Lately, I’ve run into a lot of teachers and school administrators who are all pumped up about the Reading Workshop or Readers’ Workshop.
They tell me that they don’t want to use textbooks anymore. Don’t want to teach novels. Don't seem to really want to teach much of anything.
They believe that the trick to teaching reading is not teaching it—or at least not teaching it very much. Mini-lessons are in the saddle and independent reading is how they want students to experience the English class.
I’m skeptical. If this were a new idea, I’d probably be more accepting. However, this influential notion has been around for a long time now (e.g., Atwell, 1987), without any real research. Proponents of Reading Workshop may feel strongly about it, but not so much that they have bothered to find out if it is effective. That tends to give it a religious cast… you just have to believe.
Above all, Reading Workshop proponents seem to believe that they are teaching students to love reading. They provide a lot of great books. They let kids read what they want to. They get out of the way and devote class time to kids reading on their own. They conference. They minimize teaching. And, the theory is that if you focus on pleasurable reading instead of academic reading, then reading achievement may rise, but love of reading certainly will. Hallelujah!
But is that really the case? There is little direct evidence, so the musings that follow are aimed at exploring questions more than drawing any firm conclusions.
1. If reading workshop is so effective, why don’t kids like reading?
The increase in use of Reading Workshop provides a kind of natural experiment. Personal experience tells me that Reading Workshop is more widely used now than 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. That expansion must be having some positive impact on this generation’s reading habits, right?
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The various reading census results suggest that teens may be reading less for pleasure than they used to and that situation may be getting worse (Scholastic, 2013)—despite more schools adopting these reading-encouraging approaches. At best, reading data (NAEP, 2010; OECD, 2009) are showing no impact whatsoever on recreational reading.
Of course, drawing conclusions about instructional practices based on general data is fraught with problems. There could be alternative explanations for adolescent apathy about reading. Perhaps if so many schools weren’t adopting Reading Workshop things would even be worse. But, still…
Shirley Brice Heath has documented how in the 18th century readers took their institutional literacy skills and turned them to their own pleasure—novel reading. One wonders what the impact of institutions setting aside academic literacy in favor of an emphasis on pleasure reading. Instead of being able to turn their academic skills to personal use, we seem to be appropriating those personal uses to the institution. Agency matters to adolescents; if we take pleasure reading hostage in our academic programs, don’t be surprised if they reject it as part of their “youth cultures.”
2. But aren’t there benefits to having teens making book choices?
Generally, psychologists support the motivational power of choice. Choice tends to make us happier. But I wonder what such choice makes kids happier with? Does it make them think reading is great fun so they will want to do it on their own? Or, does it make them tolerate their English class since it’s so much easier than what they may be asked to do the rest of the day? Making one happy for a daily school period doesn’t necessarily change the likelihood that they’ll choose to read independently. (If students connect choice to reading, perhaps; but if they connect it to the English class or teacher, then maybe not so much.)
Some authorities argue that Reading Workshop is valuable because it teaches students to make good reading choices. But what texts should students be authorized to read for pleasure?
Many of my friends are voracious readers of popular novels (e.g., Stieg Larson, James Patterson, E. L. James, George R. R. Martin). I tend towards Library of America volumes and Man-Booker prize winners. And, I have grandsons and nephews who adore books on dinosaurs, snakes, natural anomalies, and the like. Which of us have to change our tastes to be properly Workshopped? Who decides? Remember we’re not talking about which literature to teach, but what students’ personal choices should be for a recreational activity. At least with textbooks and classroom novels, the prescriptions are positive and they are aimed at academic rather than personal reading.
Adolescence is a time of “no.” It is a time when teens start to push back on adult infringements on their autonomy. Nevertheless, most kids don’t have too much trouble with English teachers selecting books to be read in English—or at least no more resistance towards the games and exercises set by the Physical Education teacher or the experiments set by the science teacher.
But, telling teenagers that they are supposed to like reading, and that they should devote their personal time to it might be a bridge too far.
The benefit of student choice, then, could be a vague positive inclination towards reading (or, perhaps, less than that). While the downside could be that students will not gain sufficient experience in meeting academic reading demands in the kinds of texts in which they are likely to require scaffolding and support.
Let’s face it. The college professors, employers, and armed forces aren’t complaining that kids don’t like reading, but that they lack the skills and experiences that would allow them to meet reading demands. Apparently, the most widely required books in college include those by Plato, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Aristotle… as well as more recent offerings like the Clash of Civilizations and the Structure of Scientific Revolutions. My hunch is that reading The Hunger Games on one’s own, even if supported with mini-lessons in reading skills of questionable value, will not prepare one for Civilization and Its Discontents or the Canterbury Tales.
Of course, just because Reading Workshop, as usually conceptualized, is unlikely to prepare kids to effectively carry out the kinds of reading that they’ll be expected to do, that doesn’t mean that the novels or textbooks chosen by teachers will do this any better. Reading Workshop typically promotes the idea of guiding students to texts that won’t be overly challenging, but that is often true of textbook selections, too.
The issue isn’t whether students’ have reading choices, but whether what they read is demanding and valuable enough to develop greater ability and power. I trust those kinds of decisions to teachers more than to kids, since teachers should have a better understanding of what is coming later.
And, if those kind of demanding texts are going to make up a significant portion of instruction, I think students would be better served by working together under the guidance of a skilled teacher, rather than trying to teach themselves.
3. Can’t Reading Workshop be structured so as to meet your concerns?
Of course, Workshop could be restructured in various ways to address the kinds of concerns stated above—and even unstructured it might have a place in instruction (possibly). However, the more it is restructured—letting content and quality drive text selection rather than student choice; focusing on guided text interpretation instead of mini-lessons on skills; intentionally going for text that stretches student abilities and sensibilities rather than texts that can be read comfortably—the more it resembles traditional instruction.
Over the years, I’ve encouraged teachers to intersperse guided group textbook lessons, with more independent activities. For instance, in my classrooms I would teach skills and strategies with a textbook for some number of weeks, but then would have students select their own books to apply the same skills; interspersing like that throughout the year. Likewise, I have often encouraged teachers to allow students a free choice of books in place of one of their classroom novels; with a lot of attention to the differences in the books the teacher selected from those selected by the students.
However, most of the arguments for Workshop are philosophical, and this kind of eclectic purposeful mixing and matching is offensive to that philosophy. If you believe that kids will learn more on their own, that all texts are equal when it comes to their value in reading experience, that choice is more important than quality and that enjoyment should have priority over proficiency… my suggestions are offensive (though, certainly not meant that way).
I was a high school student in the 1960s. The Vietnam War was raging and the country was deeply divided. High school and college instructors didn’t want to flunk boys, because the alternative was turning them into cannon fodder. Accordingly, we had few reading assignments—and certainly none that we couldn’t blow off without consequence.
That wasn’t explained to us, however. I dropped out of high school believing that the adults were idiots without any kind of standards. If adults can’t tell you what they think you need to read, they just aren’t trying. I wonder how many kids, even those who enjoy the reading break during English class, think the same about their teachers?
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