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Education Matters: Find a common language for reading

By By Steve Trowbridge and Amy Barnhill
Aug. 24, 2013 at 3:24 a.m.

Steve TrowbridgeUniversity of Houston-VictoriaEducation Matters

It sounds crazy when people say, "She can read OK, but her reading is still very poor." Yet teachers and parents sometimes say things like this in schools.

They seem to have a misunderstanding in the reading abilities of students. Here is one reason this may be happening: Reading is a slippery word.

Looking on the Internet, there are a number of definitions for reading. The two that seem to show up the most are "the oral interpretation of written language" from dictionary.com and "the process of extracting meaning from written or printed text" from grammar.about.com. These two definitions are very different.

Using these definitions, let's look back at the beginning sentence: "She can read OK, but her reading is still very poor." This leaves room for confusion.

This reminds me of a story a friend used to tell. It was the end of her first year teaching kindergarten. All of her students moved to the first grade and seemed well-adjusted and ready. After the children left that day, an angry colleague who taught first grade came to her classroom.

The colleague asked how the kindergarten teacher could have passed on a boy in her class to the first grade.

"He doesn't even know all of his letters and has problems reading even the simplest things," she said. "How could you send him to me? Now, I have to do your job and mine."

My friend listened patiently and then said, "Have you asked him to read something to himself? He can comprehend on a fourth-grade level and has no problem reading chapter books."

They just stared at each other for a while, and the first-grade teacher said, "That seems unlikely. He has to know his letters first, and his oral reading is very poor."

The story ended well for the student, who was moved to a different class, where he was allowed to keep reading silently. The child just didn't work well reading aloud.

Both teachers are probably correct from their points of view. Too often in education, we have these types of conversations. We talk past each other because we have different definitions for the same thing.

As parents and teachers, we all need to ask, "What do you mean by this or that? Please explain to me what you are saying again so that I understand where you are coming from."

How we see things can get between us and another person very easily if we are not careful.

It just takes a second to say, "Tell me again using different words." Be sure that when the discussion is over, everyone is on the same page. Our students deserve it.

As a person who reads, we hope you read this in the way a reader would read it and not just read it aloud to be misread by someone else. Yikes.

Steve Trowbridge is an associate professor of literacy on modified retirement in the UHV School of Education & Human Development. Amy Barnhill is an associate professor of literacy and the curriculum and instruction program coordinator in the UHV School of Education & Human Development.

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