looking at Peirce’s Mind <–> Sign <–> Object interrelation, but I can’t help but think there’s something else here. Am I missing something? Has much examination been done regarding this idea? Since I myself haven’t had a great deal of exposure to semiotic-semantic studies, I can’t really say as yet…