Thinking about reading

Thinking about reading

Not that long ago, I wrote a post called Science or craft (you can see that post here). One of the things I talked about in that post was the fact that I felt as an educator, being involved in a series of “Reading Wars” was not beneficial to the concept of learning and growth. In my view, one of our goals as an educator should be to learn as broadly as we can on the topics that matter to us. As an educator who has an impact on some of the earliest learners, literacy must be a big part of my focus, and therefore it must be an area I am seeking continual growth. That has in turn led me to ongoing learning about the Science of Reading.

In the post referenced above, I shared that it felt as though there are some who view the teaching of reading as having two sides, and neither one saw value in the other. It made me a bit uncomfortable because I had taught in a Balanced Literacy Classroom for years of my career as an educator, and while that format had worked for me as a learner, and felt comfortable to me as a teacher, I could also see that there were kids who were not learning to read at the level they needed to. You see, I spent all my teaching career as a fifth or sixth-grade teacher. Once students reach that level, for the most part, they are no longer learning to read, rather they are reading to learn. As a content area teacher – teaching both science and social studies over the years as an intermediate school teacher, I expected students to come with me ready to use their reading skills to learn about our topics and standards. I did not feel equipped at that level to intervene and support their reading skills.

Over the years of working with some talented colleagues, I eventually better understood how to support my students who came to the classroom without strong reading skills – finding lower-level texts on the same topics, providing students with read-aloud recordings of the text, and more.

But in my current role, I now feel the challenge of how I help ensure that the students who leave my school are prepared to read to learn in their intermediate school classroom. I began to look for ideas that supported my beliefs about a learning environment, while also fulfilling the needs of students as learners. Luckily, I have a wonderful coach who I work with that recommended the book Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom by Jan Burkins and Kari Yates. I’ve been digging into that book for a little while and found myself texting our coach on the evening I started the book telling her that I had lots of things to talk to her about.

Based on my reactions to the short time I’ve been reading this book, I’m guessing that this will not be the last time you see me referencing it here, but I want to share with you one of my biggest aha moments so far. And it has to do with how the human brain has developed.

Going back to the earliest humans, the only way to share information was through the passing of stories verbally. What this means is that our brain got good at listening to what others said (this happens in the phonological processing system) and being able to respond with our own words and sounds. Hearing someone else speak would then cause our brain to retrieve the meaning of the words we hear (this happens in the meaning processing system). Then our brain uses our background knowledge to help us understand what meaning fits the context of what’s being shared (this happens in the context processing system). I imagine these different parts of the brain as something of a triangle, with information passing back and forth through each of these processing systems.

These three processing systems are genetically wired into the human brain and are a part of the system of thinking that we are all born with. It’s why a young child can often understand words before being able to say them. It’s why, even though I haven’t taken a Spanish class in over 20 years, when I hear someone speaking it, I am able to make meaning of pieces of that conversation.

This combination of processing systems has developed in the homo sapien brain over the last 150,000 to 200,000 years. So what that means is that our brain has adapted over that time to make comprehension of spoken language to be a natural skill that our brains can do. But written language has been around a lot less time than that. You see, most scholars generally agree that humans began utilizing written language about 5,500 years ago. Let’s think about what that means – for a little more than 97% of the history of modern humans, words only existed in their verbal form. After being spoken, they would disappear into thin air. Then, somewhere around 3,400 BCE, in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), some of the earliest written language was developed. Now, the things that one person said could be recorded, exactly as they had said them, in the form of symbols, and be shared over and over again.

The huge aha moment for me comes from this point – written language is spoken language saved for later retrieval. Once retrieved, written words are put back into spoken language. I’m assuming that when you read, you can hear your own reading in your head. The speaking part of your brain is saying the words, and the listening part of your brain is hearing the words. What this means is that if our students cannot understand words and language when they are spoken, they will not be able to comprehend those same words and sentences when they read them.

As Burkins and Yates point out:

What Burkins and Yates go on to point out is that opportunities to grow oral language actually help develop the comprehension mechanisms of reading. Now, let me be clear, just because a student has strong verbal comprehension does not automatically mean that they will be strong in reading comprehension, but it is definitely a stepping stone along the way. So, what does that mean for us in practice in the classroom? The following bullet points are ideas shared by Burkins and Yates, along with some of my thoughts relating to them:

  • Have a way to support language comprehension in your classroom – This would include utilizing read-alouds with rich language, things that will stretch your students’ thinking. Next, think about gathering text sets on a topic or theme representing multiple levels. Finally, have instructional routines to build and extend language (this includes conversations started by the teacher in a one-on-one or small group setting, questions to get students to explain their thinking, wait time for students to think and process, and repeating back to students what you heard them say so that they might be able to expand on it).
  • Use interesting words – One of my favorite things used to be encouraging students to notice and share interesting words they came across in their reading. We would use these words to create a list of interesting words that we kept in our writing notebook. Depending on your level, you could do something similar, or you could help students notice interesting words in your read-alouds to create your own list.
  • Engage in dialogic conversations – In their book, Burkins and Yates share a graphic on dialogic conversations. Check out the graphic below for a little more about what this might look like.

Ultimately, as teachers, one of the best ways we can help improve the three processing systems above is to create time and space for language within your classroom. This might be during a gentle entry time where students can play and talk, it might be in a daily community circle where students speak to one another and respond to interesting topics, or it could be through one-on-one or small group conversations happening during learning time either with the teacher’s support or with peers (think a turn-and-talk or small group discussion). The more work we do to support students in language comprehension, the more we help those processing systems be better prepared for reading skills.

Next week I hope to take a look at the next step – what happens in the brain when we start to feed written language into it, and how that has changed the processing systems that developed in the brain.

What strategies do you use to bring language into your classroom? Share with us in the comments below.