The Skilled Non-Reader

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These days, pretty much every time we encounter the word “reading” in a communication about schooling, we’ll also find the word “skills.” For example, we might hear statements like:confused reader 1

  • Our school’s reading scores indicate a need for better skill instruction.
  • We need to assess her reading skills before we can identify a proper leveled book.

I believe a focus solely upon skills is unfortunate as it clouds the fact that there is much more to reading than reading skills. Of course, reading requires some skill, but avidly reading well, which should be the single most important goal of any school’s curriculum, also requires understandings about how language and print work together. If we are to get every child, regardless of innate talent or culture, to the point of eagerly reading self-selected books, much more than skills will need attention.

For example, think of using an electric drill. Anybody can pull the trigger and make the drill spin. However, drilling isn’t carpentry; it’s just a regular part of carpentry. It makes working with wood easier and faster, but only if the user knows enough about wood and drilling and the particular project at hand to confidently use a drill efficiently and effectively.

The same is true for reading. One of the saddest encounters a teacher can have with children is to hear them skillfully saying the text instead of reading it. The flat, expressionless result may indicate a high level of reading skill, but it also signals a lack of understanding of what reading is and how it can be used for communication between two or more humans. Such reading can robotically take all of the life out of the text. Children who mechanically read usually tend to be reading for someone else, not for themselves. And these kids who just make the noises represented by the text don’t often read much for their own enjoyment.

So, how can teachers and parents help children learn about the uses (and misuses) of print as a way to communicate with others either near or far away in space or in time? One of the most helpful things is to connect novice readers with more mature, expressive readers with whom they can engage in meaningful conversation about books and reading. Such conversations will include age appropriate discussion about the WHY of books and reading (clarity in sharing extended and complex messages), the WHEN that print is personally important and when it is not, and HOW to joyfully create the richest meanings from personally significant books, lunchbox notes from family members or anything in between.

Misconceptions about these basic WHYs, WHENs and HOWs can lead new readers into a confusing practice of making the sounds of words, running complete sentences confused reader 3together and utterly lacking any useful comprehension of full paragraphs. Simply going through the motions of reading (and of course writing) can result in confusion about any text’s rich message and the essential concept that print can carry feelings, information and vicarious experiences of dramatically personal significance. Indeed, skill-only instruction and assignments can result in children who can go through the motions of reading and writing while slowly growing into aliterates—ones who can read and write a bit, but rarely do.

 

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