Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Reading about Reading Apprenticeship and Thinking about Textbook Publisher Technology

I'm reading about reading, which right now is more fun than writing about writing. The book is Reading for Understanding: How Reading Apprenticeship Improves Disciplinary Learning in Secondary and College Classrooms by Ruth Schoenbach, Cynthia Greenleaf, and Lynn Murphy.

Based on research into best practices for making students better readers, the book explores classroom approaches instructors can use to make even the weakest readers stronger, able to read the kinds of longer, more complex works students will engage in courses and outside of courses.

You can see the basics of their framework here, in chapter two, which they provide online:

Two quick take aways that go to textbook publishers' software product development efforts.

First, there is no quick-fix, and skills practice technologies, where students go to Web services offered by publishers and others selling in the developmental market might exacerbate rather than ameliorate the problem. From page 8 of the text. At the bottom of this post, I've put in the citation their footnote references.
Instead, the quick-fix or "skills-in-a-box" programs commonly promoted as suitable for solving a range of reading difficulties feature discrete skills practice and decontextualized reading of short paragraphs or passages. Some of these programs focus on word-level exercises and vocabulary drills; others divide comprehension into a suite of skills such as find-the-main-idea, sequence sentences, draw conclusions -- all with decontextualized snippets of text. Some other skills programs put students through batteries of test preparation exercises: read a paragraph and answer "comprehension" questions, read another paragraph and answer questions, and so on. These, too, fail to help students gain the kind of deeper comprehension skills and practice that are needed for high-level literacy demands. 
Simply put, there is no quick fix for reading inexperience. Decades of research have shown that reading is a complex cognitive and social practice and that readers develop knowledge, experience, and skill over a lifetime of reading. In building reading aptitude, there is no skills-only approach that can substitute for reading itself. On the contrary, repeated studies have demonstrated that isolated instruction in grammar, decoding, or even reading comprehension skills may have little or no transfer effect when students are actually reading.15
This summary gibes with what many teachers know to be true about writing and the teaching of writing -- isolated skill practice doesn't transfer into better writing habits of mind, drafting and final copy editing skills.

In addition, the nature of these programs -- or textbooks that take this approach -- dispirit the learner, mark him or her as unable, and leech joy from learning, motivation from reading (and writing when skill and drill is used there). What does work, write Schoenbach, Greenleaf and Murphy, is quite wonderful for a teacher who seeks an energetic class:
Recent literacy research has identified the instructional characteristics necessary to meet the unique needs of low-achieving adolescents: treat all students as capable learners, create a collaborative climate of inquiry, build on students interests and curiosity, tap into students' knowledge and experience, and harness their preference for social interaction to serve academic goals.5 (4)
The Reading Apprenticeship authors also warn against the tendency of professors to find ways around reading -- explaining what was in text via lecture or slides that summarize key ideas, an over-reliance on video, using unchallenging texts where text is used, and other practices.

I work for a college textbook publisher, and we do have books and software which offer developmental readers support through decontextualized reading practice and drill. Those are legacies from market requirements (teachers and programs ask for this stuff), competitive pressures (other publishers win business by having them), and not quite knowing yet what an alternative offering is.  As one who does professional development for faculty, my workshops encourage instructors to move in the direction the literacy research identifies as best -- a belief in students, finding ways to tap into their intrinsic motivations, collaborative reading and writing activities, scaffolded support that moves students into reading more complex texts instead of finding ways to work around reading, bringing learner experience into the mix, and so on.

But those shifts can be hard for folks to make because they can be messy, require more patience, in the world of seat-time and fixed-weeks in a semester, make it harder for all course goals and outcomes to be reached. So the challenges are real.  I think publishers can do more. While the market may demand and teachers may crave discrete skills products, adding to them or offering as alternatives software and books that move in the direction literacy research points to becomes essential.

Many of our books go there now, but the technology is slower to follow because its harder to develop and what we offer may not be necessary given the plethora of good alternatives.  We have, at Macmillan where I work, a tool for shared annotations -- a tool that can support social reading, guided writing around reading, where students can share experiences, insights, questions, answers to make their reading experiences in the course richer and deeper (see But as useful, and perhaps more powerful because they were designed around social reading first, are tools like those outlined here -- -- that one of my workshops focused on.

At any rate, two things: I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the Reading Apprenticeship book, and am looking forward to what it can teach myself and my colleagues in publishing about how to make better books and software to support reading.


5. Lee, C. D., & Spratley, A. (2010). Reading in the disciplines: The challenges of adolescent literacy. New York: Carnegie Corporation of New York.

15. Fielding, L. G., & Pearson, P. D. (1994). Reading comprehension: What works. Educational Leadership, 51(5), 62-88; Cartwright, K. D. (Ed.) (2008). Literacy processes: Cognitive flexibility in learning and teaching. New York: Guilford.

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