By Susan McMahon, Ph.D., professor in Reading and Language at National Louis University
The other day, I was shopping at one of the major national stores, waiting in line to check out. Ahead of me was a mother with three children—a toddler, one about 5, and the oldest maybe 7. The oldest was looking at the magazines that lined the left side of the check-out lane. There were a couple with pictures of the French standing together holding the sign “Je suis Charlie.”
“Momma, I can’t read this,” said the boy.
The mother temporarily turned her attention to the magazines and said, “It means ‘I am Charlie,’” then returned to piling her purchases on the conveyer belt and containing the other two children.
“Wow! That’s a lot of people with the same name!” said the boy, who turned his attention to some plastic toys below.
This interaction between a mother and son was complete and appropriate. She answered his question and he had gained some understanding of the meaning communicated by the picture. The parent in me understood her response, as well as the need to keep the answer simple given the situation.
At the same time, the reading teacher in me had to think about how complex his question really was, and that in a classroom the teacher could use this as a means of exploring complex texts with her students.
Imagine a classroom in which a student brought in the same picture and asked the teacher the same question. She would have to decide whether to focus on just a literal meaning or delve more deeply into the interpretive or critical significance.
Certainly the age of the student would matter, so the teacher’s response may be as simple as that of the mother above. At the same time, focusing on a literal meaning addresses only the functional purpose for reading.
Teachers understand that students need to learn to delve more deeply into complex texts. For example, the Common Core State Standards require students to read critically to evaluate meanings.
Teachers question how they can identify “complex texts” and think they need entirely new sets of texts—which they may. However, the pictures that filled the news after the terrorist attack in Paris were good examples of complex texts that could provide deep analysis and discussion in a classroom. Let me explain.
Imagine any one of the many pictures published in the media with crowds of people holding a sign saying “Je suis Charlie.” As adults, we immediately know that all those pictured are not literally named “Charlie” so we begin looking for other meanings. However, students may only comprehend the literal.
A good reading teacher would lead students to a number of different, yet plausible reasons people whose name is Francois or Marie carried this sign. This may include reading additional related articles about the terrorists who killed staff members at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper or killed Jewish shoppers in a grocery store a few days later. By reading additional texts, teachers could help students understand that proclaiming “Je suis Charlie” was a way of speaking up for those killed, for freedom of speech in general, or for democratic values. Therefore, the teacher would make clear that for each individual who chose to proclaim, “Je suis Charlie,” the meaning differed. That varied meanings emerge from the same document is one characteristic of a complex text.
In addition to an interpretive stance, a good reading educator helps learners construct a critical meaning from complex texts as well. In this case, she may ask students to consider what the political implications might be for large demonstrations in a city already attacked by terrorists. Such discussions would enable students to discuss the potential increase in danger as well as the ramifications of doing nothing. Through such instruction, a teacher could encourage readers to look for different perspectives on the same events, deepening their reading comprehension of multiple texts.
The busy mother in the checkout lane did not discuss all of these—nor should she have. The mom answered her son’s question in the most appropriate way for the circumstances. However, when asked the same question, a teacher needs to encourage students to move beyond a literal meaning.
Recent policies, such as No Child Left Behind, reduced reading to a response to “right there” questions on tests, focusing only on literal comprehension and emphasizing functional reading. As we move into an age of the Common Core State Standards, teachers are now being asked to enable students to think more deeply about the texts by examining claims and the subsequent support.
Therefore, teachers must push their practice to encourage students to read more deeply, to analyze and critique the ideas. Are you ready to provide such instruction? As a literacy leader, are you capable of supporting teachers who are looking for better ways to teach reading? Both students and professors in National Louis University’s advanced reading doctoral program enjoy the thrill of working with such ideas and analysis. I can’t imagine doing anything more professionally rewarding.