Collaborative Classroom Blog

The Definition of a Reader

Categories: Making Meaning, From the Field

When I was a young girl I could decode multisyllabic words at a very early age. I can remember being asked to read isolated pages from the bible to the adoring audience of various relatives. Their accolades, although well-meant, reinforced to me that this is what reading was-decoding words fluently and rapidly. No one seemed to worry about whether or not I understood those words, least of all, ME. I would have scored quite well on the DIBELS Oral Reading Fluency (ORF) test (a reading assessment that measures words read per minute) but struggled on the new PARCC or Smarter Balanced assessments.

It was not until college that I began to suspect there was a problem. I had always thought I didn’t like to read, not that I truly couldn’t read. My first year of college was spent diligently reading and rereading the textbook assignments while getting very little from them. The following years were spent taking excellent notes and rarely, if ever, reading a chapter. My system worked quite well for me, and I graduated four years later with honors.

Yet, I still didn’t truly become a reader, if the definition of a reader is “someone who actively reads and understands books,” until much later when I developed a strong purpose in pursuing the written word. I became passionate about instructing my young students in reading and ironically found that in order to learn more about reading development, I needed to read. Armed with a clear purpose to practice reading, I finished my first book in a decade: Whole Language: Theory in Use by Judith Newman. I learned so much from this text on how to help students become literate that I continued reading. Now in my late fifties, where some woman keep shoes, I have stacks of books on literacy loaded with highlights and annotations that prove the deep thinking that went into the reading of each text. When I leave home for even a trip to Lake Powell, I cannot go until I am equipped with one fun read (a fiction novel) and one text on literacy. I have become a reader.

student on classroom floor reading a book

When I read the stellar work of Ellin Oliver Keene in Mosaic of Thought in the late nineties, my reading was enhanced even more. For the first time I was taught the exact strategies I needed to process difficult text. Therefore, I became a reader after vast amounts of purposeful practice and explicit use of proven strategies. Why did it take so long for this to happen? Most likely because my well-meaning and caring teachers only knew to teach me the phonics in the excellent and explicit phonetical reading program from the sixties, Words In Color, that my father (the superintendent) had brought to Colorado from New York City. What they didn’t know at this time is that many emerging and early readers need the same explicit work in comprehension instruction.

My sister, on the other hand, struggled to decode words. She spent many of her early elementary days taking the long walk to her reading group. Trust me that the distance one walks from the third- grade classroom to participate in the first-grade reading lesson is not the same distance as the other way around. In frustration, during the summer of her third-grade year, she checked out of our usual summer time activities, stuck her nose in a book, and taught herself to read. She chose one book and spent time reading the words she could, skipping many others, summing up in her head what had happened, predicting what would happen in the next section, visualizing the story, and employing many of the strategies we now know to explicitly teach our children. After that summer, she still would have shown up as a concern on DIBELS ORF but would have scored high on PARCC or Smarter Balance. Now in her early sixties, she is a renowned social worker with a master’s degree and numerous published poems and short stories under her belt. She reads two to five novels a week during her rare spare time. So how did my sis become a reader? She taught herself. More importantly, why did it take until fourth grade for this to happen? Most likely because her well-meaning and caring teachers did not know how to teach her brilliant brain to focus on meaning and tread lightly on the systematic phonics program that gave me access to multisyllabic words at the age of six, but did not work the same for her.

So how do we ensure that all of our students become readers (people who actively read and understand books)? How do we ensure that these same students do not get to third grade unable to make the words in a text come alive or are in their sixth year of teaching before they truly can make meaning from their decoding? How do we ensure that solid phonics work is being extended into comprehension? One way is to start in kindergarten with the suggestions of Keene in Mosaic of Thought and teach the main strategies good readers employ. Or we can follow the many other great texts out there on this subject such as Strategies that Work by Harvey and Goudvis, I Read It, But I Don’t Get It by Tovani, and Reading with Meaning by Miller. Or we can use the Making Meaning program from Center for the Collaborative Classroom with all its wonderful strategy lessons preplanned for us so that we can devote our energy to our one-on-one conference work that helps us differentiate diverse learners’ needs. There are many choices out there to ensure that gifted children like my sister never take the long walk down the hall, and that decently intelligent students like myself become readers-people who choose to read books while taking away deep meaning from them.