The Importance of Critical Reading

One of my favorite podcasts, EconTalk, presents a diverse range of topics that the host, Russ Roberts, somehow finds a way to adeptly navigate through. One recent example of this was Roberts hosting Doug Lemov as a guest on the subject of the central importance of critical reading. The implications are of tremendous importance as it relates to personal growth and development, as a parent raising young children to love reading and that singular activities’ critical foundational importance in developing knowledge and understanding all other subjects, and as members of a broader community in fostering within our school systems and educational models the most effective modes of learning. Lemov is a well-known author on teaching methods and also runs many successful charter schools in poorer communities throughout the Northeast. In other words, his theories have found a useful and meaningful practical home to great ends.

There were several key insights from the episode I wanted to write down and commit to my own practice and that I also wanted to share with anyone who has an interest on the topic:

  • Whereas most instructors and parents adhere to an idea of “age or level appropriate” reading and texts, Lemov urges us to have our children or pupils grapple with challenging texts. This allows them to work through more difficult concepts, ask probing questions, and hear words, ideas, and concepts that they may never get to experience in an edition of Magic Tree House, as fine as those kinds of simple serial books can be for pleasure reading. The example he uses in the podcast is reading with his then 2nd-grader a novel, The Island of the Blue Dolphins, which tells the story of a girl stranded for years off of the California coast and which is ostensibly an eighth-grade level text. He remarks that by reading aloud to her and grappling through the story with his daughter, she was able to interact with the story in a meaningful way, learn words such as “befall” that she would never learn in traditional assignments and novels, and begin to develop an anticipatory love of the types of great literature works that she would experience as she grew into adulthood. I am pleased to report that upon reading to my own daughters (3rd and 1st grades) the first two chapters of the same novel, I have witnessed the same impressive level of understanding, inquisitiveness, and delight at hearing aloud a novel much richer in context, feelings, and exploration of the human condition than other novels that they read on their own that are “their level.”
  • Lemov indicates that what is most common is to instruct children on understanding the higher level context on what is going on in a text and to bypass difficult language by offering a quick summary of the content distilled into modern simple language. Thus, a tough passage from Hamlet gets paraphrased and reduced to its simplest form. Lemov believes that while bigger picture thinking is an important part of instruction and knowledge building, of equal importance is deep and critical analysis of the actual written text. He advocates for a deeper level of understanding on a line by line basis and of developing knowledge of what the author was truly trying to say within the context of the author’s language. This means a more methodical plowing through of Shakespeare, but the long-term implications are that the person will develop a much broader ability to pick up and analyze challenging texts and to reap the benefits of their robust life insights.
  • I wholeheartedly agree with Lemov’s stance on technology in the classroom. In the podcast, he states unequivocally:

    I think a lot of parents, one of the first questions they ask about their school is, ‘Is the school infused with technology? How will my kids have access to technology?’ My concern is the opposite. If I could have anything from my school, it would be a place where my kids sustain their focus in conversation, in reading, in writing, without being interrupted with a technology for as long as possible.

Indeed, one public school that I toured focused very little on academic rigor in their “pitch” and much more on the modernity of the facilities, use of iPads, and use of electronic voice amplifiers that more effectively connect teachers to their students. My personal observation is that my own children pick up and adapt to technology in the home at an incredible pace without need of my aid. Thus, they have little need of a school teaching them how to adapt to smart devices. At best, technology access adds some ability to quickly reference some key concept, while vitiating the critical life skill of research and exploration. My fear, in addition to what Lemov discusses, is that it serves such a distraction and takes away from the deep meditative aspects of what a school should be that it erases any benefit that could be derived from it.

  • One novel concept Lemov spells out is to pair nonfiction concepts with fiction reading. As a result, a potentially bland topic (in the eyes of a young student) such as food rationing and war preparations comes alive when it is paired with a novel such as Lily’s Crossing, a novel about a girl whose life is disrupted when her father leaves for World War II, her best friend moves to a war production factory town, and life in New York City assumes a broader war posture with rationing and bombing raid preparations.

There are more great insights and practical ideas in the podcast, therefore I highly encourage the listen of this particular episode, which takes no overt ideological stances and is rather thought-provoking. I also recommend EconTalk in general for those who are interested in learning and hearing more about the philosophy of faith in the free individual working in a free market undergirded by a limited government applying the rule of law that is not arbitrary. In short, it is a tremendous podcast in defense of traditional classical liberalism/libertarianism.

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