Start with the Parents: How Teaching Literacy Skills to Parents is Imperative to Child Reading Success

 For the last several weeks, I have been contemplating what kind of impact parents’ literacy skills have on the reading ability of their children.  After I completed extensive research and careful investigation of this topic, I realized that a parent with high literacy skills, who actually uses these skills when reading to his or her children, will be more likely to have a child who has better emergent literacy skills at a young age.  Although this fact seems obvious, the reasons for these findings are not as straightforward as they might seem.  Before I started this research, I believed that simply reading to a child was enough to improve their literacy skills later in life.  However, each of the three longitudinal studies that I read argued that there is actually a weak correlation between frequency of reading to a child and emergent literacy success when researchers control for all other variables.  Simply reading to a child will not guarantee that you have the next voracious reader on your hands.  The next logical question any current or future parent (or concerned citizen) might ask is, how can I increase the chances of my child being a reading superstar?


To find the answer to this question, I investigated three longitudinal studies that all looked at family literacy activities (between parents and children in the home), as well as children’s various successes as they become older (look here, here, here, or here if you want to read them for yourself; Evans, Shaw, & Bell, 2000).  All of these studies were quite extensive, with various forms of observation, questionnaires, and interviews to determine the type of literacy activities practiced in the home.  Additionally, each of these studies followed children for a long period of time to see which emergent literacy skills developed, and whether or not these skills met the original expectations of the researchers.


Most of the original studies that led to this idea that simply reading to children will increase their reading ability, focused on the frequency and not the quality of storybook reading activities (like this one).  However, after further research, all three of these detailed studies concluded that two types of reading activities typically happen in the home.  Informal literacy interactions, which consist of storybook reading that is done just for the content and enjoyment of the story, was found to influence a child’s speaking skills, but not their reading or writing skills (and thus does not directly impact a child’s reading ability).  On the other hand, formal literacy interactions, or parent teaching, where a parent focuses on the form of the language rather than the meaning of a story, was found to directly impact a child’s reading and writing ability (Look here,  here, here, or here for more info).  As a result, the research shows that parents need to actually teach literacy skills to their children in order to prepare them to be successful readers later in life.  Reading a story every night without ever stopping to focus on the letters of the alphabet or sounds in each word may, in fact, not raise a good reader.


Although the studies I read were incredibly thought-provoking, there were certain areas where they came short in terms of my areas of interest with ESL parents.  First of all, all three longitudinal studies controlled for parental literacy so that they were able to simply see the correlation between formal and informal literacy activities, and child reading success.  Although I appreciate and understand the need to control for literacy in these studies, the research is definitely lacking in terms of a study that looks at these factors without controlling for the literacy of the parents.  Despite the fact that I’m sure that I already know the answer, it would be interesting to see a study that did not control for literacy, and therefore was able to determine whether less literate parents were less likely to practice formal literacy activities in the home, and vice versa.  If that study were done, it would be easy to argue for the need for parent literacy classes that would allow parents to feel empowered to practice formal literacy skills with their children at home.


Another shortcoming with these studies, in terms of my area of interest with ESL students, is that many of these implications cannot easily be transferred to parents who do not have the linguistic capacity to engage in formal literacy activities with their children, especially in English.  All of the research about parents reading to their children and/or focusing on formal literacy activities implies that it is possible for parents to engage in both types of activities, which is simply not true for low-literate or nonnative speakers of English (if the child is expected to go to school in the United States, and thus acquire emergent reading skills in English).  As a result, I have come up with a few ideas of how to expand these studies, to include parents who do not currently have the linguistic ability to practice formal and informal literacy activities with their children at home.  If these studies were done, it would be easy to see the correlation between literacy ability and the frequency of these literacy activities in the home, and a stronger argument could be made for giving parents the literacy skills they need to help their children succeed.


When I first started investigating this topic, I wanted to focus on simply all ESL learners who do not currently have the ability to engage in formal literacy activities with their children because they do not have the educational background or knowledge of the English language to do so.  However, that broad focus brought up another issue that still needs to be investigated.  What if these same parents were literate in their first languages, and were able to teach literacy skills to their children using books and resources in their native language?  In this case, would a child still be more likely to be a successful reader of English once he or she entered school and started learning more about the English language?  Is it the actual lessons in literacy that are important, or the lessons in English literacy that make a difference?  Furthermore, could a parent who has knowledge of the spoken English language but is lacking in English literacy skills, still pass on strong literacy skills to his or her child?  Or is it the actual literacy that makes all of the difference?


In exploring these questions, I turned to a study that looked at emergent literacy skills in children of immigrants who come from a primarily oral culture.  This study focused much more on the issues I was investigating, with the other longitudinal studies, by looking at the ways that the “cumulative effects of poverty, oral home culture, parental inability to mediate language and literacy, and non-optimal conditions for becoming bilingual place young immigrant children at risk for academic failure early on.”  (It is important to note that this is not referring to all immigrant children, but primarily those with parents who are unable to help them acquire the literacy skills they need to be successful in school.)  These parents are restricted in their ability to enhance and transmit literacy skills to their children, which, looking at the findings from the studies listed above, implies that the children will not have the same emergent literacy success as their peers who receive informal and formal literacy instruction from their parents at home.  This study found that parents with low-literacy levels were more likely to have children who were not successful readers in school, whereas parents who had higher levels of literacy (but all other variables the same), were more likely to have children who had higher emergent literacy skills.


If I were able to conduct further research in this area, I would like to combine the nature of both of these areas of study to get to the heart of the question that I truly want to investigate.  I would have three groups of parents, those with high literacy abilities in English, those with low-literacy abilities in English but high literacy abilities in their native languages, and those with low-literacy abilities in any language.  I would conduct a study that researched the frequency and type of both formal and informal literacy activities occurring in the home (just like the three longitudinal studies mentioned above).  I would then look at the results to determine the frequency of formal and informal literacy activities for each of the three groups, as well as the emergent literacy skills for their perspective children.  Finally, I would investigate this data to see which factors had the largest results in terms of determining child reading success.


It would be interesting to know whether parents who have high literacy abilities in English but do not frequently engage in formal literacy activities with their children are more likely to raise successful readers than parents with lower literacy skills in English but more frequent formal literacy interaction with their children in their native language.  Additionally, it would be useful to know just how much of a detriment it is for children to have parents who are unable to teach them formal literacy skills in any language.


All of these findings would help me argue the point that I have wanted to make since I first started on this inquiry.  In my opinion, we need to help the parents in our society acquire the skills they need to be successful readers, before we can expect all of the children in our schools to have an equal chance to succeed.  Once children enter school and begin to learn literacy skills from their Kindergarten teacher, they are already years behind their peers who have been engaging in formal and informal literacy activities with their parents since they were first born.  We should be helping parents acquire English literacy, from the very moment they arrive in the United States.  This instruction should not take over their native language, or force people to learn what they are not ready to learn.  However, if parents want their children to be successful readers, which is a necessary foundation to be successful students, both formal and informal literacy activities need to take place in the home from a very young age.  Only parents who have the knowledge and education to engage in those literacy activities themselves will be able to help their children on this journey.  As a result, I believe it is imperative that we start with the parents, and teach literacy skills that will help their children be successful readers and learners, for generations to come.



Blog 7 or What I Learned about Student Motivation in 1,000 Words

My blog project focused on best practices in terms of fostering student reading motivation. My inquiry has led to shocking revelations!


OK, not really, but there was one nice surprise. One of the dominant ideologies I’ve encountered in the field of composition is that teachers should always strive to be as non-directive as possible. It is best, I’ve been told by some instructors, to let students struggle alone to build competence in academic reading and writing. To me, however, this does not make a lot of sense. Why wait for students to reinvent the wheel? As instructors, we know there are some nifty little strategies out there to help students read more effectively. Why not share and help students feel empowered and good about the knowledge they are gaining?

As a student, I’ve learned very productively with a more direct style of instruction. Having someone explain where I am going wrong and offer some strategies to help me solve problems is empowering. Conversely, the power dynamic feels weird when instructors withhold knowledge about strategies and techniques. It’s like the teacher is the holder of some esoteric, priestly knowledge that I, a mere novice, haven’t earned access to yet. What is this? The Church of Scientology? I’ll pass on the kool-aid, thanks, just gimme the tools.

As a tutor and teacher, I’ve also had good success, provided my interaction is in a coaching/collaborative style, as opposed to an authority figure throwing down the readin’ and writin’ absolutist laws. My view is that learning should be collaborative. We are adults in college. We should share knowledge, not hoard it. That said, the middle way seems the wise choice. Students do need to struggle to build their skills in reading and writing. I just think we should support them in their struggles by giving them the tools to succeed.


So, lo and behold,  I was thrilled to review Dawson R. Hancock’s Influencing Postsecondary Students’ Motivation to Learn in the Classroom. Hancock did a study published in College Teaching that looks at highly structured versus unstructured classrooms and their impact on student motivation.  She finds that students who are self-motivated, abstract thinkers need less direction. However, for students who tend to think more concretely, teacher direction increases motivation.

In my second blog on motivation, I reviewed Understanding the Motivation Problems of At-Risk College Students by Donna L. Mealey. Her work – as the title cleverly suggests! – examines reading motivation in high-risk populations.

This article provides a brief review of the literature on this topic. Mealey asserts that students with a history of poor academic achievement can improve their performance if they can learn to:

  • Take responsibility for their own learning,
  • Recognize that their success or failure is determined by the level of effort they invest, and
  • View themselves as college learners.

Mealey argues that low-achieving students arrive with negative beliefs about themselves that impede their success. If students do not believe they can be successful, they will lack the motivation to work hard enough to be successful. This seems pretty obvious. Who wants to work hard at something you think you will fail at no matter how hard you try?

She also explores the impact of metacognitive reading practices. It turns out it’s all about student-driven inquiry as well as the students’ sense of control over their own learning. To help students become aware, metacognitive learners, she suggests the use of journaling techniques that can help students increase their awareness of their beliefs about learning and that allow for the exploration of their motivations, attitudes, time-management and study skills and emotions. The ultimate goal here is to put students in the driver’s seat of their own learning process. This all sounds good, but, just sayin’, I found the methodology a bit weak in Mealey’s study. She did not conduct any new research on her topic and her conclusions and recommended learning strategies are derivative. Moreover, if her intent is to provide a review of the literature, she reviews a pretty paltry number of sources. Okay, got that off my chest, and movin’ on.

Numerous other articles, as well as our class discussions, have improved my understanding of motivation practices in reading.  Here are some highlights:

Get to know your students. One-to-one conferences, journals, diagnostics, etc., can help you understand the needs of a diverse student population and tailor the class work to meet divergent needs. Making a conscious effort to build community is important too. Conferences and classroom dialogue can help you connect with students. Facilitate students getting to know each other as well. Horizontal relationships can allow unmotivated students to be inspired and coached by motivated students. Motivated students might get even more motivated through sharing their interests with other students. Yay! Building peer and teacher-student relationships apparently improves achievement and motivation. It’s all good! Andrew J. Martin and Martin Dowson’s Interpersonal Relationships, Motivation, Engagement, and Achievement: Yields for Theory, Current Issues, and Educational Practice provides a comprehensive review of the literature on the relationship between motivation and achievement and interpersonal relationships. They bring together findings on a number of motivation theories, including attribution theory, expectancy-value theory and goal theory to look at how motivation can be conceptualized in terms of relational practices. Guess what? “[P]ositive relationships with significant others are cornerstones of young people’s capacity to function effectively in social, affective, and academic domains.”

Student driven inquiry. Need we even say it again? Yes! Student. Driven. Inquiry. Motivation is linked to interest, which is linked to choice. Let students chose what they want to read and write about, perhaps within teacher-guided limits depending on the class and student. It also helps to link the classroom content to student’s lives. In other words, it’s a good thing to encourage students to work on topics that are related to real issues in their lives.  One article I really liked, Response to literature as a cultural activity, by Lee Galda and Richard Beach, advocates a socio-cultural perspective. They offer a number of educational practices, but one practice with middle-school students sounds particularly appealing to me. Students examined political and educational systems as well as hierarchal social organization (such as gender and religious power relationships) in medieval novels. Students got into it, especially religious beliefs and gender constructs, which lead them to want to reexamine these constructs in their lives and in contemporary culture.

Strategies! Finally, the reading I did reinforced the value of reading strategies such as predictive reading strategies, KWL+, and double journal entries. Finally, let’s not forget good ol’ metacognition! Introduce the student to her-/his-self! In other words, create opportunities for students to become aware of their metacognitive strategies.

Well, I guess it’s time for me to ride off into the reading and writing sunset, files and mind stuffed with knowledge and strategies, ready to set classrooms across the Bay Area afire (figuratively that is)! Well, after summer break that is. Whew.


My Take on the Simplified Text vs. Authentic Text Debate

Have you heard of the new movie, The Cabin in the Woods? The Telegraph, the internet version of the popular, British journal, recently reviewed the new film for their site:

Memento, The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense and all had final-reel secrets that weren’t just worth discovering – they were worth keeping secret afterwards, too. Like all of the best thriller traditions, this can be traced back to Hitchcock: adverts for Psycho implored prospective viewers: “Please do not give away the ending – it’s the only one we have.” Pulp auteurs Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s uproarious detonation of the horror genre, The Cabin in the Woods, fits squarely into this category.

As a piece of writing, native English speakers might enjoy it for its interesting punctuation, unique word choice, varied syntax. Ironically, the very elements that make this a fun piece of writing for native speakers make this text seem impossible for most second language (L2) learners of English.

As an ESL teacher, I have come up against this problem time and time again. In fact, one of my more recent and utterly demoralizing mistakes was thinking my students could read the Hemingway story, “Soldier’s Home”. Despite my best efforts at planning a thoughtful lesson that would generate a lot of reflection and discussion, the result was that my students felt demotivated, frustrated, and disinclined to ever pick up another story in English. In order to right the wrong I had done, I decided to begin simplifying authentic texts so as to make them more accessible to my students.

Since entering the M.A. TESOL program at SFSU, I have learned of the debate surrounding the use of simplified and authentic texts. Because this issue is germane to the field of reading in TESOL as well as my career as an ESL/EFL teacher, I wanted to explore this for my culminating inquiry. What follows is a brief introduction to the issues at stake followed by how I have used what I have learned to inform my own practices.


Young points out a number of ways text can be simplified. Jargon and low-frequency words can be swapped for easier ones (instead of saying “The don used the vernacular of the institution”, you could say “The professor used the language of the institution”). Idioms can be changed or deleted all together (instead of saying “The Giants are ahead in the count”, you could say “The Giants are winning” or “The Giants are beating the Phillies”). Sentences can be shortened or divided so as to make the cognitive load less. And of course, texts can be shortened as well. On the flip side of this, some texts are made simpler by making them longer. For example, subordination and pronouns with complex antecedents can be rewritten in multiple sentences to provide greater redundancy and less complex syntax. Text glossing—an in-text definition usually in the form of a footnote—is another example of lengthening text in order to simplify. As you can tell, simplification has many modes.

Over the years, a number of apologists have championed the use of simplified text (ST). O’Donnell makes the case that L2 learners can have trouble understanding texts due to insufficient linguistic and cultural knowledge; ST removes this problem. Simensen (cited in Crossley, Louwerse, McCarthy, & McNamara) agrees: ST modifies an original text’s lexical choices, or propositional input, or both, to make the text easier to understand. Another reason for simplifying text is to highlight certain grammatical and/or syntactical features so that students are more likely to notice them. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Crossley et al. cite the following researchers and their arguments in favor of ST:

  • Twiessi held that ST mirrors the L2 acquisition process and so provides the learner with a structured model for language learning.
  • Allen & Widdowson pointed out that ST removes idiosyncratic language that has the potential to confuse and distract learners.
  • Kuo stated that ST provides cohesion in the redundancy and explanation that help learners notice grammatical features, language, and syntactical patterns.
  • Davies & Widdowson, as well as Krashen, saw ST as a means for giving students reasonable challenges without overwhelming them. This concept of input that is slightly above a learner’s current level is known as comprehensible input, or i+1.

In my opinion, motivation is another key argument in favor of ST. When students are bombarded with new words, low frequency grammatical features, and unique syntactical patterns, the effect can be overwhelming and, eventually, demotivating. Teachers want to create opportunities for student success, and motivation is essential in this process.

Not only is English demotivating, we have to wear these stupid scout uniforms too.


Oxford defines authentic text (AT) as being“unedited, unabridged text that is written for native…speakers” (as cited in Day & Bamford). Swaffar takes a slightly broader view. The matter of the receiver being a native speaker is irrelevant; if the text serves a communicative objective, it is AT. In my opinion, I tend to agree with Swaffar, although I would add that authentic text is a real message that is created for the purpose of actual communication from a real writer to a real audience.

This debate of ST or AT really gets interesting when we compare the two camps side by side. (You’ll see why in a minute.)

First, AT has a higher degree of cohesion because it makes use of natural syntactical patterns and redundancy which have been disrupted in ST. Second, researchers cite AT as being motivating. Petersen & Ostendorf believe that AT has a positive effect on student motivation because students are interacting with real language. This is supported from a pedagogical standpoint as well: In the recent trend of communicative language teaching, authenticity is touted for the reason that students will have improved learning if they have access to real language in natural contexts. Moreover, Gilmore cites research done by Peacock and Crookes & Schmidt that shows that there is a connection between authenticity and higher student motivation. Finally, Swaffar makes the case that AT is easier to read because it is rich in linguistic and cultural clues that help learners to guess meaning through the context.

Obviously we’ve got both camps using the same arguments but for different purposes! So who’s right? Well it has been difficult to tell because, as Crossley et al. point out, previous research only looked at ST and AT in terms of their effect “on student recall and comprehension, not with the linguistic properties of the texts.” This conclusion led Crossley et al. to reexamine simplified and authentic texts using Coh-Metrix, a piece of software that measures a text’s cohesion and difficulty.

The upshot of this research is that it may behoove beginning L2 students to have ST because ST has a lot of repetition as well as high-frequency words, and these elements make comprehension easier for the already taxed cognitive processes of an L2 learner. That being said, AT is the big winner in all other respects: AT provides a greater degree of cause-and-effect comprehension, and low-frequency words and syntactically complex structures expose students to language that is more natural. Crossley et al. make it clear that they prefer AT to ST with almost all learners with the exception of beginning L2 learners.


In the end, I believe that the debate of authenticity versus simplification must be a second priority to a more important issue – the learning goals of the class. These goals vary from level to level and institution to institution, but to give you some examples of SWBATs (ESL speak for Students Will Be Able To…): write a cover letter; compare and contrast cultural values; weigh the pros and cons of modern society; and the list goes on.

Today’s lesson: Learning how to work it on the picket line.

Curricula designers and teachers must decide their purpose and then decide the most appropriate texts. I feel that too often in this debate researchers argue that authentic texts be used for authenticity’s sake because current trends dictate that authenticity should take primacy.This does not sit well with me, nor does the idea that anything is so black and white in the realm of education. To use another example: Every day I make decisions for my students regarding what is and isn’t important to discuss so that I am able to achieve my goals. Simplifying text in terms of removing unusual, low-frequency lexical choices is just another method to do the same thing. The final decision of what to include and exclude will have to be determined according to objectives, students’ proficiency, context, and general importance of the word or feature.

However, this sounds like I am too much in favor of simplified texts. It has been my experience (and the experience of most of the researchers that I have read) that even when students are faced with a text that is challenging in terms of syntax or grammar, students are still able to make sense of the thrust of the text. Exposure to forms that are new for the learner poses the best possible means for student uptake.

If this position is extended, students can also gain a lot from exposure to what Wray refers to as formulaic sequences, such as idioms and collocations. In my opinion, this is where I diverge from the AT camp. In terms of teaching idioms and collocations, I believe that teachers have a serious duty to their students as gatekeepers and should use their discretion to simplify or gloss language as the teacher sees fit. On one hand, I think teaching idiomatic expressions, phrasal verbs, and jargon is essential for students who wish to participate in a specific discourse community. On the other hand, if these lexical items cause confusion or overly complicate texts, teachers should feel no allegiance to AT but should simplify as they see fit for the sake of their students.


I teach an intermediate-level ESL class. Now, “intermediate” is a relative term but, suffice it to say, my students are a long way away (at least a year, more likely two) from being able to handle a newspaper or magazine or English website. Thus, to make the in-class readings more understandable for them, I have gone to great lengths to simplify texts as well as create appropriate texts.

       I’d love for my students to understand               Herbert ‘Mourn-ya-till-join-ya H-dawg’ Kornfeld        but then they wouldn’t need me.

However, after the implications of my research, I have reexamined the class texts I use and found that I am guilty of doing all the types of simplification that are most harmful. Specifically speaking, I split complex sentences and this has the effect of distorting sentence structure, making the resulting sentences longer, more redundant, more unnatural, and ultimately less cohesive. (Although greater redundancy may seem like a good thing, Goodman posits that authentic text’s natural redundancy helps learners reconstruct texts as well as understand texts through context.) Moreover, I do students a disservice by restructuring syntactical and grammatical forms because I am not familiarizing them with the authentic forms they will find in other texts.

While I may be guilty of problematic syntax and grammar simplifications, I feel justified about my choices in linguistic simplification. L2 learners clamor to know what every word on a page means; it is a natural impulse. And yet, what is the value of teaching intermediate students words like twixt or pulp or marsupial? None. Not when there are more common words or phrases that are not only suitable but also expose students to language they are more likely to encounter. Furthermore, despite my use of linguistic simplification, I haven’t noticed any demotivation.

Fun? Yes! Important? No!

That is not to say I have done away with unfamiliar words. As gatekeeper, if I determine a word or phrase has a high frequency, I will leave it in for the purpose of using it in a post-reading vocabulary building exercise. Moreover, I am conscious of occasionally peppering the texts I create with unfamiliar words for exactly the same purpose. In my mind, the thing to remember is that teachers should provide the contextual clues that make it possible for students to guess at the meanings of new lexical items. I have found that using these methods, students are engaged and motivated by the opportunity to discover words on their own. This has the added benefit of strengthening their contextual reading skills when they eventually read authentic texts.

Understand that these conclusions are based solely on the class I’m teaching now; another class and another context, and these conclusions might need to be revised. The point is that ESL/EFL teachers need to consider the lesson objectives before they make black and white judgments on the authenticity of their texts.


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.

Maybe, Just Maybe, Reading Grapes of Wrath on my iPad Won’t Erode my Synapses.

I don’t like Blogging.

I really don’t. I wouldn’t be doing this at all if it were not mandated by the course requirements.  It’s nothing against the form per se, I just do not particularly like working with the internet in an academic setting.  Sure, I will post pictures to Facebook, or argue in forums over who would win a fight between Thor and the Incredible Hulk…

Thor would win- in case you are wondering- he’s a F*&^ing GOD!

…but the internet is a place for slight pursuits.  Sure it simplifies how I do my research on various topics (including this one) and it has allowed me to not have to wait in line at the registrar’s office anymore to get next semester’s schedule booked, but scholastically I have found that writing FOR the internet has been burdensome and against my grain.  I concede that the tech revolution which occurred during the ten years between my undergrad and grad degrees has so altered HOW school is taught, that a large part of the problem is mine — I’m a bit stuck in my ways and slow to adapt.

But then again, how much of the change has been simply for the sake of change? I am reminded of a quote by Jeff Goldblum’s character from the original Jurassic Park (and apologies to classmates who already endured my previous trotting of this out during the seminar).  When talking about the dinosaurs roaming the park he says; “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should..” (this link is not to that quote- just some cool Dinosaur stuff).  Sure we CAN conduct an entire class online now, posting lectures for students to listen to at their leisure and conducting class discussion in iLearn forums and by email, but is there a benefit- is this inherently better for the students and their learning experience?  Or is this simply a combination of teachers playing with new toys, egged on by the pimps at Oracle who want to sell the latest software update at an inflated price to the University?  What about downsides?  Is there proof that this mode of learning might, in fact, be inferior in some way?  Everyone was all high on moving pictures when those first came out, and they wormed their way into the curriculum I was fed as a teenager- watching films on health, nature, puberty etc on crappy reel-to-reels.  But then brain scan technology comes along and shows that the human brain is less active when passively watching TV. Is there an equivalent problem with the current tech that we aren’t accounting for? Are all my rhetorical questions the basis for sound opposition or just the dying gasps of my antiquated belief system?  Let’s find out, shall we…

Part of my curiosity into this question was created by my happenstance discovery several years prior of a study by Herbert Krugman that rattled around in my brain pan.  In November of 1969, Krugman decided to monitor the effects of watching TV on the human brain.  He observed the brain waves and discovered that, when watching TV, the “alpha” waves in humans were activated.  These same waves are associated with meditative trances, passive, unfocused thought.  When the subjects switched from watching TV to reading a magazine the waves switched to Beta waves signaling greater focus and alertness.  The Alpha waves were not content driven either- just happened as soon as the screen flicked on.  In fairness, he did not study reading things on screen to determine which waves would be triggered (and that is at the heart of what we’re talking about here in a reading class) but it’s enough to make me curious.

I began my search among the various databases by simply using the key words “teacher” + “opposition” + “technology”  (as an aside, I am well aware that I use technology in order to decry it- so there is no need to point it out. [I’m also watching Real Madrid play Barca on as I write this so it seems my hypocrisy is boundless]).  Immediately I get a decent number of hits from various databases serving psychological journals. Their focus is on exploring the root causes of technophobia in teachers (I also used one paper that explored that phobia in psychologists- the results were similar.) It appears that the primary root of opposition (technophobia) among teachers is based in large part on 3 factors A) the length of time a teacher has been at the discipline B) prior experience with Computers and C) Amount of exposure to computers (read here). Other articles I found echoed similar sentiments, portraying the psychological barriers involved.

That is all well and good, it helps establish the psychological bent of those who support my position (and establish my bent as well) but it doesn’t answer the question of whether there is an actual hindrance to the idea of using tech to teach reading.  It’s not an easy question to answer- certainly not in academic journals. I found the usual polemics for and against technology in general; articles citing the advent of the printing press or the apocalyptic Skynet.

“I’m afraid I can’t let you read that for class, Dave.”

However there is not a terrible amount of academic research on this. And when I say there isn’t a terrible amount  I mean I found one study linking the effects of technology to reading.  It’s about how an iPad helped a fifth grader with ADHD. Not exactly the stuff I can use to start an anti-tech revolution amongst my cohorts.

It seems that, after an exhaustive search that took up the better part of the halftime break,  I cannot locate any evidence establishing there is a detrimental effect.  Granted, the initial Krugman study raises the specter of  the possibility of there being potentially being one (if I squint really hard), but that is not enough to stake a thesis upon. I suppose a more daring fellow than myself would take this opportunity to launch there own investigation — drum up some grants, find test subjects, and rent an Soviet-era MRI.  However I have no experience, training, nor even an inclination towards the scanning of Alpha Waves.  This kind of research requires someone with at least 3 semester more study in neurobiology than I currently possess. I cannot present a convincing case to someone with that type of training that it is worth their time to investigate.

However, why should I utilize technology to teach reading?  In my search, I haven’t exactly found anything to tell me why it’s BETTER.  Sure, there is the argument that this is the way the world is moving.  And I can see that there are advantages to the speed in which certain things can be done — the hyperlinking of text allows faster research on tangential topics, Ctrl+F makes searching a text for a particular word or phrase easier.

And ultimately, if I am not going to investigate the neuro-pathway MRI imaging of a student’s brain as they read “This Wooden Shack Place” why should I occupy a position of resistance?  That just seems childish, an unwillingness to adapt for the sake of being petulant.  I would imagine at some point these kinds of studies will be done and it behooves me to stay current on the research, but opposition needs better backing than simply a “bad feeling” Besides — at the end of the day — how bad can it possibly be even at it’s worse?  I mean, I watched instructional films in HS and got nothing out of them, but it didn’t exactly rot my brain to the point where I cannot write a blog post for my class.  There just isn’t enough reason for me to continue fighting at this point.

But I still don’t like it, and will probably make my students read old timey bound books because, as their teacher, I just can. I’m all about abusing my authority.

Critical Pedagogy vs. Initiation into Academic Discourse

My question was “Why is it that they [critical pedagogy versus initiating students into academic discourses] are always discussed as an either/or proposition? And most importantly, why is it that the goals of students are nearly always absent from the conversation.” Since I posed that question initially, I have noticed several things that I think address this issue through our readings, discussions and blog postings.

The discussion about whether to resist or initiate students into the academic discourse is discussed as an either/or proposition is, ironically, a function of the discussion taking place within the academic discourse. The academic world is built upon a continual renewal of knowledge that must be refreshed and developed. A positive benefit of this pressure to innovate has been the effusion of cross-disciplinary ideas, so that advances in one field can be brought to bear on the questions and issues of another. Given this pressure, it’s little wonder that the ideas espoused in Marxist thought would make their way to pedagogy. The social, political and economic lens through which Marxism filters the world was already embedded within an academic discourse as it came to influence other fields. Academics are fluent in their own discourse and, as such, use the language that is available to them and that most clearly expresses their message. Furthermore, that message is received, interpreted and retransmitted by other academics. So in the end, it seems logical that a discussion about resisting a discourse has taken place mostly within the discourse it seeks to resist. But that doesn’t really address why it’s an either/or proposition.

An academic in search of an argument will quickly find that he or she is also in search of a job. Each of us, as academics, has something to contribute to the conversation based on our individual perspectives, but the pressure is always to find something new to say. A difficult feat when the conversation has been ongoing for any period of time, particularly now that we are able to store and access a written record of our knowledge in the field that stretches across time and geography. Most graduate students can relate to the pressure of taking old ideas and finding new ways to apply them, not to mention the difficulty presented by the prospect of trying to find anything original to say. Most of us have sat in a seminar with at least one or two students who seem intent on taking arbitrary positions for the sake of being controversial. In some ways, this is the business of academics: to shake up the old order and at the very least force the dominant voice to continually justify it’s approach.

In the hands of someone like Paolo Freire, the result can send tremors throughout a field and cause an entire generation of academics to question the prevailing wisdom. To truly be effective though, such paradigm shifting ideas need to be well-supported and address specific issues seen within a field. Academic discussions are often based upon tightly controlled (and sometimes contrived) environments that allow researchers to focus on specific areas which they hope to impact. These environments have the benefit of freeing researchers from the muddied reality present in everyday life. As a student, I have often found that the arguments that seem paradigm shifting are the most compelling, but as a teacher, it is difficult to maintain too much purity in any one approach. In either case though, it is an opposing viewpoint that makes the most impact. All of our problems in the classroom will be solved if only we do X. This appeals to our sense of order much more than the more nuanced approaches that most of us know the classroom requires.

It also necessarily leaves students out of the equation because it seeks to control for variables as determined by researchers. Students’ needs are as diverse as the number of students within a classroom. This makes it easier to focus on what the teacher is doing rather than on what students’ hope to achieve. And based entirely on my own experiences, there is also a certain amount of arrogance on the part of teachers and researchers. Whether that arrogance is well-intentioned is not for me to decide, but it does exist. We, as teachers and academics, do have a certain degree of expertise in terms of what we are preparing students for and consciously or not, we justify the decisions we make based on that expertise and our own experiences in academe. From there, it is an easy leap to viewing our decisions about what’s best for students as self-evident. We may think “Of course students want to question the prevailing power structure of society,” because that is in fact a goal of our own.

In fact, students some times have considerable interest vested in perpetuating that structure. But it is easy to dismiss students’ interests because we know that if they knew better, they would see it our way. And I believe that is probably true, but part of getting students to see it our way is allowing them to take their own journey and arrive at their own conclusions. It may just be a desire to see the best in people, but it’s a leap of faith that I feel comfortable making. Until students get to a place where they are able and desire to question the prevailing power structure, I feel it is important to address students’ needs as defined by the students. That doesn’t preclude a critical approach, but it allows room for gaining fluency in the predominant discourse and encouraging students to question the power and authority vested in the institutions they attend.

Amy’s been “scooped” —

I was following a link to where someone is linking to Amy’s blog post on assessment — 🙂  when I saw another article  posted that was about achieving “flow” in the classroom.  On the same page as the link to Amy, there are a number of articles on motivation and engagement that you might look at.