A Simple Prescription: Write More, Read More – And Often

A tip of the hat to the Marshall Memo for pointing to this recent article by Deborah Hollimon in Reading Today.  In “It’s Simple: Read More, Write More, Teach Vocabulary”(subscription required), Hollimon’s suggestions are right in line with the research of Anders Ericsson.  Here’s Hollimon getting straight to the point:

What our students need are opportunities for voracious reading in classes brimming with engaging materials of all sorts, at many different levels… Reading means reading something engaging in every class, every day.

We could not agree more.  We’ve written extensively on the importance of students reading more.  First, Ericson’s research on what it takes to move from novice to expert is informative here.  Critical to the development of expertise is time on task, or practice.  In other words, if students wish to become better readers, they then obviously must spend more time engaged in reading.  Second, the Common Core State Standards has established a proposed ‘staircase’ of text complexity.  That document recommends that students face the challenge of increasingly complex texts as they progress from grade to grade.  Third, Nell Duke, among others, including, again, the Common Core State Standards, recommends that students must learn to grapple with a wide variety of texts.   To put it another way, a student brought up on a steady diet of fiction will find himself ill-prepared to face the challenge of real-world, informational text as they move into college or the workplace.  Duke, like Hollimon, recommends that students be exposed to informational text from a much earlier age.

On writing, Hollimon is even more succinct:

Writing more means writing every day, in every class, mostly without fear of red ink… Content teachers can easily incorporate quick-writes, exit slips, learning logs, or journals into daily lessons. What better way for teachers to check for understanding than to peruse the writing thoughts of their students?

We would echo Hollimon’s point on writing more.  Targeted and deliberate practice applies across a range of human activities, including writing.  Our personalized learning platforms, Oasis and MyWritingWeb were built around the very simple idea of allowing students to engage in daily, deliberate, and targeted practice in reading and writing.  Hollimon’s ideas on easy ways to incorporate writing into the content areas mirror our own belief that writing should occur across content areas and need not be limited to full-length, 3-5 page essays.  MyWritingWeb and Oasis, for example, allow students to write essays of any length, giving students plentiful opportunity to practice and teachers an easy and administratively painless way to keep students writing more.  And because both Oasis and MyWritingWeb are based on the Lexile Framework for Writing, educators have the added benefit of being able to monitor student growth in the domain of writing. 

If you haven’t yet checked out these platforms, be sure to take a look.

Traversing the Texts: An Appreciation of Text Complexity

Here’s Mark Bauerlein over at Education Leadership offering a useful reminder on the importance of the ability to tackle complex texts:

Will more technology in high school classrooms help? Not in the crucial area of reading. When teachers fill the syllabus with digital texts, having students read and write blogs, wikis, Facebook pages, multimedia assemblages, and the like, they do little to address the primary reason that so many students end up not ready for college-level reading. When they assign traditional texts—novels, speeches, science articles, and so on—in digital format with embedded links, hypertext, word-search capability, and other aids, they likewise avoid the primary cause of unreadiness.

That cause is, precisely, the inability to grasp complex texts…

Bauerlein’s concern is that many of the post-secondary texts with which students must wrestle are inherently ambiguous, e.g. a supreme court decision, a poem, a philosophical treatise, a contract, etc…  Their meanings are best  teased out through a deep and reflective reading.  In addition to being constructively ambiguous, many of the texts with which students must struggle (think Emerson, Nietzsche, Holmes, Freud, etc…) are not capable of being reduced to a few simple pages or bullet points (to paraphrase one philosopher, any system of thought capable of being reduced to a nutshell belongs there…).  Many of our most cherished texts and documents are  expansive, self-contained works, rich in meaning and related to a long canon of work.  As Bauerlein argues, Thoreau’s assertion that he went into the woods because he wished to live deliberately or Nietzsche’s assertions about claims of knowledge are not easily grasped by reading over the first few pages.  The reader is expected to critically reflect over the pages and to locate the writer’s meaning in the fuller context of the writing:

When faced with a U.S. Supreme Court decision, an epic poem, or an ethical treatise—works characterized by dense meanings, elaborate structure, sophisticated vocabulary, and subtle authorial intentions—college-ready students plod through them. Unready students falter.

This is the sort of task that does not lend itself to distraction.  To paraphrase Bauerlein, a reader trekking through Locke’s political treatises is unlikely to make it very far if they are simultaneously updating their Facebook status, tweeting their latest thought, popping up a blog entry, streaming Pandora, and clicking on hyperlinks through the margins.  For this is not the sort of reading that lends itself to browsers.  Many of our most valuable and cherished texts, the ones most worth reading, reveal their import through a focused and deep absorption into the text.

That’s not to minimize the importance of technology in the classroom or the important role that personalized learning platforms can play in differentiating texts for struggling readers.  And Bauerlein is careful to avoid nostalgic claims about the destructive influence of online reading or the Internet destroying our mental capacities.  Instead, he merely suggests that more attention should be paid to deep and meaningful reading, to the undistracted and focused reading of high level texts; and that time should be set aside to allow students to explore these sophisticated texts in a distraction-free (meaning, unplugged) zone.

In that sense, Bauerlein’s concern echoes what both the Common Core State Standards and a study by Nell Duke have already pointed to: that American students are reading far too little informational texts.  As we’ve written before, for a student raised on a diet of fiction, a strong dose of informational texts may come as a shock to the system.  It’s little wonder then that many students graduate unprepared for the rigors of the post-secondary world, that they arrive at the university only to find that even introductory texts present a formidable challenge.   Nell Duke argues that students should be exposed to informational texts at an earlier age and the Common Core State Standards attempts to address that deficiency by pushing for increased exposure to informational texts at a higher rate and at an earlier age.

 Bauerlein’s suggestion is worth considering.  With far too many students finding themselves ill-prepared for the rigors of the post-secondary world, it’s our hope that encouraging students to tackle higher levels of targeted texts at an earlier age will move them ever closer to the levels of texts they will undoubtedly encounter in life after high school.

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