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Pushing vs. Pulling Adolescent Readers Toward Comprehension

By Colette Coleman
 | Sep 26, 2018

Pulling Instructional ModelAs learning standards have evolved over the past decade, so too have expectations for adolescents’ reading levels and abilities. To keep up, teachers have adopted new strategies and curricula to try to meet these demands, but given the challenges that they face, student reading success has remained elusive for most. Confirming this, 2017 reading scores released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that only 36% of eighth graders can read at or above a Proficient level, meaning most wouldn’t be able to comprehend this post.

Why is it that most adolescents are struggling with reading proficiency? There are countless reasons why a student would struggle with reading, but often at the core of literacy stagnation and reading reluctance is the pull reading method. In this instructional model, the teacher starts with her or his own comprehension of a text and works toward the goal of pulling students to this understanding. Although the mind-set behind this approach is well-intentioned, I believe it’s detrimental to students’ reading confidence and engagement for a few important reasons.

First, as Edmund Wilson, the great literary journalist proclaimed, “No two persons ever read the same book.” Although there are many indisputable facts in books, the meaning that lies beneath the surface may differ from reader to reader. If a teacher pulls students toward only her or his reading, students may miss out on the chance to develop their own interpretations as they read through the lens of their own life experiences. Moreover, when a teacher conveys that students can get to an author’s meaning only through her or his hints and leading questions, the underlying message is that students can’t navigate the text on their own. Here applies the Chinese proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

The next logical question is, How does an educator teach a student to fish or, rather, close read, without pulling students toward her or his understanding of a text? The answer is the push method. This instructional strategy, recently introduced to me in an intimate literacy professional development program, the Zinc Reading Circle (ZRC), has changed the way I think about developing adolescents’ reading skills. The ZRC, led by literacy expert and veteran educator Matt Bardin, pushed me far out of my comfort zone so that I can now push my students outside of theirs toward the joy, fulfillment, and power of advanced literacy.

In the ZRC training, I worked with just three other teachers, sharing my beliefs about reading instruction and practices, and recorded one-on-one lessons with select struggling readers. Once I overcame my discomfort of my literacy instruction being analyzed and dissected, frame by frame, I was able to reap the benefits of constructive criticism. As Atul Gawande wrote in The New Yorker on the power of coaching across sectors, from sports fields to operating rooms, the focused attention upped my reading game.

I had it all wrong. I thought that instructing students on what I considered obvious close reading skills would be condescending but, in fact, it was the opposite. By not equipping students with the skills they need to grapple with tough texts on their own, I was sending the message that they can’t comprehend such writing without my support. Education researcher Louisa Moats’s words, “Speaking is natural; Reading and writing are not,” echoed in my head.

To get students working toward self-sufficient comprehension, the push method demands explicit reading instruction, a strategy affirmed by countless research studies, including one notable guide, Improving Adolescent Literacy: Effective Classroom and Intervention Practices, published by the Institute of Education Sciences. There are several close reading strategies to teach, but the most crucial is visualizing. This act comes naturally to strong readers (probably you if you’re reading this) but is anything but obvious to most. While reading, it’s crucial to imagine what the author’s describing, evoking, and asking you to infer as you go. These visual representations act as hand holds for your brain to scale the mountain of challenging texts. When I taught primary school, I often asked students to close their eyes and imagine the scenes as I read aloud. This strategy worked well with my fourth graders to understand books such as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, but to my amazement, the same principle and strategy, taught differently (no longer with read-alouds and eyes closed), is just as important for understanding texts at middle and high school levels.

Since I’ve started to push my students more toward mastery of this skill and others, there’s no longer a need for me to pull them to comprehension. They’re leading the way to their own understanding, and to my great delight, I’m even learning new interpretations from them.

Colette Coleman is a part-time educator and full-time educational equity advocate. A former classroom teacher, she is now focused on EdTech, writing as a contributor to EdTech news site EdSurge and working with Zinc Reading Labs.

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