Reading: An Essential Skill

Once a week, the Lethbridge Herald publishes a column written by a leadership at of one of five school jurisdictions in the Lethbridge area. This week’s column is authored Jerry Salmon, Director of Learning for Westwind School Division and was published on April 10, 2019. Thank you to the Lethbridge Herald for permission to post this article on the Westwind website.

Nearly every year around June, a speech from a graduation ceremony somewhere, that strives to inspire us or to fill us in about the reality of the hard things upcoming in life, goes viral. We enjoy these because nearly all of us have had experiences in school and have an idea of what a prepared high school graduate needs.

Alberta Education has defined a set of skills, called “competencies,” as goals for each graduate. K-12 education aims to develop these competencies in our students so that they will be prepared to handle new information and situations that they will face within society and the workforce. While being literate is not one of the eight competencies, it is foundational. Literacy skills, especially reading, are essential to develop each of those competencies.

There are many reasons that some students, and even adults, don’t read. For some, it is difficult to figure out the words. Another may read the words just fine, but comprehending the meaning of words, sentences or paragraphs is difficult. For some, reading and comprehending is not difficult, but reading is not stimulating enough to motivate giving it time and attention. Lastly, a history of being forced to read a book that we were not interested in and then repeatedly answer questions about it may have turned reading into drudgery.

While it is typical that people, in general, avoid things that are difficult or require effort to sustain focus, reading is a skill that is needed throughout life; avoiding it isn’t really an option. So, it remains vital that our students, and the society in which they live, continue to read and learn. We have learned much about helping readers who struggle decoding a word or comprehending a text. However, the first trick is more about how to get students who typically avoid reading to want to read, regardless of whether they struggle or not.

Kids need to interact with model readers. The phrase “modelling reading” often conjures mental pictures of students seeing adults read. It is more than just that. As kids hear adults talk about books they are reading, including why they have stopped reading a book, or why they powered through a boring part of a book instead of quitting, they learn that sometimes not finishing is allowed, and sometimes it isn’t. Adults love to talk about what they read, some even forming clubs to do so. As kids share what they read with an adult or peer, connections are made, and another book often comes up in those discussions, motivating the choice of a next book. Trusted adults and peers can “sell” books to each other.

Access to books or other texts of interest also influences dormant readers to crack one open. We can talk about books all day, but if kids can’t get them easily, they often won’t bother. Many schools across the province are building classroom libraries to increase access to interesting books. Even subject area teachers are searching for content-related books to highlight new and interesting learning so students can see how exciting each discipline can be. Reading on digital devices can increase access to books. Depending on the device, and the reader, distractions from notifications or knowing a favourite social media app is two clicks away can become too much to handle.

Lastly, kids need time to read. For any skill, time to practise builds it and it takes time to build stamina. Forcing reading may only reinforce the hatred of reading. But reading a text of interest for a short amount of time can build stamina until a student can put in more time working through a text rather than just staring at the pages hoping the clock would go faster.

Reading, along with other literacy skills, is complex and continues to build as we grow throughout school-year ages and into adulthood. Wanting to get better at something helps us push through difficulties. Helping our students want to read (and then provide extra help on how to read, if necessary) is significant. Reading is foundational to all of us as we continue to develop as learners and maybe someday we can all become that person talked about at high school graduations.