What is Reading, and Can It Be Captured In Bubbles? (from 6-27-11)

The student came into my room the morning after our state test scores came out. (This was back when test scores actually came out before students went home for the summer.) She looked dejected. “I can’t read,” she said.

I couldn’t remember what her score was, so I asked her. She had either a one or a two— a score that would get her put in “intensive” reading the following year. “I can’t read,” she repeated. It was at this point that I noticed the hardcover library book in her hand – one of the Lemony Snickett Series of Unfortunate Events books.

“What happens in that book?” I asked her. She proceeded to give me a detailed run-down on the events of the book, including insights into character development, and its overall place in the series to that point. And she told me how much she had enjoyed it.

“You can read just fine,” I told her. “What you have trouble with is multiple choice questions.” And I firmly believe I was telling her the truth.

This past school year, as part of a committee about testing and teaching evaluation, I had to do a lot of research and reading about the ideas of validity and reliability in testing. Reliability (are scores consistent and stable over time?) seems to be a numbers game for statisticians to play, but validity– validity is another matter. It is as question of whether the test actually tests what it claims to test. And a Reading test obviously claims to be testing Reading. So does it? That depends on how you define reading.

Let’s look at what reading is when you take a Reading test.

First, on  a Reading test, someone reads to you before you ever start reading. The test proctor (a role I have played many times now– it’s a thrill: “Be sure to make your mark heavy and dark.”) reads you a script. The gist of this script is that you will be reading all alone, you will be answering questions, and that you must stay silent at costs. And – I find this telling, and ironic – when you finish, you must not read anything else, as in an interesting book you might have brought with you. I’ll come back to this point later – it’s important.

Once you are finally allowed to open your booklet for real (after checking it to see if there are any missing or upside down pages – something I do every time I buy a book) you are presented with a series of texts: short fiction, non-fiction articles, poems, maybe some charts, graphs, or advertisements. After each text or set of texts, you find a set of questions. Each question has four of five choices, but only one of them is right. You must bubble the right answer in the correct bubble on a separate answer sheet. Sounds straight forward, right?

I want to note a few things about this process. One, the reader has absolutely no say in choosing which texts they will read. If they have no interest in Janine’s efforts to get into the talent show, or the Amazing Bugs of the Amazon, or the advertisement for the Pringle Family Garage Sale, they are out of luck: that’s what they are reading – take it or leave it. Thrown in with this lack of choice is another issue: background knowledge. Depending on the subject of the piece, your background knowledge may have a tremendous effect on how well you understand the piece. I will understand an article about animation or bicycling better than I would one about, say, auto repair or golf. In any case, someone else chooses what you will read.

Given that you are stuck with these particular pages, which may be of no interest to you, the best thing to do is get through the test as quickly as possible. If you have listened to your teachers, you will read the questions first. This, you are told, will help focus your reading. Before I talk about the general effect this instruction (read the questions first) has on the act of reading, I’d like to point out that many bright students find that some of the questions do not require you to read the text at all: the questions are free-standing.

For instance, a question that asks about a word in context may be easy to answer from the little excerpt in the question itself, as in: “Jeremy found being ambidextrous very handy as wrote his math homework with his right hand and worked on his spelling words with his left.” What does the underlined word mean?”  Sometimes a student with an advanced vocabulary may already know the word and not even need the context, in which case “words in context,” the tested skill, is not what is being tested at all.

But aside from free-standing questions, the instruction to “read the questions” first has a more general effect, or effects, on what reading is. First and foremost, Reading becomes a task in which you answer someone else’s questions. If Reading is about answering someone else’s questions, then it also becomes clear that Reading is about finding the Right Answers, of which there can only be one for any given question. Reading ,then, is the process of finding out the single right answer to a series of questions about a text. The questions and the single right answers to those questions are not be questioned.

In any case, your whole slant on reading the story/article/ poem/garage sale poster is to answer the questions. You may skim, scan, or rush through the text looking for the pertinent information. Your goal is the find the one right answer for each of the questions. Parts of the text which might, by chance, actually interest you, but which have no bearing on finding the one right answer to a question, are irrelevant. When you have answered the questions to the best of your ability, you leave that text behind, like an empty corn cob, never to be nibbled at again.

And what do the questions ask us to focus on? A narrow menu of main ideas, details, facts and opinions… the wording changes depending on whose standards you are looking at, but they are all pretty much the same.

When the test is over, you will probably never think about those texts again. Unless you found the poster for the Pringle Family Garage Sale so scintillating that you just have to discuss it with someone– which you shouldn’t, because reading is to be done alone and never discussed for fear that it will interfere with test security and thus influence reliability.

So that’s Reading from a test perspective. My experiences with it as a student are still fresh enough that I can still picture myself marking those little bubbles with my number 2 pencil, but I also have my own children’s recollections as a touchstone as well.

How does the  experience of Reading for a Test match up to the experience of Reading for Real, which is of course, the thing that gives the test its validity?

Well, for starters, Reading for Real usually involves having some say in what you read, which usually, in turn, involves reading about things you are interested in. I just finished reading The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson because I found his lectures from the TED website right on target. I am currently reading The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons because I find studies of how the mind works fascinating and illuminating (and in the case of this book, sometimes a little disturbing). I plan to read next a book called The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely – sort of as an antidote to the Gorilla book. Frankly, I just liked the title. I also plan to read some Billy Collins poetry soon because my wife read some of his stuff aloud to me recently and I thought it was fun. I’m planning on reading the new Steve Berry thriller because I like page-turners with history thrown in, and I’m also thinking of reading Hard Times because it begins with a scene set in a classroom that makes me realize that education reform is nothing new. Oh, and then there’s the teacher books I have lined up, including the new Jeff Wilhelm book, Being the Book and Being the Change.

In other words – my reasons for reading what I do are both recreational and professional, sensible and idiosyncratic, odd, quirky and perfectly sensible. And they are personal. They are mine. Standardized reading tests quickly turn into standardized reading instruction, and this personal aspect of reading goes out the window. Reading becomes something you are assigned, not something you choose. No wonder so many kids hate to read.

Some will make the case that much of what our students will have to read will be assigned by the workplace, which is a real world situation, and therefore the test is still valid. Well, yes – to a certain extent. This argument assumes that most of our students will be getting jobs that have no intrinsic value to them and are not innately interesting to them. Most of us, though, attempt to get jobs that in some way mesh with our abilities and interests, and as such, reading done for and on the job are of practical use and are intrinsically useful to us. Even if we get a job that does not mesh with our interests, the reading we do is still practical for something real: if we understand this text, we can perform this task, solve this problem, understand this procedure better. By choosing that job, you chose the texts that go along with it. There is some connection to reality. Our students don’t even choose to be in school, much less to be taking a state Reading test. And when they are done taking the test, they aren’t supposed to talk about it to anyone and it is doubtful they will ever use the information in any practical or even theoretical way.

And so I repeat: Reading becomes something you are assigned, not something you choose.

Beyond choosing what you read, Reading for Real is a different process as well. There are seldom questions at the end. At work there may be, but again I argue that such questions have practical application. But for most of us who read, most of the time, reading is not dictated by looking at a set of questions and then reading to answer those questions. And we are not constrained by the narrow band of concerns those questions represent: main idea, fact and opinion etc. In fact, when we read for real, we may be looking for any number of things: to be entertained, to be put in suspense, to imagine sights that the most skilled CGI artists could never do justice to, to be shown insights we could never have come to on our own, to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to find the phrase or scene that suddenly helps us make sense of ourselves or our place in the world.

We read to make meaning. We read, not to rush through looking for pre-programed one-right-answers, but to savor what the author has achieved, to take in all of the text, not just the parts that have questions at the end. We read to come back to our everyday reality a little wiser for the wear. We even go to disagree and become angry with an author – because there is no one right answer in the world of Reading for Real.

We read to get answers, but also to find new questions. I find it interesting that some books, fiction and nonfiction, are sometimes placing questions in the back pages – but not multiple choice questions. They are adding open ended discussion questions for book clubs – because in the real world we can share the questions and not only look at each other’s answers, but discuss them, challenge them, and compare them to our own. Reading for Real is both solitary and gloriously social.

And I haven’t even touched on the connections that can be made. I find themes and ideas that connect my non-fiction reading to my fiction reading and to poems I have read. I find that books I describe to others have things in common with other books I’ve read. Ray Bradbury connects to Charles Schulz and Walt Disney and Daniel Pink and Stephen Sondheim and Dr. Seuss and Madeleine L’Engle..

We make students take our tests, and then we tell them they must not read their own books when they are done testing. As I said earlier, I find this ironic and telling. We are so afraid of the power of real reading to lure kids away from the test, that we deny them the right to pick up a book. This, in the name of “reading achievement.” What does it say about our priorities as an educational system? But what also, what does it say about the power of books, and Reading for Real, and the hold they still have over many of our students?

Are Reading tests reliable? Probably. But are they valid? Do they represent what real readers do? Do they contain in their tiny sets of empty bubbles all the things reading can do for us? Or do they reduce reading to a race to find the one right answer?

I supposed I could end this post with a multiple choice test – but I won’t.