Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Defining Reading for the 21st Century

Last week, President Bush said he was open to changes as he urged Congress to reauthorize NCLB legislation, but he stood firm in his interpretation of the program’s goal. In his press conference, Bush said, “There can be no compromise on the basic principle: Every child must learn to read and do math at, or above, grade level.”

I heartily agree. The world would be a wonderful place if children could achieve at or above grade and ability levels in all their subjects. The problem is that current government programs to improve reading aren’t likely to make that happen. The NCLB FAQ page explains that Reading First, the NCLB-related reading program, is “an ambitious national initiative designed to help every young child in every state become a successful reader.” How does Reading First go about this?

Through Reading First, funds are made available for state and local early reading programs that are grounded in scientifically based research. In such programs, students are systematically and explicitly taught the following five skills identified by research as critical to early reading success. The definitions below are from the Report of the National Reading Panel (2000):
  • Phonemic awareness: the ability to hear and identify sounds in spoken words.
  • Phonics: the relationship between the letters of written language and the sounds of spoken language.
  • Fluency: the capacity to read text accurately and quickly.
  • Vocabulary: the words students must know to communicate effectively.
  • Comprehension: the ability to understand and gain meaning from what has been read.
Unfortunately, these represent a limited understanding of what it takes to be a reader. And it’s not just me who thinks so.

eSchool News Online reports this week that a Partnership for 21st Century Skills poll shows U.S. voters believe students are ill-equipped for the 21st century and need to strengthen critical thinking and problem solving, communication and self-direction, and computer and technology skills. Basic definitions of reading will not adequately fill students’ needs. Those polled indicated that schools need to focus on a much wider range of skills—they need to focus on what reading means in the 21st century.

The literacy demands that students face today have changed greatly from those which students met even five or ten years ago. 21st-century students read texts that include alphabetic- and character-based print, still images, video, and sound. They listen to podcasts, play Second Life, and analyze YouTube videos. Whether we like it or not, they read Wikipedia, MySpace, and Facebook.

Reading for them is no longer just about words on a page. It’s a complex, multidimensional act that includes skills such as interpreting visual design, recognizing nonlinear organizational structures, and identifying video and oral storytelling techniques. It’s an evolving ability to understand the many ways that humans communicate and how the media affects the message. Last week, President Bush said he was open to changes. What he needs to realize is that in the 21st century, reading is “open to change.”


Anonymous said...

Thank you Traci for representing those of us in NCTE. I fully agree that the Reading First program of instruction should be beneficial to elementary and middle school programs alike. As a middle school ELA teacher, I have the challenge of creating readers and writers of my students. Many students today are non-readers due to the technological advances in society. I-pods, mp3 players, cell phones and myspace, facebook and youtube take the place of recreational reading. Students do not practice the necessary skills needed to successfully read and write well. NCLB should be well funded to aid educators. Underfunded schools cannot compete in today's world.

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