Can critical reading also be fun?

Last week I wrote about the challenges and pitfalls of allowing students to write elaborations in their micro-reading responses. But what have we to say on the subject of engaging students in reading?

It’s great how specific common core gets about what it really means to read critically:

Determine what the text says explicitly…make logical inferences…cite specific textual evidence…support conclusions…Determine central ideas…analyze development…summarize key supporting…Analyze how and why…Determine technical, connotative, and figurative… analyze specific word choices…Analyze structure…Assess point of view…Integrate and evaluate…visually and quantitatively…Delineate and evaluate arguments and specific claims…validity of reasoning…relevance and sufficiency…comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

But boy does it sound like work! And (dare I say it) not of the fun variety.

At the end of the day, “getting good” at critical reading comes down to practice! practice! practice! Quantities of practice beyond completing homework assignments; quantities of practice that are unreasonable for a teacher to grade; quantities of practice that can only result from embracing a habit of reading for the sake of enjoyment, not grades.

I love reading!

I love reading! (and xkcd)

Good readers love to read, “poor” readers don’t. Reading makes you a better reader.

Like so many other intractable problems, figuring out how to improve the lot of “poor readers” is another one of these depressing chicken-and-egg situations.

So how about getting specific about how to make reading fun? …in 4th grade, in high school, in grad school, in life?

We certainly don’t pretend to have any sure-fire answers. What we do have are a set of assumptions and biases we’ve collected over the past couple of years of piloting Ponder in the classroom:

  1. Students are more engaged if they have a say in what they’re engaging with.
  2. An excellent course reader is the backbone of any syllabus. Still, primary and journalistic texts are always going to be more interesting than textbooks.
  3. Self-direction can’t be “taught”, but like a muscle, it can be developed through assignments that leave room for self-determination.
  4. You can teach techniques for critical reading, but “getting really good at it” can only be achieved through cultivating a regular habit of close reading.
  5. The only way to “debug” reading problems is to gain a view into what students are thinking while they read. Writing is better than multiple choice for such assessment. However, what’s needed is a solution that allows students to “practice” critical reading several dozen times a day in a way teachers can actually stay on top of and respond to.
  6. Critical reading is most fun when it’s a way to challenge how you think and feel about the world and least fun when it’s an end in and of itself.

I’ll go one step further and say, identifying thesis statements and supporting evidence are means, not ends.

They are technical way stations on the path to discovering the surprising, counter-intuitive insights that are the real reasons why “good readers” love to read.

Such sweeping statements are very fine in the abstract, so next up: Getting specific about assignments and lesson plans to make reading fun!

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