I think reading may not be all that important — What?!

I am not often speechless. But it’s not often I hear statements like this — from teachers no less:

“There are so many other ways for students to get information. I think reading may not be all that important to students today.”

We were into the second hour of a three hour workshop on conferring. We had already brainstormed and charted what we believe are the needs of our students:

  • trust in authority
  • time and attention from adults
  • a caring teacher who is a listener and is consistent with discipline and classroom management
  • technology to learn and communicate
  • critical thinking skills
  • a context for what we want them to learn
  • positivity and discernment
  • a focus on what matters/ability to ignore “the noise” of unnecessary information
  • the opportunity to freely think and to take risks
  • the ability to communicate in ways that are socially acceptable and responsible

We had just read research on reading as detailed by Nancy Motley in the book Talk, Read, Talk, Write. I share it here:

Literacy skills for the twenty-first century are far more complex than in previous generations (Goldman, 2012). In addition to the basics of reading comprehension, today’s students must also know how to read with purpose, integrate new information, resolve conflicting content in different texts, and identify the writer’s perspective (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006). Students can only learn these skills by reading. Because many students enter the classroom with underdeveloped literacy skills, we often replace reading tasks with lecture and interactive activities to ensure that students stay engaged and learn the content, Hoyt (1999) explains.

“…expository reading for many students is often a listening experience. Well-meaning teachers, concerned about textbooks that are too difficult, often create situations where one student reads from the text and others listen or attempt to follow along in the book. This situation does little to build conceptual understandings, and it can actually deter from the learning process as the listeners are engaging in very little reading.”

When teachers “deliver” the curriculum to students, students lose the opportunity to construct meaning for themselves (Tovani, 2000). According to the Reading Next (2006) report (a meta-analysis of adolescent reading), three of the most statistically significant practices for increasing the academic achievement of middle and high school students included:

  1. direct, explicit comprehension instruction
  2. reading and writing skills embedded in content area classrooms
  3. text-based collaborative learning

Put simply,

“When we routinely model and make explicit the methods adults use to read, think, and make connections, students learn to do it, too. Furthermore, they will see that such close, insightful reading is within their reach — that they can do such reading and thinking, which is central to an education.” (Schmoker, 2011).

I am not often speechless. But this teacher’s comment left me chewing my lip. Did he read the research? Did he understand what it meant? Does he really believe that reading is not important?

“If I gave my students The Canterbury Tales and expected them to read it, that just wouldn’t happen. I read it to them, and they get a lot of information, and they come to like it,” this teacher continued.

And I countered, embracing my inner Penny Kittle, as I facilitated another hour of professional development:  “What is your purpose for ‘reading’ The Canterbury Tales — or other texts you choose for your students? What skills are you teaching with that book? How do you know your students are learning them? How are you helping your students develop as readers — because that is our job as English teachers. If we are not helping students become better readers than they were when they came to us, we are not doing our job.””

“Today’s students must … know how to read with purpose, integrate new information, resolve conflicting content in different texts, and identify the writer’s perspective.  Students can only learn these skills by reading.” 

They must also know how to discern viable information from the barrage of biased and unreliable information. And know how to understand a rental agreement when they sign a lease, a sales contract when they purchase a car, a speeding ticket when they get one, a ballot in a voting box when they are standing in line next to you and next to me.

Students can only learn to read by reading.

benefits of reading

What do you think? Is reading important to the students we teach? How would you have responded to my teacher friend?


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5 thoughts on “I think reading may not be all that important — What?!

  1. […] way to grow as literate individuals is to read. I’ve heard my mentors say it again and again: “The only way to develop readers is to […]


  2. Cyndi Faircloth November 10, 2015 at 4:51 pm Reply

    I can relate to the first part of your friend’s comment: “If I gave my students The Canterbury Tales and expected them to read it, that just wouldn’t happen.” But as I’ve learned more about how to engage students with questioning strategies, I’ve moved past just reading it so they “like it” and “learn a lot”. Your point about students needing a purpose to read, and the opportunity to struggle with the text, is so important to remember – especially if we are asked to meet the CCSS in our classes. I find now that, when I guide them with ways to struggle with the text, my classes are more interesting for all of us! Classroom management is more about finding a way to END the on-task discussions and move us on to the next activity! Reading is so important!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy November 10, 2015 at 8:52 pm Reply

      I know what you mean, Cyndi, just as I knew what this gentleman meant — kind of. I know that many students do not read — or just flat out cannot read — the assigned texts like Canterbury Tales. But, here’s the thing, do students today really need to read pieces like Canterbury Tales, especially struggling readers? Wouldn’t it be better for teachers to select texts that are more easily approachable, maybe more contemporary, maybe more accessible for many non-readers? Or, if nothing else, how about choose a portion of a difficult text like this and teaching a specific skill, say inferencing, while reading it? To subject a class of students who do not read to “listening” to a text because “they will not read it” seems like a waste of valuable class time, doesn’t it?

      I can certainly agree that questioning strategies help with engaging students in a text, and they can be a valuable tool for helping students enter and engage with a text. However, I’ve also seen questioning strategies that look a lot like worksheets. I have a list of many students who’ve told me this does nothing but kill of a love of reading. I know you know that.

      We have to be careful with any strategy we employ that deters our students from wanting to read. So many already have no desire. Our responsibility to to invite invite invite.

      Thank you so much for reading — and for your thoughtful comment. Congrats on the movement you see with your students!!


  3. Erika B. November 10, 2015 at 1:22 pm Reply

    I literally had much to say while reading this post, Amy. And I did…in my classroom, behind a closed door, to my computer screen. Thank you for advocating, that regardless of its complexity, literacy is ESSENTIAL for all of our students. If they don’t necessarily recognize it, is it not our RESPONSIBILITY as educators to pursue a path of understanding for them?

    Keep charging forward and sharing the gift of literacy with the lucky youth that share their literacy growth with you on a daily basis.

    XOXOX from BK!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy November 10, 2015 at 8:44 pm Reply

      Thanks, Erika, you are a teacher dear to my heart.


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