The reading process is an extremely complex one actively involving both hemispheres of the brain. Nevertheless, I will try to simplify this process by breaking it down into three major steps:
1. Identification—This involves the pupil’s ability to associate meaning with words as they appear in his reading. This to me, is the basis of reading; for sounding out phonemes and morphemes means nothing to the student if he cannot identify or call upon either context clues or his own experiences to bring meaning or comprehension to the word. Yet it is these very two skills which the innercity student lacks: context, because his comprehension skills have not been adequately developed; and meaningful educational experiences, either because of different cultural values or pressures or because of lack of money. These problems can be solved to a great extent by providing these experiences (field trips or by audio visual methods) and by direct teaching of context clues from the SRA Kit, Tactics I, II found in any reading lab of any high school. I have used both these methods with my students (Sophomores—Seniors) and there has been marked improvement in identification.
2. Organization—This is the process whereby the reader organizes the ideas presented to produce a logical result. I am sure that you will agree that many of our students, especially in the developmental and basic levels, wrestle with this problem of organization, both in understanding what they read, and in their own writing. They (the students) want to say a lot but it comes out all confused. This is especially brought out in writing, whether it be answering given comprehension questions or paragraph or essay writing. I have responded to this problem by using exercises in sequencing from ditto masters and by using something as common as the newspaper. I have taken news articles, ‘Dear Abby’ letters, sports stories, comic strips etc. and by cutting the article into paragraphs or the paragraph into sentences, I have had students rearrange them into a logical sequence, comparing their arrangement with the original.
3. Reaction—This involves an emotional and intellectual reaction which most naturally will depend on the type of material the student reads and the reader’s attitude and purpose. Thus if reading has been pleasurable because the student has been able to identify successfully (emotionally and intellectually) with the text, and to organize the material, then the student will want to read more. This desire will set off a chain reaction which will lead to more reading, and the more the student reads, the better he will read. I think this is one of our goals as teachers.
One may ask why we place so much emphasis on the ability to read. First of all, one’s overall scholastic success depends mainly on the ability to read. More important, however, are the demands of our modern world which directly relate to this ability. Because we’re in an age of science and space exploration and because we’re bombarded by propaganda in all its forms, we must be able to read critically. In addition, it is beneficial to read for recreation for besides the relaxation it brings, it takes you to many places and provides you with many experiences which you otherwise may not have.
With all these reasons for the need of reading skill, why then do innercity students perform so inadequately in reading? Once more we’ve touched on a complex problem on which volumes have been written. However, I will briefly mention a few of the internal and external factors which affect one’s reading:
1. Physical—Vision, hearing, lateral dominance, one’s sex and health.
2. Mental—Intelligence, conceptualization, language, mental immaturity and listening.
3. Emotional—Selfconcept, subject matter, and teacher effect.
4. SocioEconomic—Low socioeconomic status, family mobility and family stability. There is much dispute about whether these are direct causes of reading difficulties. On the other hand, there is little doubt that their influences will have some bearing upon other conditions such as interest in learning and expectations of success, which can affect one’s progress in reading.
5. Educational—Inadequate teaching of reading, inadequately prepared teachers, poor teacher strategy, overemphasis on one reading skill, indiscriminate use of reading materials, inadequate and unsuitable instructional material, teacher bias, poor or insensitive administration.
6. Lack of motivation—On the part of the student and the teacher. It is my firm belief that this is one of the important factors underlying the low performance in reading of innercity high school students. For this reason, I have devoted my time to research on motivational techniques to help these ‘turnedoff’ ‘tunedout’ students.
If a student has had past successful experiences in reading, he will be motivated to read more. For many children, the most compelling motivation for reading comes from their parents as models.
If a child sees his parents reading a lot, he will tend to imitate that model even before reading has any significance. Children have been known to pick up books and look at them, turning the pages and copying the gestures of the adult they admire. If these gestures are reinforced, reading will be a pleasurable experience, reinforcement in itself and the child’s reading will improve.
From the research that I have done, I have discovered these other motivators of reading: reading for entertainment, need for novelty, need to know, feeling of power in decoding, freedom attained through access to ideas, vicarious adventures into the unknown, alternative solutions to interpersonal relationships, learning of sex roles and aesthetic experiences.
I am sure that at some time we, as teachers, have used some of these motivators when, through use of interest questionnaires, we found out just where our students were, and we provided suitable reading.
But what happens to the disadvantaged child who has had only negative experiences and negative role models? How is he motivated? In answer to this question, I would like to refer to Tolstoi’s technique of teaching similarly ‘turnedoff’, ‘tunedout’ students. In the Yasnaya Polyana School which Count Tolstoi founded in Russia, he completely abandoned all existing traditions and refused to follow any method of teaching already in use. First he had to understand the child’s culture and the child. Next, he did away with punishment and by doing this he let his pupils teach him the art of teaching.
You may ask what does a nineteenth century Russian teacher have to tell us modern Americans about teaching in innercity schools. Yet although the time and place are different, the philosophy still applies. If we educators (administrators and teachers) would only stop our hurried planning and take some time to sit back and observe the very students for whom we are planning, we are the ones who will
and when we learn, we will be better able to
. This is what Count Tolstoi did. In his school, the pupils were free to choose their own subjects and to take as much work as they wanted. The teacher guided the children by tapering his method of approach to the individual child and by finding the best way of giving help in each case.
These students met with such tremendous success that they spent their entire day at their studies and were reluctant to leave the schoolhouse. Since ‘success’ is one of the key words of our school system, we, as educators, can try to adapt as much as possible from Tolstoi’s philosophy of education.
John Holt, whose philosophy is a modern version of Tolstoi’s, tells us that when we better understand the ways, conditions, and spirit in which children do their best learning, and are able to make school into a place where they can use and improve the style of thinking and learning natural to them, we may be able to prevent much failure.
Once more, I can directly apply Holt’s view of education to my experience teaching in an American innercity public high school. I had done my first three years of teaching in another country and even though I was teaching black, economically disadvantaged teenagers, they were very eager to learn: Students were obligated to purchase all educational material needed (textbooks, dictionaries, atlases, mathematical equipment, paper and pen) which were extremely expensive. There was no hassle with homework not being turned in, and discipline problems were at a minimum. Kids wanted to learn and they really tried. There we had no A.V. material or sophisticated educational equipment. Everything was completely traditional. The compelling motivator was that in that society, you are actually ‘nothing’ without an education, so even if you wanted to be a sales girl in a department store, you must have a complete high school certificate.
With this teaching background, I started teaching in New Haven. I think you can very well imagine the shock, dismay, and deep frustration that I experienced after my first few weeks of teaching. I attended InService workshops on discipline and classroom management etc. which helped just a bit. And that’s when I realized what was happening. I was teaching with my own idealistic expectations and not really listening to what the kids were telling me by their actions. In other words, when I started learning from my kids, I became a better teacher. It was in this learning experience that I began using an interest questionnaire at the beginning of each school year, periodic (twice a marking period) individual conferences where each student has a chance to discuss academic performance, behavior, expectations, and goals, and I began using many of the motivational techniques that will be mentioned later. All of this produced a greatly improved studentteacher relationship, the atmosphere became very relaxed and the classroom became a place to learn.
I will now present some techniques based on these two educational philosophies for motivating our reluctant innercity high school students to read. I will also present a simple, uncomplicated conference procedure to check on the child’s reading and improvement of skills. Finally, I will provide some sources of reading material for teachers and others for students.