This is No Joke: 3 Myths About Learning to Read

The earliest recorded example of an April Fools’ Day prank may have happened in 1698, when unsuspecting tourists were convinced to visit the Tower of London to observe the “washing of the lions.” The prank is exactly as you may have guessed: guests were promised that they would witness the lions getting washed in the moat. April Fools! 

As reflective educators, we must always be operating from the lens of evaluating and understanding our impact and the effect we have on readers. So, in the spirit of this joyous holiday of pranks and hoaxes, let us all be wary of some common myths surrounding the ability to read. 

Myth #1: Reading logs will inform teachers if their students are reading. 

Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But here’s the thing: reading logs are a blatant admission of not trusting your own students. To me, this is quite the opposite of the message we’re trying to send to our young readers. In a traditional setting, students are asked to, “log it...or else.” It can be incredibly disheartening for students to be forced into logging each and every minute they have spent reading. I admittedly included reading logs in my practice as a young teacher and didn’t discover my folly until I came across a letter from Donalyn Miller. Instead of mandatory reading logs, I offer an alternative: talk. Think about it: as adults we love to talk about books we read. We share the stories and emotions of the characters and make connections to our own lives. Students will want to do this too...if they’re given the opportunity! Readers will have meaningful discussion during conferring sessions, but they should also be allowed to have active and authentic discussions with classmates. Consider the visible thinking routine “What Makes You Say That?”.

This routine helps students describe what they see or know, and asks them to build explanations. It promotes evidence-based reasoning and, because it invites readers to share their interpretations, it encourages students to understand alternatives and multiple perspectives. Just imagine the active conversations that can occur when this practice replaces the practice that reading is done in order to comply, in order to avoid consequences and in order to complete an assignment.

Myth #2: Listening to an audiobook or being read to is “cheating.”

Reading takes a load of brain power. A large load. It’s easy to take for granted the ability to read, but in order to process text, comprehend the words on the page, and retain the information coming in, the brain has to work hard! Understanding a bit about just how the brain works to read can be eye-opening. If you then understand the vital importance of providing emergent readers with an immersive experience, you can begin to realize just how essential it is to provide readers with multiple scaffolds to be successful. One such scaffold that educators sometimes ignore is the power of audiobooks. Consider this quote from Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading: “The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.” Not an important activity, the activity! 

Audiobooks not only present excellent opportunities to engage the attention of young people, but also to advance literacy. In my experience, leveraging audiobooks has been the difference in building enthusiasm and buy-in for students who struggle to find books or authors that stimulate and maintain their interest. Further, when considering the “summer slide” or students who are not reading to their individual potential, audiobooks can be an authentic solution to keep the momentum moving forward. Audiobooks can expose struggling readers of any age to something they rarely experience by allowing them to observe what fluent readers have every time they read a book. 

It’s important to avoid getting bogged down in how students are engaged with the text. What should be more of a concern is the level of engagement. Oftentimes, students appear to be engaged when reading (whether it’s an audiobook or not), but are only strategically compliant. In other words, they’re completing the task because the teacher asked them to. They’re playing the game of school. The work of Phillip Schlecty goes deeper into this world by identifying the components of each level. Students who are strategically compliant demonstrate high attention, but low commitment. Understanding the message, thinking critically about the content, using imagination, and making connections are at the heart of what it means to be authentically engaged and why kids love books. This is a level of authentic engagement which includes both high attention and high commitment. 

Myth #3: Students don’t need to discuss books.

I firmly believe that reading is a social activity. While the physical act of reading can be more of an independent affair, what can occur throughout a book—and at the conclusion among peers and classmates—can truly bring a new dynamic to a literacy environment. A quick check of the #bookstagramhashtag on Instagram says it all: more than 18,000,000 posts shared by reading enthusiasts. One of the most common pain points I hear from teachers on this topic is that they know it’s important to have students actively discuss books in class, but they aren’t entirely sure where to start or how to begin creating an environment where discussion practices are a priority. A great starting point to building students’ capacity to discuss what they are reading is book clubs

As social creatures, when we find that special book that gets us psyched or gets the blood flowing, we want to share it. We want others to know how that one chapter made us feel, and we want to know if anyone else can relate. For students, reading isn’t just about what you learn from the book, it’s what you take away and whether or not that book stays with you. Consider all of the social sharing buttons that appear on blogs and other related sites that publish content. They’re there to encourage readers to share and probe others to share their own thinking about the text. But do we allow this to occur in our classrooms? 

In addition to fostering interaction, cooperation, and collaboration; book clubs also reinforce the importance of self-reflection. It was during the individual reflections (usually written as blog posts) after the different clubs would meet when I was the most impressed with the progress my readers were making. They were having deep and meaningful conversations about the book based on questions they wrote. They were communicating effectively and respecting one another’s thoughts and ideas. It was because of this that book clubs became a mandatory component of my classroom. 

So, before you eagerly agree to go observe the “washing of the lions,” or demand reading logs, beware of some common pranks or hoaxes that may wander into your instructional practices and consider visible thinking routines, audiobooks, and book clubs as ways to support your literacy instruction. Know thy impact, and always look to provide readers with opportunities to show you the answers to these three vital questions: Where are they now? Where are they going? How are they going to get there?

Billy Spicer

Billy currently teaches in Lake Zurich Community Unit School District 95 in suburban Chicago. After spending a decade teaching 3rd thru 5th grades, Billy served students and teachers as an instructional coach. He recently spent time in the Bahamas with the Shedd Aquarium where he lived on a research vessel for a week conducting scientific inquiry. Prior to teaching in Lake Zurich he worked at Walt Disney World as a member of the Animal Programs department in entertaining, educating, and inspiring conservation action. He facilitates a passion for literacy, passionate learning, and social media to discover creative ways for students to meet their individual learning needs. Authentic and purposeful technology integration is a non-negotiable aspect in providing students with the tools to be successful. Billy earned his BA in Elementary Education at Illinois State University and a MA in Literacy and Reading from Benedictine University. He also enjoys hot dogs, coffee, and his ever growing collection of records. To learn more about his interests and passions in and out of the classroom, follow him on Twitter-@MrBillySpicer