Sunday, May 8, 2011

Read to Learn

A few years ago, I was in a teacher’s workshop where the speaker said, “From Kindergarten to third grade, you are learning to read.  From fourth grade on up, you should be reading to learn.”  There is a lot of wisdom in those words.  Somewhere between third and fourth grades, the focus of learning changes from learning phonics to learning comprehension.  This is not exclusive – many children older than third grade need reminders of phonics rules, and children should be learning to understand what they are reading as soon as they pick up their first book – but this phrase gives us focus for our reading instruction plan.  How do you teach a child to read to learn?
Reading should be meaningful.  For some reason which I have never understood, the focus of educational reading has turned to fiction.  There was a great emphasis on making story maps and thinking creatively.  However, my question is:  Why?  Children of all ages (including adults) enjoy learning about things they are interested in – real things.  Why would we take our limited instructional time and teach them something which has no basis in reality and is completely made up?  Even if it has a lesson which we can draw, it is still made up!  This is a waste of time.  Yes, children do enjoy reading fiction, but they get even greater enjoyment from reading things that they can then spend time researching more on their own.  All reading lessons should use non-fictional texts.
When a child reads, he needs to understand the vocabulary in the text.  If a child does not understand at least 95% of what he reads, he will be frustrated and will decide the topic is not for him.  This means that when a child reads, if they miss more than one out of 20 words, they aren’t “getting it.”  It is highly important to prepare your child for reading a text which may use a number of words with which he is unfamiliar.  Giving him a list of vocabulary words might help a little, but giving him experiences where he uses the words will help him much more. 
Let’s say you wanted your child to study biomes (different habitats/environments).  You could hand him a book and say, “Read this.”  You also could send him to a website with information and pictures, or possibly a game where you are matching animals with their correct biome. 
While I believe these are important and should be used in learning, I do not think this is where you should start – whatever the age of your child.  I recommend instead taking a few well planned field trips.  Possibly have your child keep a notebook of plants and animals, as well as non-living things he sees.  He could also take a camera and later create a photo journal or an informational webpage of different habitats which you explore.  Many parks have more than one biome.  Have conversations, introducing a lot of the vocabulary you want him to learn while you walk through the paths (bring notes with you, it’s okay!).  You don’t even have to see everything you want to introduce.  If you want to talk about an animal or plant which you do not see, you can tell stories about it while you walk.  This will give your child an experience connected with the vocabulary that he needs so that he can go back and read a book or a computer website and can build on his experiences.  Even as an adult, I gained from a workshop where we left the college and went to some undeveloped land which the college owned and simply wandered through the fields and rivers with the professors giving us some ideas of what to look for.
Being able to relate to the topic is vital for reading to learn.  You should not introduce history to a child under the age of 12 unless it is about places where he can physically go and look over.  They are still thinking very concretely, and simply reading about events that happened in places where they have never been does not have much to connect to.  As a child gets older, they are better able to relate, but having experiences in the topic greatly increases his ability to learn.
Besides reading about things which a child has experiences with, it is also important that the teacher (or parent) forget about learning the “right thing.”  Why is one piece of information of more importance than another?  If that’s true, then who gets to decide what is so important that everyone should know it?
I used to teach fifth grade and had to teach about the explorers.  We only had about a month to teach this important topic, so I had to pick and choose what the students should leanr.  I decided to focus on the names of the “big” explorers, the country they were from, and the purpose for their explorations.  My students learned a great deal about each of the eight explorers which we studied and they could all explain, to varying degrees, the purposes of each explorer.  Months later, I was very pleased that my students remembered this information.  Then, after they took the test, I proudly asked how they did on the test.  They shook their heads and many of the smarter students told me that nothing we studied was on the test.  I was not allowed to look at the test, so I asked them for an example of what questions were asked.  They told me one of them was “Which country brought horses to the Americas.”  Horses?  That was what the state felt was vital to their learning about the explorers – who brought horses from Europe?  I have to tell you that I had to look up the answer, and I was furious that this was one of the questions when there was so much more that I felt was much more valuable that we had studied.  None of the students could remember one question being asked about what the purpose for explorers were – which I felt like was very important. 
The fact is, different people recognize different things as being important.  If there is something specific you want them to learn, you should state that.  However, most of the learning experience should be allowing the child to explore the topic, through hands-on experiences, reading books, and exploring websites.  The student should also be expected to present what he has learned, whether it be an oral presentation, a diorama, a PowerPoint presentation, a research paper, or a homemade documentary using a regular video camera.  Allow your child to find a way to demonstrate what he learned, and you will be surprised what he will come up with!
The last item which should be taught used to be very commonly used – the “Rule of 3.”  All research should have at least three sources.  Unfortunately, many classrooms today use one source only – the textbook.  If the teacher is able to find a classroom set of another, supplementary book, that provides a second source of information, but they rarely support three sources for the same information.  It is too easy for one text to pick and choose the information to be presented that biases the reader one direction or another.  If a student tries to find three sources, they are much more likely to find valid information instead of the belief of the author of a particular text.  Always read at least three sources to get information about a topic.
Providing experiences related to the topic, remembering there is not a “right thing” to learn about a topic, and reading at least three sources for the topic are all necessary when teaching a child to read to learn.  Do not start with a large, confusing topic.  I suggest you begin studying things around you – things your child may already be interested in or which you may explore nearby.  With just a little practice, your child will soon eagerly be reading to learn.

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