Better Readers, Avid Readers—What Should the Goal of Literacy Instruction Be?

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For most educators the goal of reading instruction is to create better readers. For some better means a score on a standardized test, the 75% percentile. To others better means a higher reading level, a 5.0 GLE, a level 40 in fourth grade or meeting specific standards. All assume that the work of reading instruction is to develop a student’s expertise, to be better at it. In this blog article, Dr. Peter Dewitz explores the question—What should the goal of literacy instruction be?

What if the major goal of reading instruction was not cognitive but affective? What if our major goal was fostering the growth in interest, creating avid readers, and the cognitive goals took a backseat? At the end of the year schools, educators would be judged not on how well their students read, but on what they read, how much they read and how deeply they engaged with text. What if a successful student was one who entered school in September hating to read and left in June craving the next Rick Riordan novel? Or another student who had read every Nate the Great chapter book, but by spring discovered the joy of reading about earth science and inventors.

The Development of Interest

Let’s consider what curriculum and instruction might look like if the primary goal was the development of interest, the creation of avid readers. The research of Hidi and Renninger (2006) points us in the direction of crafting reading experience around this affective goal.

According to Suzanne Hidi and K. Ann Renninger (2006) interest is a disposition to engage in an activity or with an idea. It begins with situational interest, something triggered by an incident. We take our children to the zoo and the visit sparks an interest in tigers for one, macaws for another and the hot dog cart for the youngest. This is (1) triggered situational interest which turns into (2) maintained situational interest through designed activities in the home or the classroom. Teachers can develop a unit to study animals or hot dogs; they can create group projects and have students work with each other.

Maintained situational interest is fostered by growing knowledge and skill.

Maintained situational interest becomes (3) an emerging individual interest when the child attaches some personal value to the topic or the activity. Given a choice he will select this activity and become curious to learn more. An emerging individual interest still requires some support and encouragement from adults or classmates. This emerging interest becomes a (4) well developed individual interest when the student seeks out the topic or activity with no prompting. She values the opportunity to engage with the topic or book pushing aside distractions and welcoming challenges.

If the development of interest is the primary educational goal the teacher would begin the school year with a great read-aloud, a book with a gripping story line. Perhaps Shiloh (Naylor) or Earthquake Terror (Kehret). The power of Marty’s moral compass to save an abused dog, or Jonathon’s courage to rescue his handicapped sister in the midst of an earthquake triggers situational interest. As the teacher reads aloud she conveys her love of the book and the need to wrestle with its themes. As the teacher builds knowledge of narrative structures and helps students think strategically she is friendly and encouraging, modeling the process of thinking necessary to understand the book. She is providing external support that will shift to internal support when students work with a partner to refine their understanding of the text.

Knowledge, competence and social connections help to turn this triggered interest into a maintained situational interest. The students who engaged with Jonathan developed this situational interest as they read some linked text in a book club – I Survived Hurricane Katrina, Kensuke’s Kingdom, or Hatchet. Each text continues the focus on realistic fiction, and survival. During the book clubs students read and discuss, building their competence, knowledge and interest. At this point we might conclude that many students have an emerging individual interest in novels about survival.

To maintain this personal interest and extend it, the teacher provides other books for the students to read extending the theme and focus on the author. Some might choose other books by Peg Kehret, Blizzard Disaster or Surviving the Giant Wave. Other students might select the rest of the books in the I Survived or Hatchet series. The other texts and the teacher’s encouragement deepen the student’s interest.

A Curriculum To Develop Interest

Collinge introduces teachers to this instructional outline in her book, Raising the Standards Through Chapter Books: The C. I. A. Approach. Her collect, interpret, apply method for reading breaks down the reading process into meaningful stages, simplifying the overwhelming task of reading longer more complex text. Such a design allows for students to build knowledge as they access more difficult text across the year.

In classrooms using this approach, the curriculum structure of read-alouds followed by book clubs is repeated several times across the school year, with different topics and genres.  Students’ knowledge of text structures and strategic competence grows. Competence promotes interest. Students slowly move from an interest in a book, an author or a topic to interest in reading. With planning, the teacher has developed an individual interest in each student.

When the reading curriculum is built around the development of interest and not skill, instructional planning changes. The curriculum ceases to be a sequence of skills and strategies. Teachers select riveting books and sequence them to build and expand interest while providing the knowledge and strategies students need to succeed. Themes and genres become more important than levels.

A student who can read but has no interest in doing so has no advantage over a student who cannot read.

 

Written by Peter Dewitz, Ph. D.

Director of Research

Read Side by Side Publications, LLC.

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