By DR. ROBERTA LENGER KANG
When my son was five years old, his Kindergarten teacher assigned the class 20 minutes of reading for homework every night. We would sit on the couch together, and he would read to me. We didn’t get but two or three pages into the book when his mind would begin to wander, he’d start making silly jokes, or pretend to get really sleepy. I tried to be persistent. I’d prop him up on my lap, and encourage that we point at each word on the page together, sounding them out one by one. He would just sit silently.
I asked him what was wrong, and after some time in silence, he mustered the courage to whisper, “There’s a word on the page that’s bothering me.” That’s what he said -- bothering. It was as if the word was out on the playground taunting him to jump off the swing, or in the cafeteria ready to steal his lunch money. The word was bothering him.
This was the first time it occured to me that reading is an emotional experience.
The second time it occured to me was when I presented a workshop on reading complex texts at Teachers College. The workshop was designed for a group of middle school teachers from New York City who were embarking on a literacy initiative at their school. As part of my workshop, I wanted to explore what makes a text complex, and why. I passed out seven different excerpts from seven different fields (legal, medical, literary, mathematical, computer science, crafting, and sports) and asked the teachers to read the texts and rank them according to easiest to most difficult. While everyone was engaged in reading, I saw one teacher pick up one of the texts, promptly put it back down again, and then push the paper all the way to the edge of the table where it flew off and fell to the floor.
In debriefing the experience, I asked the teacher to share with the group the strong response he had to this text. He said, “The moment I looked at it, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to understand it, and it made me feel sick to my stomach. I just wanted to get the paper as far away from me as possible.”
Reading is an emotional experience
We’ve all had this happen to us from time to time. For some, it’s when we’re reading an old English poem, or maybe it’s reading through a mathematical proof, or reading the instructions for filling out paperwork for the IRS. The big a-ha moment for us as educators is that the same reaction we might have when it comes to reading complex texts, may be the same reaction our students are having on a daily basis when we assign texts in our content areas.
Here’s something else I learned from this workshop: there isn’t one type of text that’s easy, and another type of text that’s difficult. I’ve conducted this same workshop with hundreds of educators and every time, I find that different people find complexity in different texts. Our experiences with text complexity are typically based on four criteria:
It’s these four criteria that inform the emotions we feel while reading. The more criteria we’re able to match to the text, the easier it seems to us. The easier the text is to read, the better we feel about ourselves. The better we feel, the more our confidence grows and our interest in reading increases. The fewer criteria we’re able to match to the text, the more difficult it seems to us, the worse we feel about ourselves. Our confidence decreases and our interest in reading decreases.
Helping students find meaning in texts
It’s possible we’re inadvertently creating spaces in our classrooms where students become less interested, less confident, and less comfortable with reading because of these emotional interactions with “difficult” texts. But there are some simple solutions that we can implement if we carefully consider the four criteria for making meaning:
These four steps are not always easy, but if we’re planning with these essentials in mind, we have the power to rapidly transform resistant or reluctant readers in any content area.