In 2017 we joined a Community of Practice with the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English (VATE). The project, with the backing of the tertiary sector and the Department of Education, set out to investigate reading and to provide teachers with a method for teaching reading in the English classroom.
Our approach to English in 2017 was fairly standard: we relied heavily on teacher-led discussions of text, checking for comprehension, and the direct instruction of text elements like themes, techniques, and “key quotes”. In short, we attempted to open our students’ heads and pour in as much information about the text as possible.
The first directive of the CoP was simple: find out what reading means to students. This involved extensive interviewing, focus groups, and activities in the classroom like “draw what the word ‘reading’ means to you”. The results were sometimes surprising, occasionally disturbing, and very revealing of what students really thought about the practice of reading.
Across the cohort of Year 7s that became the focus of our project, reading was seen variously as daunting, stimulating, inaccessible, exciting, impossible, and vital. We also discovered that definitions of reading varied wildly across teachers. For some the act of reading was a full sensory experience. For others, a series of still frames in black and white, superimposed on their mind’s eye. We were forced to acknowledge that the experience of reading is impossible to pin down, uniquely contextual, and sometimes even painful for our students.
The next stage of the project was in exploring the theory of reading. With a focus on work by theorists such as James Gee, we highlighted the importance of ‘situated meaning’ and the reader’s context. In short: to access a text, the reader must have sufficient contextual understanding, including their vocabulary, intertextual knowledge, and life experience. The challenge, then, in creating a solid reading program, is in levelling the playing field in a classroom of students with diverse backgrounds.
Over the course of the next three years, we worked on developing and refining classroom activities that were centred on student experience and designed to deepen the experience of readers with text. Parallel to VATE’s own reading capabilities, we established our own six reading strategies that became a focus across the curriculum.
The six areas of questioning, visualising, inferring, making connections, summarising and evaluating, and synthesising are informed by our work with VATE, our readings of various theories of literacy instruction and, most importantly, our own experience in the classroom.
Targeting these six areas has allowed us to develop a curriculum that is centred on skills rather than texts. It allows us to align activities like Ron Ritchard’s Thinking Routines with short bursts of close reading and has created a methodical and validated set of activities that our teachers can apply to any text.
Most importantly, developing a reading curriculum centred on these six strategies has shifted our mindset away from teaching-to-the-text. Rather than a focus on teacher-driven questioning and text comprehension, we focus on what the students bring to the text. Where students have gaps in their knowledge, we work alongside them to develop their ideas rather than trying to simply open their heads and pour the knowledge in. The six reading strategies are our scaffold for ensuring that students have the skills to handle any text, from the full novel to the articles they skim online.
Stay in touch to hear more about the 6 Reading Strategies, including an upcoming publication that aligns effective Close Reading activities with each strategy.