I’m not a big fan of Seek & Finds. You know, the simple puzzles where you look at a word bank and then circle the word in a jumble of random letters and whatnot. It’s not that I don’t find them fun; it’s just that they’re pretty mindless. While I would agree that mindless activity may be necessary from time to time, we activate the lowest part of our cognitive being to complete these puzzles, focusing more on simple letter identification and pattern recognition than meaning and deep processing. Contrast that with crossword puzzles or logic exercises where we can almost feel our synapses firing and neurons carrying signals throughout our brains.
After spending some time over the last few weeks involved in scoring leader training for New York’s state tests, I started to wonder why our kids are approaching reading like a Seek & Find as opposed to a logic puzzle. Truth be told, when I was a classroom teacher, despite my best intentions, many of my students scavenged, rather than read, the literature and informational text materials we explored. Some weren’t fans of science, and, despite my best intentions, never came to love it like I do. Others simply didn’t know how to do anything but scavenge for info. I often thought, wouldn’t it be great if we had some sort of tool that helped spell out for students (and teachers) how to truly work towards becoming better receivers, users, and sharers of the written word?
Enter the common core.
Brief Intermission: For those of you unfamiliar with the “scavenger” method of “reading,” it basically works like this:
- Read questions given to be answered.
- Seek location in informational text or literature where this answer might be located.
- Find keywords and/or “giveaways” in text material.
- Write answer down without reading for context or deeper understanding.
Notice that this approach doesn’t actually involve any “reading.” For lack of a better characterization, it’s not good.
Seemingly, the Common Core State Standards (or Common Core Learning Standards here in New York) should address these concerns. And maybe, on some level, they do. However, when students are asked to “supply evidence from the text” on an assessment, it doesn’t necessarily mean that students will understand, or even consider, what was read. “Supplying” something is much less intensive than “explaining,” and much, much less intensive than “creating.” Yet, much of the sample and real questions I’ve seen ask students to respond to a prompt by supplying (or “using;” whatever that means) evidence from the text. Even local assessments that our districts are creating appeal to students to “find” evidence, without necessarily encouraging them to “think” about it.
Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean the sky is falling. I have seen a number of prompts that ask students to move beyond the evidence and expand on why that evidence is included in a passage, or to make direct connections to situations in a student’s personal life. However, these scenarios are not the norm, even though they should be. What can we do to move from scavenging to digesting of information? Here are three “simple” ideas:
1. Keep it real. Student reading has to mean something to students. While we can’t necessarily control what ends up on state assessments — though I would wager if we try hard enough, we can — we do have greater control over what is used in our classrooms, buildings and districts. If students can’t relate to it, they’re certainly not going to read it.
2. Question your questions. What are you asking students to do? “Seek” and “Find?” Or “Think,” “Create” and “Learn?” Often it isn’t the literature or informational text that doesn’t work, but what we ask students to do with that information that leads to scavenging.
3. Model. Some students have been scavenging since they learned to read, not necessarily because they want to but because they were never taught how to do anything else. Model positive reading behaviors for them, and most importantly, show them you value reading by picking up (and reading) a book regularly and often.
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts. Washington D.C.: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers.
Fred Ende (@fredende) is the director of SCIENCE 21 (www.pnwboces.org/science21) and currently serves as Regional Science Coordinator for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES. Fred blogs at www.fredende.blogspot.com and at ASCD EDge.