Read to Talk

This semester, students in READ 6329.10 were asked to contribute a post to this blog.

By M.R. Graham

We’ve been studying the stark differences between “real” reading and the reading students encounter on standardized tests. The former is exactly what the adjective suggests – real. It is the text students find in fiction, school books, comics, web articles, instruction manuals, menus, and instant messages. They interact with it in real situations, take meaning from it, and pass it back and forth among their peers. It is relevant to their lives. The latter is artificial, limited, used in enforced isolation, devoid of social context, used only in one situation far removed from “real” life. It is meaningless to the students, cannot be used or shared, and so they take no meaning from it.

And yet the latter is used to gauge students’ abilities with the former.

I hadn’t really thought about that before, but I should have. I always understood, even during my own time in grade school, that there were some things I read and retained and some things that went in one ear and out the other, and that the difference was that one mattered to me, and the other didn’t. I’ve always known that interesting text is easier to remember.

That’s not the whole of it, though. Even if I read something on a test that I find interesting, there is no reason for me to remember it, because I am strictly forbidden from discussing it. Why remember something you’ll never be allowed to use again? And why pay attention in the first place to something you don’t need or want to remember?

To me, the most important difference between “real” reading and test reading is the social aspect. All real reading is done with the knowledge that it can be used again later. You can talk about it with friends or with teachers. You can show off your knowledge or ask questions about things you didn’t understand. You can laugh about a joke you picked up. You can place an order from a menu or compare prices or make absolutely sure you can safely take one more Tylenol for that headache you get every time standardized testing comes up. Those are reasons to pay attention. “Pick the best answer from among the following” is not.

I recently spoke with one of my many, many cousins. I had heard that he was doing very poorly in school, despite the fact that everyone knows he is brilliant, and his reading scores especially were on the decline. In fact, he was close to being labeled as struggling. He didn’t seem to be doing anything important, just mucking around on his iPad, so I felt justified in interrupting to ask what was going on. He asked me to come back later, because he was almost at a stopping point. He was reading The Brothers Karamazov. For fun. And later, he wanted to talk about it.

2 thoughts on “Read to Talk

  1. judyzilla November 21, 2013 / 11:31 am

    An interesting blog MR – glad I read it. Everything you say makes very good sense to me. “Test” reading, I think, is more like just following commands – not really “reading” like ingesting knowledge or recreational reading.

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