I graduated with a degree in Secondary English Education. The emotions that fill a student teacher as they are about to embark on their real infield application of everything they’ve ever learned about teaching are hard to describe. I was ready. But I never expected to find what I did. This post I want to focus on some reading issues I came across which have nothing to do with needing new standards, nothing to do with needing better teachers, but everything to do with an unrealistic expectation of mass education.
My student teaching experience was mostly with 11th graders. As an English Department, every 11th grade class was to read The Great Gatsby. Having read that book myself in 10th grade, and being what I thought was a pretty strong reader at the time, and not being able to understand anything that was going on in that book, I took on our unit with the goal of helping my students make the text make sense, not of wanting them to dive in and really experience the novel and gain morals and values from the story. I wanted them to understand what was happening, to be independent readers through a hard text. I planned to equip them with the skills to do so. And it was a much greater mountain that I was prepared for.
The first couple days, my students were to read at home and come ready to talk about what they read.
“So, would anyone be willing to summarize what happened in this chapter?” I asked as I sat on a stool at the front of the class.
Silence and eye avoidance was the response.
After waiting for a little bit, I asked, “Did you not understand what happened or did you not read? I won’t be mad. You can be honest.”
Some admitted that they hadn’t read, but then one girl raised her hand. “We never really have had to understand what we read. We just usually come to school the next day and the teacher tells us what happened.”
Her response made me sick. It was true though. I had seen it during my observation hours with other teachers. The majority of English teachers I have associated with (my college colleagues and the teachers I observed) became English teachers because they love to read and discuss books. The majority of them use their classroom as a vehicle to help students explore different books and ideas and cultures. These teachers make lesson plans that center around further exploring the chapters the students were supposed to read, to help them analyze and criticize and consider. When kids come to school without understanding what happened, the teacher, probably most of them not realizing what they were actually doing, quickly summarizes the reading for the students so they can proceed with the planned lesson for the day. The problem is because of this, my students were dependent readers. They had no idea how to make hard text make sense because they are never asked to. The teachers they had had up to that point were more concerned with talking about the content of the text than helping their students learn to read hard things.
One of my students particularly was struggling. I sat down with him during study hall and had him alternate paragraphs with me as we read a page of the book together. I paused after the first page and asked him if he could tell me what had happened so far. The summary he gave me was as if he had read an entirely different book. As we further discussed, I discovered that he struggled to connect “he,” “she,” “they” to the objects they stood in place of.
What absolutely blew my mind was that this boy was in 11th grade and he couldn’t connect pronouns? How did he get here? How had he gone under the radar since elementary without mastering this reading skill?
It’s complicated, and simple: teachers don’t have time to teach every kid how to read, especially if those kids are behind where they should be. And they especially don’t have the time to find out where every kid’s reading skill levels are in order to figure out how to help them.
Secondary English Teachers particularly are being asked to teach writing, reading, and communication–3 incredibly complex skills whose complexity increases each year. And not only that, but they are being asked to teach those skills to 200 students who are all at different learning levels. It is inevitable that some kids won’t make it. Coming from the background of a tutor, it killed me to not be able to help those I knew were struggling. There simply wasn’t enough time to go slow enough for them and stay fast enough for those who just needed a little help. Many of my students needed lots of help making inferences. We only had one day to work on that. I had to hope and pray they could get enough of a skill set for that to keep applying it. Which of course, wasn’t enough time.
The other problem is that Secondary English Teachers don’t get enough training on how to teach kids how to read. I had an entire college course on teaching reading, which focused on helping kids make connections to text, to summarize a text, to draw conclusions from a text, etc. all upper level reading skills that Common Core says secondary education students should be able to do. I did receive instruction for how to teach more basic skills for reading, but this was given as more of an overview, than an intense study. I found myself very unprepared for teaching how reading actually works to those who “sound it out” and “go slower” weren’t enough.
I have since never gone back to teaching once I got my degree, but I have taken on tutoring, particularly tutoring in reading. There is so much I still don’t understand, but for kids who really struggle to read, it isn’t likely that one day they’ll just catch up. The truth is that kids who struggle to read just learn how to get away without reading. They develop other skills that help them get the right answers. But the need to read never goes away.
President Howard W. Hunter once said, “The teaching and governance of the family must not be left…to society, to school, or even the Church” (Teachings of the Prophets: Howard W. Hunter, Ch. 17, pg.223), and I believe that this is one reason why–teachers can’t do everything, school can’t meet every learning need. I wish the public school system were better organized and orchestrated, but there is too much tradition, too much business, and too much complex issues for public school to do what it should. There are great teachers who do teach reading and do catch the strugglers, but they are more rare than normal. I would say that it is most important for parents with struggling readers to learn more about the process of reading, of basic reading skills, so they can be more able to help their children learn such a life skill. Of course, I know that parents too have so much to do, with so little time, and reaching out to programs, tutors, or different schools are options too, but I really think there is nothing more valuable that a parent who is enabled to teach. I think that is the only solution that is dependable.
And if you are a teacher reading this, please know I applaud your every effort. Every teacher I have ever worked with or observed does their very best to expend every effort sensible for their students’ welfare. We all are doing the best that we know how to do. Bless you.
For those interested, this book has been my mentor, my guide, my steady hand for helping me see what skill sets and processes are needed in order to be able to read, no matter at what level a reader may be at:
It’s really friendly to read. It’s not the normal textbook, but more of a narrative and I LOVE Kylene’s personality and perspective. This was my reading course textbook, so again, the teaching for Secondary Education teachers is there, for me, it just wasn’t a real focus from my professors on the basics.
If there is interest, I wanna dive into this book and talk about some of the principles and concepts. Let me know ❤