The Highest Literacy Is Understanding The Value Of A Text

sharonmollerus-fi-readingc

The Highest Literacy Is Understanding The Value Of A Text

by Dr. Michael Ben-Chaim

Students’ underachievement in reading comprehension has become a chronic, habitual, and well-documented characteristic of the nationwide system of public education.  

Schools’ lack of success in this core academic competency is especially alarming in light of a decades-long growth of investment in reading comprehension research and instruction.  The flagrant disproportion of investment to return-on-investment suggests that a basic pedagogical error is recycled continuously in research articles, textbooks, monographs, professional training manuals, and official reform initiatives such as the Common Core States Standards.  

When a pedagogical error misguides the continuous effort to enhance students’ reading comprehension skills, it is not surprising that greater investment does not yield greater success in the classroom.  A basic error in current reading pedagogy is its value-neutrality: it teaches how to use skills such as ‘close reading’ and ‘critical thinking’ to comprehend the content of a text (i.e., its details, main ideas, and structure), but disregards the value of that text.  

To envision this error more concretely, consider the task of comprehending a text by analogy to the task of understanding a tool.  The usefulness of a tool is not a property it has in itself, but rather the manner by which its properties enable users to achieve a particular purpose. Similarly, the value of a text is not part of the content of a text, but rather the manner by which the content enables readers to promote their well-being in a certain way.  

The presumption that a text is valuable is the reason for reading—it motivates readers, directs their attention, guides their comprehension, and enables them to self-monitor and assess their success.  When the value of a text is ignored, the pedagogical instruction to interpret its content is as pointless and misleading as the instruction to study a tool while ignoring its use.  

In the classroom, the disregard for the value of texts impairs not only students’ reading comprehension but their learning as well.  Current reading pedagogy considers a text a source of knowledge and proposes, accordingly, that the main purpose of reading is acquiring knowledge from a text.   As the lead authors of the Common Core State Standards profess, “drawing knowledge from the text itself is the point of reading; reading well means gaining the maximum insight or knowledge possible from each source.”  

The assumption underlying this common pedagogical view is that learning is a process of acquiring knowledge.  However, there is more to learning than that.  The search for new knowledge is motivated and guided by an experience that indicates that the knowledge a person already has is, in some way or another, insufficient or inadequate.  The goal of learning is better knowledge—knowledge that is considered valuable by the learner by virtue of offering a more coherent, discerning, or broader understanding of a particular situation or subject-matter.  

Viewing school literature as a source of knowledge is, similarly, misleading.  The curriculum includes a sample of the literature of science, the humanities, and language arts chosen for its exemplary demonstration of an advancement in learning and its reputation for inspiring readers to expand their own knowledge.  For example, a scientific article may present an innovative method of exploring a natural phenomenon; a poem may suggest a metaphor for rethinking a human emotion; a short story may offer a novel perspective on a human relationship.  

Rather than merely transmitting informational or literary knowledge, school literature displays information in a manner that makes it ‘instructionally valuable.’ By promoting a value-neutral conception of reading and learning, the current pedagogy leads to the following paradox: the curriculum includes a variety of texts that are chosen by virtue of their proven success in inspiring readers to rethink, revise, and improve their understanding and knowledge, yet students are not taught how to recognize and benefit from the importance of these texts.

Oblivious to the purpose of gaining knowledge that is better than the knowledge they bring to the classroom, students seek to assimilate the content of a text to the knowledge they already have. Inevitably, students who identify reading at school with the accumulation of knowledge are bound to be confused by the language of a literature that aims to motivate readers to revise and expand their knowledge and is, therefore, deliberately resistant to mere assimilation.  

As a result, these students fail to comprehend the special qualities that make school literature instructionally valuable, as well as to learn from it how to advance their knowledge and understanding.  Lacking reasons to appreciate school literature, they lose their motivation to read it, their interest in the cultural traditions and communities that school literature represents, and the confidence that reading at school will enable them to enjoy a higher standard of living as adults.  

The key to enhancing students’ motivation and reading comprehension skills is, then, a pedagogy that focuses on reading the value of school literature.  A value-centered pedagogy cultivates students’ appreciation of school literature as a model for reflecting on and improving the knowledge they bring to the classroom.  Considered from this viewpoint, reading at school is a form of social learning.  Readers begin to learn when the experiences that their reading evoke do not fit with the knowledge they already have.  

The puzzling text is a starting point for a reassessment of the adequacy of the readers’ preconceptions and prompts the endeavor to gain better knowledge.  The text then guides learning when readers search it for the clues they need to solve the puzzle, revise their knowledge, and achieve a better understanding of the text and the world beyond it. Rather than merely serving the purpose of retrieving knowledge from the text, close reading and critical thinking are exercised with the purpose of identifying, understanding, and solving puzzles.  

Reading the text as a model of puzzle-solving promotes the reader’s learning skills in a creative and playful manner.  The motivation to gain better knowledge and advance their intellect becomes, thereby, the reason to engage in the inheritance of the cultural achievements of past generations.

The Highest Literacy Is Understanding The Value Of A Text