Saturday, 20 July 2013

The emotional reading elephant in the room

I recently attended a conference on reading, which was both helpful and frustrating at the same time. Since writing this blog, I have had a few comments about me being practical and I am quite happy to have this label. This conference had a few practical ideas too (which were really good) and a few woolly ideas as well. Surprising for me, I had a disagreement with one of the delegates. It wasn’t a rolled-sleeves-and-fists-ready bout of arguing, but a mental sparing, and I disagreed with one lady and she disagreed with me.

At the end of the conference, there was a question and answer session to the speakers. The speakers were made up of an author and several experts on reading. I raised the question that I have several times in this blog: Does the panel feel, as I do, that a lot of the reading that students do now is superficial reading? I did, however, expand further to talk about technology and how that has changed how we read texts. The panel were left a bit stunned. They agreed with me and then one person piped up in the audience and said: “We have to give them ownership. It is all about ownership.” Obviously, this person was in the wrong room, and, furthermore, they are clearly a person that excels in the woolly approach to reading. My question had nothing really to do with ownership and the person had misunderstood the question, or that they were definitely in the wrong room.

Then the conference was finished and the delegates started to leave. One woman came to me as I was packing away. “I just have to say I think you are wrong,” said the woman. In response, I expanded on my original point and then waited for her and she just repeated her point again, without any expanding or developing it. She clearly liked to win arguments and have the last word. She felt, in her opinion, that the reading done now is not superficial; and that the best way to win an argument is to repeat a point until the listener realises that the speaker has difficulty listening to things.  She waltzed off with a smile. Nice lady, but she didn’t listen, or really challenge me.  Then, the lead spokesman of the conference came up to me: “I agree with you; it is a problem.”

There is a big, fat, huge elephant in the room when we talk about reading. I think there are a lot of practical people out there and there are also a lot of book-hugging people who spout lots of benign statements, which feature abstract nouns with gay abandon.  For them reading is about making lots of profound statements. Reading is about ownership. Reading is like a blanket of comfort. Don’t get me wrong, I love books, but I am also aware of the functionality of them. I am in both camps, but I have often met people who enthuse about books so much that I often question what are they really getting people to do: read a book or join a cult. In reality, it is the emotional reasoning that we often see people resort to with reading. This book will make you cry. This book will make you laugh. This book will show you how hard it is to be a welsh troll living through poverty in Swansea with an addiction to sherbet dip-dabs, who discovers that his father is really an elf.  Dickens wrote in 'Oliver Twist' that books make the world wiser. Yes, they do develop our emotional literacy and they make us feel something, but they also serve other logical purposes. Maybe we have to stop the selling books on emotion and focus on the other benefits. After all, if I was a teenage boy and you kept spouting how a book made you cry and blub, I’d think you were an idiot. What average teenage boy is going to be inspired by book that makes you cry? We are focusing too often on the emotional aspects of reading and not the functional benefits, or the other benefits. They do make you clever.

Right, that elephant in the room: I forgot it like most people do. It is that we are not a hundred per cent confident about the reading process. Writing is relatively easy compared to reading, as you see the process happening before your eyes. You see the letters form words, and the words form sentences. Yet, with reading we don’t see much. We see the page move, but we don’t know what is happening inside. Everything we see and do about reading is about the by-product of the process. It is about what the child understands. It is about what the child knows. What we see of reading is the student verbally decoding words, but there is a lot of stuff that goes on in the head that we don’t know anything about. Like a pensieve, most of our assessments of reading are picking bits out of this soup of reading in the brain.

Reading with my daughter has shown me this problem with reading. Again, I was reading a ‘Biff and Chip’ book. My daughters were reading the words, blending the sounds together. At the end of the book we were reading, there were a series of questions. It was comprehension for 5 year olds. I asked the questions and they knew the answer. But, what surprised me the most, was that they spent a lot of time blending and I thought that they hadn’t fully understood the story. Yet, they had. The by-product of the process, reading it aloud, gave me a false perspective of what they understood. There wasn’t a clear relationship between the two. I thought that the time taking to blend some tricky words would stifle the flow of thoughts, but it was there under the surface going on. We don’t know what is going on in the mind. It is quite ironic that I am teaching ‘The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ which focuses on the inner workings of the mind. They didn’t know much about it then, and we still don’t know much about it now.

I think the assessments that we use are fundamentally flawed as there is so much potential for things to slip through the net, or for a child to miss the point. As an English teacher, I mark reading assessments, but I am marking the by-product of the reading process. I don’t know any more about their reading, than they do. I know the ‘reading’ skills they can and can’t do, but I don’t really know about that reading process in their brain. The problem is that we have reduced the reading process in English to a simple list. When you look at the list, it isn’t really a reflection on the reading process. It features things like find a quote. Or, comment on the structure of a text. Now, these are automatic things I do as an English teacher, but when I am reading, they are not things that are going on in my brain. As I read a thriller, I am not finding a quote about the character’s sadness and I am not thinking about the way the paragraphs are structured. Well, what am I thinking? I am thinking about who did it and will they get them in time.

We certainly need something to assess reading, but do we have the right things in place? Yes, we have some things in place and they haven’t harmed anybody in the past. In fact, clever students show their clever reading through answering comprehension questions on a text. However, do the things, we have in place, work to develop and improve reading and reading fluency? Or, do they just show us the by-products of the process?

My focus, in school, for the next year is developing ‘Deep Reading’ and this blog is one of series I will write over the next few weeks, exploring the nature of reading in secondary schools.
Thanks for reading,

P.S. I am happy to be challenged and even change my thoughts.

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