Saturday, September 10, 2011

"Reading is thinking." Really? Hold on a second here...

GottaBook readers are a smart group, if I say so myself, and I know a lot of you are teachers or passionate advocates of literacy. As a result, when I ran into the phrase "reading is thinking" recently, my first thought was to talk about it here, even though that's not what normally happens on the blog. I'm following through on that thought, though I'm quick to note that next week you'll be seeing poetry here as normal.

But ya see... I have real problems with the phrase.

I understand the idea of "reading is thinking," I believe. Reading isn't just about decoding the phonemes and saying words - it's about comprehension and meaning, too. To get there, we use visualization, inference and a whole toolbox of ideas. We learn to extract what we can from the text by looking at form, function, and more. We use the brain in a thinking capacity, perhaps even with automaticity. Yet that, to me, is separate from saying "reading is thinking."

Now, if you say "reading for comprehension involves thinking" I'm certainly with you. If you say "reading leads to thinking" that works on a few levels. You might think this is all a parse, but I don't think so. Part of what drives this, you see, is I'm thinking about the 10-20% of children with reading disabilities who are still battling the first part of "reading." What does this phrase say to them?

One implication of the phrase "reading is thinking," while certainly not intentional, is that "if I'm not reading, I'm not thinking." Sure, it doesn't mean that when you blow it out to "getting everything involved in the process of reading involves thinking as we go." It doesn't say "reading is the only type of thinking" nor does it say "solving math problems is not thinking" or anything like that.  I can infer all day.

However, kids who struggle with reading usually struggle with self-esteem... often thinking of themselves as stupid or inferior because of the challenges with reading... and here is a statement that says that the thing they're struggling with is thinking. I beg to differ.

Put another way, we'd never say "Climbing up stairs is physical fitness!" 

The words "reading" and "thinking" are tremendously loaded. A cognitive process... a neurological function... is not the same as thinking. Decoding is not the same as extracting meaning. While "reading is thinking" is a catchy phrase and certainly I've never met a teacher or literacy advocate who would want to make a struggling reader feel bad... I've got issues.

So please, y'all... discuss! Clue me in on what I'm missing. Agree with me or help me define my concerns more clearly. Point me to resources. Or, of course, tell jokes or move along :-)


Ben (@engaginged) said...

I totally see where you're coming from, but for me--someone who teaches students that "Reading is Thinking"--I view it as a good thing.

I want my students to understand that I want them:
1. Having comprehension-enhancing thoughts during their reading (e.g. I wonder what will happen next, that character reminds me of... etc. etc.)
2. Paying attention to these thoughts.

Basically, I want them to understand that these thoughts are important. Also, if they aren't having these thoughts while they're reading, I want to help guide them so they are having them...and having the right kinds of thoughts, as well.

I'm not explaining any of this very eloquently, I'm afraid, but for me "Reading is Thinking" is a phrase I use with students. Almost as a mantra. As their teacher, I know there's more to it than you describe (and I think you're right on). But for students, what's important for them to know is that, yes, reading IS thinking.

Does that make sense? :) Thanks for sharing a post that really got me thinking!

Your blog is awesome, by the way!

Elizabeth C. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elizabeth C. said...

A. Dude, this isn't quantum physics. A bit of inexact-ness isn't going to cause a real problem.
B. We're talking to nine-year olds. I wouldn't put forth "reading is thinking" to a group of educated adults. The conversation would take a turn much like this. However, for kids, the idea that reading is more than calling words is a novel thought.

Montessori's first language lessons, in which children put together sounds using sandpaper letters, and, eventually, shaped letters, are actually categorized as writing lessons, since children aren't attaching meaning to the words; they're just sounding them out. It doesn't become reading work until objects are matched to those groups of letters.
The "reading is thinking" phrase is coined by Fountas and Pinnell, the current reading gurus. When I teach this minilesson, (I teach fourth grade in a traditional public school.) I put up a string of nonsense words that can be sounded out phonetically. The question I ask is, "So, have you read the sentence?" I let them hash it out, and what I usually get is, "Well, sort of." They'll agree that they said the words, but without knowing what the heck the words mean, there's nothing to understand. Is decoding without meaning reading? A struggling reader certainly can't create understanding without decoding. (Sadly, for some children with learning disabilities, reading is fighting.)
A really good poet can create images in a reader's mind, without him being aware of doing so. (As long as the vocabulary is within the quick grasp of said reader.) The pictures just appear. In such a case, is reading thinking?
Of course, if what you're reading isn't provoking some thought beyond attaching meaning to the words, you're probably reading the wrong stuff...

Gregory K. said...

Hey, Ben - I totally get what you're saying. And I agree these thoughts while reading are important. I get completely where the phrase is coming from in the best way.

My concern remains how a phrase like "reading is thinking" impacts those still struggling on the decoding side. I know the phrase is given context, but both "reading" and "thinking" are such loaded words. Imagine something you struggle with - something that brings down your self esteem the most - then have it equated to thinking or "being likable" or "being good." Sure, there's context, but I'm not sure that sinks in to a 9-10 year old who already feels so different from their peers.

I asked a handful of adult dyslexic friends what they thought of the phrase... if they could flash back to their class experience and think of what it would feel like. They didn't like it at all. But, then again, they were imagining, not really experiencing.

Anyway, I have no great solutions, nor do I know if one is needed. I appreciate the thoughts!

Gregory K. said...

Hi, Elizabeth - you're right, it's not quantum physics. Instead, what I was talking about was children's emotional/psychological state of mind and the importance of specificity of language. I wouldn't dismiss either of these with a shrug, but that's me.

I love your nonsense sentence minilesson, and as I said, I completely get the meaning of the phrase. But as you note, for many kids "reading is fighting." So imagine you are one of those kids who is struggling with decoding... struggling with meaning... and told you are therefore struggling with thinking. That is, in fact, an easy implication to take from the phrase... and kids already struggling are very likely to take it that way (including ones who struggle with inferring or other tools that are part of the thinking processes we're talking about!).

Again, I don't know the answer here. But I do know we wouldn't say "hearing is intelligence." Not a perfect parallel, it's true, but even with all the convos I've had today about this topic (online! offline! with dyslexics! with teachers!), there's no question this is a real issue and not one of a bit of inexactness.

Ben (@engaginged) said...

I can see your point, Greg. This is why dialogue like this is so important...because it helps folks (including me) think about how the things they say affect ALL kids. There's no way in the world that I want to make kids who struggle with reading feel inferior or inadequate, so this is definitely something to consider.

Not sure if this is on the same topic, but it's something that comes to mind that bothers me...I've heard teachers preface statements with "Good readers..." and "Good writers..." as in "Good readers think about what a character does and what that tells us about their personality" or "Good writers use details." That gets my goat because if you're telling kids that such a thing as "Good" readers and writers exists, then that means that there must be "Bad readers" and "bad writers" and if you aren't doing the things that good readers and writers do, then you're "bad."

That's the kind of stuff that I have seen with my own eyes that really bothers me. And I think it's akin to what you're describing.

Again, not sure if I'm explaining myself well, but I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to comment and dialogue on this topic. Thanks, Greg.

Gregory K. said...

You're explaining yourself well, Ben. And I really don't have a solution for this or the related issue you bring up (the "good reader" issue). I know no one engaging in this conversation would ever be trying to do harm, and we also always run the risk of becoming too constrained, for lack of a better term. I mean, someone good at math is good at math and it should be praised... and we should look for the skills that make folks good. Same for reading.

Still, I see how this phrasing could be an issue. So I'll keep asking around. I agree that talking this stuff through is the way towards progress (when progress is needed, of course).

Thanks for chiming in!

Sandy Brehl said...

Okay, I held off for a bit on this, but now I'm in...

As a teacher of special needs students and traditional elementary classrooms (and I consider every child - and every one of us- to have special needs) I appreciate your sensitivity to the issues/reactions of those who struggle with decoding and/or language challenges, Greg. True, they come front-loaded with self-doubt and negativity, but that may be more a matter of how we are defining reading rather than thinking.

To quote a student from years ago, "reading is making sense". When we enjoy a wordless book, are we "reading" it? When a pre-reader/emerging reader retells a familiar story using the picture prompts but providing their own words, is that reading? I say it is.
On the other hand, a hyperlexic reader who can rattle off every word, even using expression, but has no grasp of the meaning, multiple interpretations of familiar words, blindness to emotional content or subtext... are they in fact reading? I say no- since they are not making sense.

Until we convince students and parents and school boards that "reading is making sense" we'll continue to focus on fluency as the end goal rather than as a valuable tool in the very complex process of reading- A process that involves decoding, expression, word knowledge, language and semantics, associations with experiences, and the ability to question and connect. These are all processes that take place internally, not on the page. That's in our mind, thinking, making sense.
For those who struggle, you can remind them/illustrate this point by having a text-reading machine "say" the words for them, but it is the "reader" who must make sense of what is being said.
Now I'm out...

Gregory K. said...

Thanks, Sandy! I like "reading is making sense" a lot better, cuz I've yet to meet a struggling reader (whether struggling with decoding or context) who wasn't trying to make sense of it all.

I also agree that a lot of the challenge is created by the way we define reading.

What's interesting to me about your last example - of having a machine "say" the words - is that it's all about creating meaning... it's all about making sense... but it's not about what we'd call "reading" today, is it? It's the oral tradition of STORY. Creating meaning involves thinking... but I know many a struggling READER who can do that with oral story no problem. So this would imply that we're only focusing again on the decoding aspect of reading, wouldn't it?

Again, a struggling reader can make great sense from a wordless picture book. It's not the creating meaning that's the issue. It's not the 'thinking'... but it's putting it all together that's the issue.

Or not :-)

I'd love to hear from 15 year olds who struggle with reading but have learned that "reading is thinking" to see what they say. Younger kids might not feel the impact til later, kinda like other "hidding" messages we send out all the time. Again, I have no proof. I just... don't know!

Thanks for the perspective. It makes great sense to me....

Sandy Brehl said...

And meaning is not just "story", although I'm an advocate of the idea that in non-fiction we process elements within a framework similar to story/narrative. One reason kids can "get" and work with nonfiction biography much better than an expository text about a person's life or accomplishments is that it is structured as life story for them.

When you consider how many competent "readers"- fluent and able to answer comprehension questions on a test- still read the vast amounts of informational text flooding our lives and manage to misinterpret, partial read, misapply facts, attribute statements incorrectly, etc. I would challenge how well they actually "read".
Why not use your school poetry contacts to see if a teacher (special needs or reading focus) would let you have a one time discussion group with some kids. At many ages. Don't preset their thinking- just throw it out there- When they see/hear the message "Reading is thinking", what does it mean to them personally? Let us know what you find!