Reading Rules for Becoming Proficient with Complex Texts

    by Elfrieda (Freddy) H. Hiebert | August 30, 2013

    Michael Pollan based his best-selling book, Food Rules, on a seven-word mantra, broken into three phrases: “Eat food. Mostly green. Not too much.” I’m taking a similar tack to support teachers, students, and parents in attending to what underlies proficient reading of complex text. Here are my Reading Rules:

    Read often. Mostly silent. Focus on knowledge.
    Read often

    Getting good at cognitive-motor processes such as playing the piano, golfing, doing surgery, and reading is a function of practice. Think about two four graders, Alex and Alice. Alex reads for 7.2 minutes daily in school. Alice reads for 15 minutes. If both read 100 words per minute, Alex will have read about 129,000 words over the school year. Alice will have read about 267,000 words. By reading more than twice as much as Alex, Alice will have encountered twice as many rare words—all of which represent new distinctions and concepts.

    These two students, while hypothetical, illustrate the amount that two groups of American fourth graders have reported reading in school1. Alex represents the third of a national age group that falls below the basic standard on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP); Alice represents the third of an age group nationally that is at proficient or higher on the NAEP.

    The texts and tasks of the two Common Core State Standards assessment consortia will be similar to those of the NAEP. That is, students (from third grade on) will need to read silently and respond to questions for half-hour periods or longer as on the NAEP. But, in addition, students will also participate in performance tasks where they will be asked to write essays based on what they have read.

    To engage in inquiry with complex texts, students need to have read many complex texts. And, if students don’t get to read in the classroom, they are unlikely to develop a habit of reading. How much you read in schools is tied to how much you read at home. Most students, like adults, don’t practice what they aren’t good at in school (or, in the case of adults, their day jobs) in the evenings.

    Mostly silent

    Proficient reading primarily occurs as an internal process—that is, silently. Just because the end-goal is for students to read silently doesn’t mean that we ask beginning readers to read silently. And, even if we do ask them to read silently, silent reading among beginners is whispering the words to themselves. Developmentally, this pattern is to be expected. Most adults, when confronted with an unknown word, will pronounce a word in a whisper or even aloud.

    As reading proficiency increases, however, silent reading needs to increasing be the dominant mode for reading texts. Over the past decade of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), both practice and assessment emphasized oral reading through the primary grades and even beyond. Oral reading assessments form an informative window into students’ reading throughout the elementary grades but the goal of reading instruction is to steadily move students into silent reading. Discussions follow silent reading and, in these discussions, students will locate sections of texts to read aloud as they share evidence from the text to support particular responses. But, by the end of the primary grades, students are spending more time reading silently than they are reading orally.

    When school programs support students in becoming proficient silent readers, students are developing the stamina to persevere when they encounter challenging text and when the tasks of assessment and instruction require them to pursue a task on their own. When students have not read often and have not read silently, their encounters with the tasks that ask for them to read for a half-hour (or even more) independently and then to respond with evidence to what they read are less than successful. It is in classrooms where students have opportunities to read often and silently that they develop the stamina that underlies proficiency with complex text.

    Focus on Knowledge

    The reason for reading is to acquire the knowledge that resides in texts. Texts are the place where humans share and store what they have learned. As never before, the knowledge of humankind can be gained from the library that is open 24-7: the Internet. Yes, we now store information in video and audio files. One only has to think of the TED series to recognize how much information we can get from videos and audios. But text is essential in accessing this information and it was also essential in creating the information that appears on the videos or audios. The raison d’etre of reading is to gain knowledge—knowledge about the natural world as well as the social world. Through informational texts, students learn about how the natural world works. Through narratives, students learn about people’s experiences and choices as they deal with the contexts of the physical and social world, including people from many different eras.

    To truly become proficient readers of complex texts, students need to be immersed in learning—some topics about which they are curious, some topics about which communities deem to be important, and some topics that are simply for enjoyment of language and human interaction. Citizens of the digital-global age of the 21st century have knowledge and know how to acquire knowledge. Knowing how to negotiate texts is fundamental to the process of knowledge acquisition and engagement. Membership in the knowledge generation depends on schools involving students in extensive amounts of reading independently in the pursuit of knowledge.

    1Guthrie, J.T., Schafer, W.D., Huang, C.W. (2001), Benefits of opportunity to read and balanced instruction on the NAEP. Journal of Educational Research, 84, 145-162.