Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Reading Zone, by Nancie Atwell

This short, concise book details the components of a reading workshop model for middle schoolers. After reading this intimate portrait of a classroom full of engaged, critical, habitual readers, my goals for my own reading workshop have been elevated higher than ever. This is what I want for all of my kids: pathways that lead them to dive deep and spend substantial swaths of time in The Reading Zone, daily.

An interesting argument, that I'm still wrestling with, is Nancie's dismissal of the "strategy instruction" approach to reading workshop. The authors of Strategies That Work argue that kids need explicit instruction on the specific strategies that readers use as they understand texts. Expert readers make connections, predictions, and inferences, proponents of strategy instruction note. They are constantly asking questions and visualizing the story. Why not empower students with these strategic stances that will strengthen their ability to comprehend? Well, says Nancie, forcing ourselves to apply these strategies while reading does nothing but bump us right out of The Zone. Engaged readers, including children, do these things subconsciously and forcing them to become metacognitive doesn't improve comprehension, it hampers it. And struggling readers aren't going to magically arrive in The Zone, just because they're assigned these extra cognitive tasks; in fact, they're probably going to end up even further away.

I tend to agree with Nancie, on this point, as far as the assignment of sticky-noting up narrative texts goes. That task is nothing but disruptive and annoying. And this whole conversation is pushing me toward a serious rethinking of Soar to Success, and its accompanying "reciprocal teaching" model.

But---I do think the vocabulary derived from learning about comprehension strategies is quite helpful when communicating with others about our reading journeys. The actual Reading Zone is a fairly mysterious, indescribable place, and having some language to connect with one another about our visits to this incredible planet is not only convenient, but also motivating. "Oh my gosh," Jessami thinks to herself as she reads Marylina's description of the movie that was created in her mind when Percy, Annabeth, and Grover floated in their magic, transparent bubbles through the rocky cave-ceiling of Hades and up into the Pacific Ocean. "That is sooo cool. I can't wait to have that experience, too." And isn't prompting readers to have meaningful connections and moral inferences the very stuff of great literature? I don't think it hurts at all to reflect back on our reading with the intent of remembering our various types of thinking. And the strategy language can also be used to push ourselves, post-reading, to new insights and ideas. I think the real problem is when we force kids to do this "mid-stream". And, as Nancie pointed out, even "mid-stream", comprehension strategies are helpful when engaging with demanding, non-fiction texts.

I'm also puzzling over the space for small group instruction in the model as Nancie outlines it here. Are there guided reading groups? Literature groups? I can see the latter, especially, becoming far less formal, but the social dimension of reading has got to be more than just passing around recommendations. And I'm not sure if I'm ready to admit that the only thing a teacher can do for the kids at the bottom is to help them find perfect independent reading books. Hmmmm.

Lotsa interesting new questions to ponder and around which to develop experiments next year.

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