Monday, August 31, 2009

Reading workshop works for language learners too: Free students to pick their own content

A few days ago I blogged about a certain Professor Fish who argues that, for courses like literature, teachers should be free to pick the materials they deem appropriate, rather than needing to teach to some broad standard. He classified language as something with a specific body of knowledge to learn—and, accordingly, being exempt from his "free the teachers" rule—but I argued that languages are no different than literature in this regard. And, indeed, I said I'd take it one step farther: let's free the students, letting learners pick the material they wanted to learn.

Then today up pops this article on the New York Times, which takes my one further step of letting learners pick whatever they want in languages and applies it back to literature (with a blink-and-you'll-miss-it subtitle of "The Future of Reading").

After the jump, let's strike out references to literature and replace them with references to languages, just to see how well these arguments work in both realms.

The approach [Lorrie McNeill, a middle school teacher,] uses, in which students choose their own books materials, discuss them individually with their teacher and one another, and keep detailed journals about their reading language learning, is part of a movement to revolutionize the way literature is languages are taught in America’s schools. While there is no clear consensus among English foreign-language teachers, variations on the approach, known as reading language workshop, are catching on.

In New York City many public and private elementary schools and some middle schools already employ versions of reading language workshop. Starting this fall, the school district in Chappaqua, N.Y., is setting aside 40 minutes every other day for all sixth, seventh and eighth graders to read books learn from language materials of their own choosing.
I wish I had had this opportunity when I was learning languages back in high school.
[F]ans of the reading language workshop say that assigning books materials leaves many children bored or unable to understand the texts materials. Letting students choose their own books materials, they say, can help to build a lifelong love of reading language learning.

“I feel like almost every kid in my classroom is engaged in a novel language that they’re actually interacting with,” Ms. McNeill said, several months into her experiment. “Whereas when I do ‘To Kill a Mockingbird' 'Don Quixote', I know that I have some kids that just don’t get into it.”

. . .

Ms. McNeill … wondered if forcing some students through a book a foreign-language textbook had dampened their interest in reading foreign languages altogether.

. . .

“There is nothing that we are doing here that can’t be done in any public school,” [Nancie Atwell, the author of popular guidebooks that promote giving students widespread choice] said. “The question is, how do you tweak these hidebound traditions of the institutions?”
Ha! That last paragraph didn't need a single edit.
[G]iving children limited choices from a classroom collection of books on a topic materials on a langauge helped improve performance on standardized reading comprehension foreign-language tests.

“The main thing is feeling in charge,” he said. Most experts say that teachers do not have to choose between one approach or the other and that they can incorporate the best of both methods: reading covering some novels materials as a group while also giving students opportunities to select their own books materials.

But literacy language specialists also say that instilling a habit is as important as creating a shared canon language base. “If what we’re trying to get to is, everybody has read ‘Ethan Frome’ and Henry James and Shakespeare can conjugate 500 verbs and knows the declension of 1000 nouns, then the challenge for the teacher is how do you make that stuff accessible and interesting enough that kids will stick with it,” said Catherine E. Snow, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. “But if the goal is, how do you make kids lifelong readers language learners, then it seems to me that there’s a lot to be said for the choice approach. As adults, as good readers language learners, we don’t all read get exposed to the same thing, and we revel in our idiosyncrasies as adult readers language learners, so kids should have some of the same freedom.”
Now of course the facts I arbitrarily changed above may or may not be true (I'd bet that they are), but in any case the entire argument stands pretty darn well in the language-learning field as well.

Links: A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like [New York Times]


  1. i laughed hard when i saw that article in the paper. why is it such revolutionary front-page news on one of the most important newspapers in the USA to say that "hey, check this out. students like to choose for themselves instead of being force-fed boring shit!"

    you know something is amiss when the obvious is front-page news.

  2. It is a bit odd... we did the same thing when I was in high school back in the 1990s, and it didn't make any front page. A typical set-up was a "core" list of ten books, of which you'd have to read maybe 3-4 over the semester, and then a much longer list of like 50-75 books, of which you'd have to read several more.

    Of course, the selection didn't always lead to me picking what I wanted to read; often I'd just pick the shortest books so I wouldn't have to spend so much time.

  3. P.S. Here's a related post over on Steve Kaufmann's blog.