Vivian Franz, Ph.D.
Parents concerned about school performance ask why reading is so difficult to remediate The answer is that reading is not a subject. It is a process, a thinking process. The subjects of social studies and science have content, but reading has no content of its own. We have to read social studies and science. We have to read a poem, a short story, or a school text. Reading is the cognitive process by which we interpret and analyze the symbols on the printed page. It is the means by which we understand the printed page.
Moreover, no one will ever read better than he or she can think. True, in the earliest steps of reading, decoding words and being able to pronounce them is a necessary first step. But if we don't know what the words mean, we are not really reading. That is why reading comprehension is essential to success in all academic subjects. It is why specialized vocabulary in school subjects is taught and high-lighted in texts.
Dr. Donald Edwards, formerly of Miami University, Oxford, used to tell teachers in his graduate classes that usually children can read any words in their speaking and understanding vocabularies. He talked about bringing words "within recognition range." What he meant was that the student coming to the word "escalator” might be able to break the word down into parts and pronounce it, but unless he or she has heard the word and knows its meaning, the word "escalator" will not be understood. This is one reason why talking with and reading to children is so important.
In a like manner, high school students preparing for the SAT college entrance tests soon see the importance of an extensive vocabulary. To perform well on the SAT, students must read well. They must know specifically what the questions are asking and then understand the answer choices. One might say the verbal SAT is vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary. Of course, it is more than that. It is taking all those word meanings and constructing them into involved, continuous thoughts and coming up with conclusions.
The SAT is thinking. It has two main verbal subtests: writing and critical reading. Vocabulary knowledge is essential to all. If students don't know particular words in the question, it is difficult to choose the correct answer. (Thus students seek to supplement imperfect knowledge with test taking techniques in hopes of a better score. “All things being equal," there is some merit in this endeavor. Most of us go through life with inadequate knowledge in one respect or another. Estimation, too, is thinking and can sometimes serve us well.)
But good teachers don't teach for a test. They teach for a lifetime, the student's lifetime. Further, students should learn for a lifetime, realizing that every skill, every academic accomplishment, adds to a base of knowledge that will enable them to live well, to cope in difficult times, to produce, to enable, and to serve. This is what education is all about.
Frank Jennings in his book This Is Reading says, "The value of a book in this changing world is its ability to hold things still long enough for them to be understood." He goes on to say that "knowledge is a hunger-maker."
Knowing, then, what reading is can lead to higher academic performance. Understanding that reading is thinking can cause us, more often, to pick up a book and read. Thus enriched, we become better teachers or parents. When we read, our children will, sooner or later, read also.
This is their heritage.