Reading is all about knowledge; it’s not just for practice. When we understand that, we have a different way of looking at what our students may have lost by not being in face-to-face contact in actual (rather than virtual) classrooms. Our concern is no longer about the strategies that they may have missed out on. Reading is not like mathematics, where second-graders may have missed lessons on long division. What students have lost is the knowledge that they would have gained from text, and the only way we can ensure that students catch up is to ensure that they have texts to read—texts based on coherent topics.
It’s true that children in the early stages of reading may have lost momentum in acquiring the decoding skills needed to read independently—that’s a topic of another post. But what no or little reading really means is a lack of new information. The knowledge that comes from texts truly matters.
Knowledge about a topic is the best predictor of whether students will comprehend new material. And not only do students gain new knowledge from texts, but texts are also the place where students get the knowledge they need in order to comprehend topics of texts in their future reading. That sounds like a cycle—because it is! Texts are where you get new information, and the information that you have determines how well you comprehend the texts you read next.
Students don’t need a smattering of content—reading about dolphins in one text, the pony express in the next, and then a mystery about mummies. All that unconnected content does is to prepare students for playing games of trivia. Students especially don’t need worksheets, where they identify metaphors or syllable patterns of words, to compensate for time lost in the classroom—which is not to say that actual lessons on metaphors and multisyllabic words aren’t useful; they are, at some point.
But right now—after many students haven’t had either access to texts or the motivation to read—what they need is the chance to read texts that give them a foundation in worthwhile topics. Students need books around topics like planting gardens—stories like City Green and Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table. Books need to be supplemented with articles, such as the way to grow succulents or the vegetables for a soup or what to plant for bees and butterflies.
Even prior to school closures, many American students were not reading enough to reach proficient literacy levels. We needed to get texts into the hands of students then, and now we need to do that more than ever. These texts need to be clustered around worthwhile content—topics like amazing creatures in the ocean and stories of kids who have done courageous things. To bring students to the page and get them to stay there, we have to give them texts on worthwhile and interesting topics—and then give them the chance to share what they’ve learned from these texts.