Over 15,000 educators subscribe to my free weekly newsletter. Click here to sign up.

The Goal of Reading (and Basic Strategies for Achieving It)

By Dave Stuart Jr.

A pivotal point in a reader's journey is when she realizes, either intuitively or explicitly, that the goal of reading is to obtain meaning. If we're not gaining meaning in a novel or a textbook or an article, then we're not really reading. You've not read something until you've understood it.

When our students reach this understanding, it's as if something clicks into place inside of them, and suddenly the reading that we assign becomes much more effective at promoting their long-term flourishing because it makes them smarter and more knowledgeable and so on. It yields fruit. When a student reads to understand, each article of the week builds background knowledge, each textbook passage improves vocabulary, each poem becomes a possibility, each annotation becomes purposeful. In short, understanding the goal of reading moves our students from Reading as Compliance to Reading as Learning — a critical shift.

This shift in student thinking, says Daniel Willingham [1], is probably “the main effect of strategy instruction.” We've all had professional development on reading strategies — e.g., re-reading when confused, looking for clues in a text, looking up unfamiliar words, using graphic organizers, summarizing — and, if you're like me, it may have all seemed a bit overwhelming. But Willingham wonders if the primary purpose in teaching our students reading strategies might simply be that the strategies push our students to see that reading isn't just about having words fly from a page and through our head — it's about comprehension. As Willingham mildly puts it, understanding that a non-understood text is a non-read text “confers a significant advantage to comprehension.”

A new poster for my classroom, perhaps:

WE READ UNTIL WE UNDERSTAND

Which means that we…

  • Re-read confusing or difficult passages
  • Look up unfamiliar words
  • Locate unfamiliar place names (I teach world history)
  • Take notes that summarize main ideas of textbook excerpts
  • Use graphic organizers for comparison, causation, continuity/change, and periodization
  • Identify unsolvable questions and take them to friends or Mr. Stuart

The goal of these things is to clarify for our kids what the goal of all reading is. That's a simplification that helps me teach.

Update: Here's a picture.

Footnote:

  1. Willingham's “The Usefulness of Brief Instruction in Reading Comprehension Strategies” greatly informed this whole post.

4 Responses to The Goal of Reading (and Basic Strategies for Achieving It)

  1. Patrycja June 4, 2017 at 5:30 pm #

    Another thought-provoking post. This year I focused on writing, but next year I know I need to focus on reading comprehension. This part of the post really sticks with me:

    When our students reach this understanding, it’s as if something clicks into place inside of them, and suddenly the reading that we assign becomes much more effective at promoting their long-term flourishing because it makes them smarter and more knowledgeable and so on. It yields fruit.

    With so many of my students lacking historical and world knowledge, your weekly reading assignments make sense.

    I also think giving students freedom to choose one novel or book a year, so long as it uses higher-level vocabulary and is school-appropriate, is worthwhile. I never had the freedom to choose the books I read in school, and for many years reading was a drudgery.

    Thanks for the food for thought!

  2. Meredith Liben June 5, 2017 at 9:26 am #

    Dave:
    Great post – among many, but this one is pithy AND illuminating.
    How come you don’t have that twitter/facebook etc. connector icon on your site so I can tweet your articles out? I usually read your posts as emails, but came to the site specifically because I wanted to tweet this out.
    If it isn’t too hard or expensive, would you consider adding that capacity? I’m realizing I usually just forward your posts via email, but that doesn’t spread them as far.
    Thanks for all you do and for keeping all of us a bit saner.
    Cheers,
    Meredith

    • davestuartjr June 13, 2017 at 2:23 pm #

      It should be over there on the left, Meredith! It’s showing up on my computer — but you are talking a fairly non-techy blogger so who knows 🙂 All I know is that I APPRECIATE you wanting to share and taking the time to write! Thank YOU!

Leave a Reply