Third grade has assumed an exalted place in the world of reading instruction. A common dictum calls for teaching all children to read by the end of 3rd grade. A popular aphorism is that through 3rd grade, children learn to read; after 3rd grade, they read to learn. Both notions capture the need to get children off to a strong start in literacy, to pinpoint individual students’ problems before they drag them down. However, casting 3rd grade as the literacy threshold implies that the teaching of reading is a job mainly for preschool and primary teachers, not for the teachers of serious subject matter.
That message sells reading short by a long measure, suggesting that reading is little more than figuring out the words on a printed page. Or not even that. “For many adolescents, reading something just means you have passed your eyes over the words or read the words aloud. It isn’t … understanding or engaging in what you read,” observes Ruth Schoenbach, director of the Strategic Literacy Initiative at WestEd, a West coast regional educational laboratory. “The idea that reading is an active process is a foreign concept.”
Reading is active in that the reader must make connections between printed words and what he or she already knows and, in the process, learn something. It is a skill that every teacher should know how to nurture, which until recently has been a foreign concept, too. As Catalyst Associate Editor Maureen Kelleher reports in this issue, Chicago’s school accountability process is pushing high schools into the teaching of reading. Some have picked up the elementary school habit of giving kids practice in the kind of reading and questions presented by standardized tests. Others are delving deeper, trying to weave reading instruction into content instruction. With the issue of adolescent literacy just now appearing on the radar screen of the national school reform movement, Chicago schools again may be breaking new ground. Both for themselves and schools elsewhere, their experiments warrant close scrutiny. For example, we need to find out whether teenagers benefit from still more test preparation after they’ve gone through it for years. What are the salient features of programs that boost learning—in the view of principals, teachers and the kids themselves? How do the costs and benefits of each program line up?
An observation by Barbara Radner, director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University, raises important questions for reading instruction in the upper elementary grades, too. She says that’s where children should begin learning how to read the kinds of nonfiction texts that are high schools’ stock in trade. Why aren’t they? Does Chicago’s emphasis on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills promote or detract from teaching that kind of reading? Appropriately, Chicago’s central school administration has sent schools on a search for solutions that fit their circumstances. Now it has the responsibility to follow up and share the lessons that schools are learning.
Catalyst ON THE AIR Our discussion about teaching reading in high schools will continue on the May 14 edition of “City Voices” on WNUA-FM, 95.5. My guests will be Mary Dunne, leader of the Office of Accountability reading team, and Connie Bridge, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who is leading an intensive reading improvement effort at Manley High School. The program will be broadcast from 6:30 a.m. to 7 a.m.
ABOUT US Santee Blakey, Catalyst’s part-time office assistant, is among 60 winners in the Chicago Public Schools Science Fair who will compete at the state level in May. A freshman in the Scholars Program at Kenwood Academy High School, Santee has a keen interest in the environment. Her project explored the affect of petroleum oil on China aster germination.