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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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College Readiness: Reading Critically

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

We have a generation of students that are trained to automatically trust the textbook, or for that matter, trust anything that is written. Today, many students don't know how to read things with a grain of salt. So how do we go about fixing this?

Well, first we have to get them to read, then get them to read critically. Mem Fox's book, Reading Magic, states that the love of reading has to start young. Parents and teachers have to read at least 1000 books to children to prepare them to read on their own. She also states that if you want your child to stay at home and be close to family, "do not read them stories about the Amazon rain forests." As it turned out, she made the mistake of reading her young daughter books about France, which prompted her daughter to want to read (know) more about France as she grew older, and guess where her daughter lived when she was twenty, having the time of her life.

Dr. Mike Schmoker, in his book, Results Now recounts how reading helped Mike Rose transform himself from an educationally uninterested, nearly illiterate student to that of a successful college professor. Rose went to school in Los Angeles and until the tenth grade, he only went through the motions of learning in school. For Mike Rose, with his poor literacy, going to school made him feel embarrassed rather than challenged. His tenth grade teacher finally changed all that by exposing Mike and the other students to a heavy dose of challenging literature, talking about what was read, and writing about the issues in the books.

Today, Mike Rose is a professor at UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Schmoker states emphatically that, "Generous amounts of close, purposeful reading, rereading, writing, and talking, as underemphasized as they are in K-12 education, are the essence of authentic literacy."

Between the Lines

Reading has to be synonymous to thinking. How can you have the one without the other? Reading is an active learning method, as opposed to listening, which is passive. In order to read, students must be physically engaged -- eye movement tracking words, turning the page (clicking the mouse, or flicking the page) -- mental decoding of symbols to sounds to meaning, carrying a storyline or topic flow in short term memory, and arriving at understanding through assimilation of mental images produce by reading the words.

With all of that creative learning juice flowing in student's brains while they read, it would be a shame not to take advantage of it. Schmoker shares a simple strategy that will help: Read with a pen in hand. As the student reads, he should make notes in the margins, underline, circle and highlight. What? Write in the book? I remember purchasing used books for college that were already highlighted and had notes in it and they actually helped me study. Didn't they help you? So what is the shelf life of a typical school textbook? Five years? During those five years, do we want the only things written in the textbooks to be graffiti or profanity? Not going to budge? Well, if the students can't write in the book, then at least they can take notes on a paper about what they read.

We should teach students to identify concepts while they read and then judge which of them is a key concept. Authors tend to do that for the students anyway by providing topic headings and subheadings. Then teachers need to help students to identify kernels of evidence supporting the key concepts. Cornell Notes is a perfect way to do this. Let me be perfectly clear here. Cornell Notes, done right, is not just a note-taking tool; it is an enhanced thinking process.

Have you heard of the residue of thinking? According to Dr. Daniel Willingham, the residue of thought is memory. And in simplistic terms, this is how our students should use Cornell Notes to read critically:

  • First, they write their notes of facts and details on the right side of the notes page as they read
  • Then the real learning power comes from taking the time after reading to think about what was read and asking themselves the hard questions like: do I believe it?, what else do I know about this, why, says who?
  • The left side of the page should contain these questions along with memory cues, sketches and subject headings
  • Finally, at the bottom of the paper, they summarize what is most important

As you can see, using Cornell Notes the right way can help students read critically, which by the way helps them remember what they read.

Going Digital

The creation of iBooks 2.0, an app by Apple, will fundamentally change how students read textbooks. iBooks are not just text on a screen. They have access to interactive maps, graphs and demonstrations, videos, galleries of photos, a search tool, and hypertext definitions. Not only is reading an iBook an engaging multi-media interactive experience, but note taking with the iBook is as easier than making flash cards. Students will still have to be able to identify what things that should get special attention, but instead of writing in the margins, they will swipe their finger and highlight sections and then by tapping their fingers quickly attach notes. These notes are collected and can be searched, organized and reviewed in the notes section as if they were 3 by 5 note cards. The vocabulary of each chapter is already included in the set of electronic note cards so reviewing vocabulary and notes is a snap.

Ultimately, however, reading critically is more of a habit of mind than a reading strategy. The best way for teachers to teach students read critically is to read critically with them. Model the kind of thinking that needs to happen as you read a story to the students. Share with the students how you are thinking and why in response to a text. Ask them the hard questions (and don't give them the answers!) Do they believe what the text says is true? Once you show the students how to do it, then you can expect them to continue to read critically in every assignment.

What strategies have you found to be effective in helping students read critically?




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