There are various academic purposes for reading, but only two are in evidence in the modern classroom.  The first is recreational.  One would think that recreational reading and academic reading would occupy different worlds, but, in the modern classroom, they do not.  Recreational reading, especially in the upper elementary grades and middle school, affords the student the sole opportunity to improve his primary reading skills, especially fluency and comprehension.  If the reading choices are controlled by a list, what is described as recreational in nature also serves an academic purpose.  If 8th graders are reading "The Red Badge of Courage," they are also accessing the canon of Western literature.  

The other reading common in classrooms is the close-reading of texts.  With this kind of text, regardless of the content area, the student is expected to recall accurately a significant amount of its content.  Here the student is expected to not only read the text, but study it, take notes on it and recall its content for formative and summative assessments.  This is the reading that ostensibly serves as the best academic preparation for college and career.

There is a troubling flaw in assessing this second kind of reading.  Suppose a student reads a history text very closely and studies it using all his critical reading and thinking skills.  Suppose he also performs at a very high level on the assessment of this study, perhaps earning a "B" or "A" on the assessment.  Also, suppose the teacher, within a brief period of time, perhaps a week or two, re-assesses the student on this learning without warning.  Both teacher and student may be surprised that the achievement has fallen significantly. A critic might question the value of such learning, since the half-life of the information becomes almost immediately apparent.  If knowledge diminishes at such an alarming rate, is mastery of content standards anything more than ephemeral?

I am reminded of a quotation by B.F. Skinner, which I here freely paraphrase:  "Education is what remains after you have forgotten everything you've been taught."  When I was an English teacher I had my students react to this quotation, which most found at least somewhat enigmatic.  What is education?  What is education in light of the certainty that you will forget nearly everything you're taught?  Insightful students posited something of the following:  education is a habit of mind, it's a way of observing and interpreting the world around you.  A highly educated man, even if he cannot recall most of what he learned, or at least temporarily mastered, will still evaluate the world around him and react to it differently than his less educated neighbors and co-workers.  Perhaps, after you have forgotten everything you've been taught, what remains is wisdom.

This takes us to the third purpose for reading, one in very little evidence in schools.  I am currently reading the story of Louie Zamperini on my Kindle.  The biography is entitled: "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption."  It is a highly fascinating and very readable story of uncommon courage.  The author is Laura Hillenbrand, who is most famous for having written "Seabiscuit."  I will share with you what most readers  do not, or even recognize in themselves.  I would not want to take a test on this book.  I would not like to even take a quiz on the most recent chapter, which I just completed reading today.  I would not want to write a paper on this story.  At best, I might share a lively summary of what I recall with you.  That might intrigue you enough to read the story yourself.  This is the way the world of reading actually works, most of the time, in our post-academic life.  If I could not pass a test on this story, then have I mastered it?  If not, why even bother reading it?  Certainly, the aesthetic pleasure is reason enough.  But, in a utilitarian way, my reading of this story makes me both a better reader of the next story and an incrementally wiser man who, henceforth, sees the world in a slightly different way.

This is the purpose for reading that is largely absent from our upper elementary grades and secondary schools.  But it should not be.  Certainly our students need close-reading skills, not just in Language Arts, but in all content areas.  And, most assuredly, our students should be reading self-chosen books for enrichment and extension.  But what they should also be reading is content area supplemental texts, the way adults might read the story of Louie Zamperini. If students are studying math, why not read a monograph on the history of math?  Why not read books about science and not just the science textbook?  How about reading about world language and culture while studying a world language?  They need not read these books closely for a summative assessment or a term paper.  They will read them to take incremental steps on a path toward wisdom.  And, since becoming a better reader is a lifelong endeavor, they read any given text simply to become a better reader of the next text.

i agreed with that


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