Misreading the Main Idea about Reading

About a decade ago, I accepted an invitation from the ACT to review a set of new test questions for their reading section. As a career-long anti-standardized test advocate, after talking with several colleagues, I accepted that an inside view of the process would help me better confront the problems with tests such as the ACT and the SAT.

The process included receiving the test section, taking the test myself (and taking notes), and then being flown to Iowa City to attend a workshop where we walked through each question to help the test designers revise and edit so this section could be added to the implementation of the test.

Some important take aways included discovering that the test designers were almost exclusively experts in test design (not reading or literacy) and confirming that “good test questions” were mostly about if the question creates “spread” (a range of correct and incorrect) in the data and not if the question is a valid assessment of reading ability (whatever that is).

This experience came to mind when I ran across this on Twitter:

A well-educated adult struggling with a kindergartner’s worksheet also reminds me of “Sara Holbrook, the writer who couldn’t answer test questions about her own work,” covered by Peter Greene.

While I think we may need to extend some grace to the teacher who sent this work home during a pandemic, I also think we should confront that this is a quite common way to approach reading and teaching reading—common ways that are deeply flawed.

Both the kindergarten homework and the author puzzled by standardized test questions reflect reading instruction and assessment that are skills-driven—framing the holistic act of reading as a collection of identifiable reading skills such as “main idea.”

A skills approach to teaching and testing reading tends to focus on decoding (phonics), vocabulary, prior knowledge (content), and an array of reading strategies (identifying main idea, predicting, context clues, etc.).

While literacy teachers and scholars tend to agree that these all are valid elements of reading, the debate lies in whether or not teaching and testing them in isolation are valid reflections of the whole act of reading.

The skills approach has some practical advantages in whole-class formal schooling, especially when classes include 25-35 students and when thousands of students are being tested.

In other words, a skills approach is efficient (easy to manage as instruction, and quick and cost-effective as assessment) and it also lends itself to a teacher-centered, authoritative mode of teaching (someone in authority determines the answers, and by their authority, those answers are “correct”).

The skills approach during early literacy development also feeds well into the New Criticism norm of text analysis that is common in middle and high school (re-branded under the Common Core as “close reading”). Reading assessment in standardized testing requires that “right” answers exist neatly in any text and that a systematic form of analysis lends itself to identifying that “right” answer.

But, as the kindergarten and published author examples above demonstrate, the skills approach and the “right” answer view of texts are deeply flawed, and likely work against fostering students as eager, independent, and critical readers.

No sophisticated adult readers sit down to answer a set of multiple-choice questions about a text they have read once they are finished. Those of us who pleasure read are likely to do almost nothing once we have read, or we eagerly find other people who have read the text so we can discuss the experience.

And those conversations are rarely punctuated with “main idea” or “theme,” but mostly about how we felt about the text and all the connections we noticed with our lives or other experiences we have had with all sorts of art—other texts, movies, music, etc.

Here, then, are a few ways we should change how we teach and assess reading, especially with young students.

First, in kindergarten, our focus should be far less on skills and mostly on fostering eager readers. Frankly, there is no urgent need for children this young to correctly interpret any text.

Reading to beginning readers and inviting them to have a wide range of emotional and text-based responses (mostly free of evaluating them for being right or wrong) should replace a skills approach in kindergarten (and likely through the first three or four years of school).

Gradually, we should move toward helping students navigate text in ways that improve their ability to gain valid conclusions from that text, keeping in mind that “meaning” isn’t necessarily fixed and in many cases may be more about contested meaning, not one right answer.

Skills approaches to reading can mostly be justified as efficient, but seeing reading as a set of discrete skills and strategies is, none the less, not reading since it is a holistic act.

As I have noted before, for example, people have large vocabularies from reading extensively, but learning a bunch of isolated vocabulary doesn’t necessarily make a person highly literate. We too often flip the value and consequences of the whole act of reading and identifiable reading skills and strategies.

Next, we must be careful not to teach or test skills for the sake of those skills, but to always keep our focus on the whole text and the reader’s reading experience while acknowledging that skills and strategies are working together in the process of making meaning and reaching critical conclusions about the text.

For example, the kindergarten worksheet is having children find “main idea” as if that is a reasonable or authentic goal (it isn’t) instead of helping students come to understand that text has large meaning (such as main idea and theme) that can be justified through smaller elements in the text (supporting ideas, literary and rhetorical techniques).

Asking students “What do you think is important about this text?” (Or “What did you enjoy in this text?”) is a much better approach that can be followed by “Why do you think that?” (moving them to offer textual support). Here, we are starting with the student (not some skill or predetermined “right” answer) and still fostering careful and purposeful approaches to text.

Finally, the big picture problem with these examples, and why a skills approach is common in the teaching and testing of reading, is that we have created teaching and learning conditions that are counter-educational for literacy growth.

We have chosen efficiency over authentic literacy in the U.S. because we refuse to invest in teaching and learning conditions (low student/teacher ratios, fully funded classrooms and materials) that would support effective teaching and rich learning by our students.

Skills approaches to reading are efficient and manageable, but as the kindergarten example above shows, they simply are not reasonable or authentic.

While I question the periodic cries that the U.S. has a reading crisis, I can attest from 36 years of teaching that we do far too often make young people hate to read—and there are tragic consequences to misreading the main idea about reading in schools.

See Also

Negotiating Meaning from Text: “readers are welcome to it if they wish”

LaBrant, L. (1937, February 17). The content of a free reading programEducational Research Bulletin, 16(2), 29–34.