August 28, 2007

So Why Won't Johnny Read?

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette wants to know why some kids are reluctant readers:

For years, the question "Why can't Johnny read?" has plagued teachers, students and parents. Another troubling question, especially as students move into their teen years, is: "Why won't he or she read?"

The questions point to two critical problems affecting millions of teenagers: students who can't read at grade level and those who don't want to read, known as "reluctant readers."

More than 8 million adolescents between grades four and 12 are identified as "struggling readers," according to the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices.

Many others read reluctantly.


The Post Gazette seems to think that there is a group of kids that know how to read but simply don't want to.

No doubt some kids fall into this category, but, based on reading scores, the better explanation is that most of these struggling readers haven't mastered the skill of reading and, as a result, don't like to engage in an activity they simply aren't good at doing. These kids are impaired readers, even though they may be reading at grade level and even though it may appear that they read normally (at least to a naive observer).

Reading is a learned skill and, like all skills we learn well, learning to read goes through three distinct stages.

The first stage is accuracy. It occurs when the learner can just barely do the skill without error if he goes slow and concentrates carefully. This stage is cognitively intense. If the learner is distracted or hurried he will make errors. With respect to reading at this stage, decoding takes up all the reader's attention and there are no mental resources available to attend to comprehension or for thinking about the meaning of the what he's reading.

I'd say that most readers in this stage are still in the "learning to read" stage. We, however, are concerned with the kids in the "reading to learn" stage kids. That's the next stage--fluency.

The second stage is fluency. This stage occurs when the learner can perform the skill quickly and with no or few errors. Fluency comes with performing a skill accurately and through lots of practice. Fluent readers can read fairly quickly and accurately, but they are still devoting much of their attention to decoding, so there's not much capacity left over for comprehension. Reading is still a chore for the reader at this stage. Things don't change until the reader reaches the third stage--automaticity.

The third stage is automaticity. Automaticity occurs when the learner can perform the skill without conscious attention. Once the skill is automatic the learner can't help but do it. When a reader sees an arrangement of letters on a page, he is obliged to read the word. He has to read the word. At this stage, the learner can perform the task quickly, accurately, and in the presence of distractors. The reader is capable of reading without conscious attention being paid to decoding the words.

You are a stage three reader. Your reading is automatic. You do not need to laboriously piece together the letters of each word to puzzle out its identity. Your mind seems to divine the meaning of prose immediately and without effort on your part. Try this classic demonstration of automaticity for advanced readers.

In this exercise you must name the color in which the words are printed, but ignore the word that the letters spell. So, for the stimulus Turkey the proper response is "blue."

First try this list:

Lion
Bear
Tiger
Lion
Bear
Bear
Tiger


Now try this list:


Red
Green
Blue
Red
Blue
Blue
Green


The second list is much harder to read than the first list because, for you, reading is automatic. Even though you try not to read the words that the letters form, you read them automatically and doing so conflicts with naming the ink color. For someone who cannot read, the second list is no harder than the first.

It is the readers in the third stage that can finally enjoy reading because decoding is mostly effortless. The reader can attend to making meaning from the text.

In contrast, readers still in the second stage whose decoding is less than automatic not only have impaired comprehension, but their decoding is still labored and cognitively demanding. This makes reading not fun and enjoyable, but a chore. The result is that kids in this stage do not find reading pleasurable and, therefore, won't engage in the activity. And, not practicing reading, this semi-skilled reader will never gain the automaticity needed to make reading enjoyable.

This is why many kids are reluctant to read.

(A minority of kids may also have a comprehension problem in addition to or, in some cases, instead of decoding deficiencies. It's easy to test this condition. If the student does not comprehend the passage when he reads it and also doesn't comprehend the passage when it is read to him, then there is a comprehension problem. See Automaticity in Decoding which forms the basis of this post.)

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I agree that a "minority" of students have comprehension problems.

By middle school, the vast majority of low income students I have seen read fluently, but they still cannot comprehend middle school level textbooks.

Anonymous said...

The reason they cannot comprehend middle school textbooks is because the text of those texts is much longer and more complex than that of easy readers.

In addition, much of these texts are non-fiction works, which require a different kind of cognitive processing. The student must REMEMBER lots of DETAILS. This is different from reading Junie B. First Grader or Bubbles Takes a Bath.

KDeRosa said...

Anon 5:25, I think you are confusing two different populations.

I'm talking about all kids, you are talking about low income kids. A minority of the total population may have comprehension problems while a majority of low income students have comprehension problems which I think is the case.

And, being fluent readers is not necessarily the same as being automatic decoders as I tried to point out in the post, especially when background knowledge is a problem.

Lastly, if this is the same Anon that has been commenting on multiple posts, please pick a distinctive blogger name so I can tell who is who.

That goes for all you Anon commenters that plan to comment more than once.

Peter Warner said...

Dear Ken DeRosa:

I would like to post this excellent article online for wider distribution, with credit of course. Would that be possible?

(Two attempts at contacting you by email have failed. )

Best regards, Peter Warner.

KDeRosa said...

Peter, feel free to post this entry where you want. My email address is kderosa [at] yahoo [dot] com.

Peter Warner said...

Thank you very kindly for your permission.

Regarding the email address, I've had
consistent problems with yahoo.com
addresses. The emails are returned
after 24 hours as undelivered and
undeliverable. That means the intended
recipient never saw it, and never knows
they never saw it. It's frustrating.

Thank you again for helping to improve
literacy teaching.

Best regards, Peter Warner.