ARCHIVED—Reading and loving it!
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As an English major in university and an English teacher by profession, reading and teaching reading had always come easily to Virginia Winfield. However, when she got involved with a province-wide literacy project, she quickly found out that many of her colleagues struggle with how to impart this crucial skill to their students.
"The more my eyes were opened to that, the more I started reading," says Winfield of her experience with Ontario's Think Literacy project. "This sparked an obsessive search for literacy strategies and I joined my school and board literacy committees."
Along the way, she learned a few things. One is that about 80 percent of students never read again for pleasure once they leave high school. "Why is that?" she asks. "What we are teaching them bores them. Just because I like Shakespeare, doesn't mean that a 16-year-old boy will."
Another fact is that there are differences between boy and girl readers. "Boys, for example, don't like things that take masses of time to read and have too many characters. They really like non-fiction."
Finally, it is clear, Winfield says, that teaching students to read and teaching them to love reading are two different things. You have to find a balance between the two in the classroom.
So what does a teacher do? Winfield likes to look beyond the established curriculum of Lord of the Flies and Shakespeare to such popular recent books as Into Thin Air, which is about a Mount Everest climb that goes horribly wrong. Also, she does not eschew magazines, such as The Walrus and MacLean's, which cover current issues that teen readers "can sink their teeth into."
Winfield also takes advantage of students' love of the Internet, particularly chat rooms and MSN. She says that there is value in the writing and reading that teens do online. A teacher could arrange to have a chat room with another English class that is reading the same book or, for younger students, pen pals across the city, country or world.
Another technique Winfield swears by is one she borrowed from literacy guru Kyleen Beers, called Syntext Surgery. This is an exercise Winfield does with her English students three times a week for five minutes at the start of the class.
Here's how it works. Winfield types a small piece of text in 18-point type, double-spaced but so it fits on just one page. She makes an overhead of it and gives each student a copy. The class then works together to take apart the text and understand what it says. "We clarify who is who and what is what using existing knowledge," Winfield says. She also has the students draw a picture of the action the text depicts, and look for context clues for words that they don't understand.
Winfield says that most students are not very good at this at first. "They don't know what good readers do. You have to show them first, and then let them try it. It's a building block kind of thing." In the first week she does all the work for them, but after about a month, there is incredible improvement, she says.
This is all well and good, but what if you don't teach English but biology? Winfield says that good literacy strategies should work for everyone, across the curriculum.
For example, teachers in a vocabulary-heavy subject could build a word wall. "Before you teach a concept (such as photosynthesis), put the word on a card, explain it and then put the card up on a wall as a visual reminder to the students." Another possibility is a scavenger hunt with word cards or any other game that immerses the students in the vocabulary they need for the subject.
As good as these strategies are, they will never turn every student into a bookworm, Winfield admits. But that's okay, she says. "When I was first a teacher, I thought how awful it was that students are getting through without knowing how to read. I've changed my mind. Every student is unique. Some will never be very good readers. They will get better, but will never love Shakespeare. However, they have loads of other skills, such as knowing how to take apart an engine."
Winfield recommends the following books as "must-reads" for teachers wanting to learn more about teaching their students to read: When Kids Can't Read, What Teachers Can Do by Kyleen Beers, I Read But I Don't Get It and Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? by Chris Tovani and Even Hockey Players Can Read by Canadian David Booth.
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