TextbooksNo one can deny the importance of appropriate reading materials when it comes to reading books. Much effort is expended by educators to ensure that reading materials for students are suitable in both content and level of difficulty. The emphasis is on enjoyment and achievement which go hand in hand. Yet when reading is not for pleasure, but for learning only, it is a different story.

I am aware of the dilemma that Secondary teachers face with students who struggle to learn from set textbooks.  It is not uncommon to hear of students who have been graded at reading three to four years below their chronological age, yet they are expected to learn complicated concepts from books that are created for readers whose level of comprehension and decoding skills far exceed their ability. This is an all too frequent practice. We would not expect a year three child to succeed when reading a year six level text, but when students arrive in Secondary school, perhaps educators need to consider that this very practice could be part of the cause of disruptive behaviours and rising failure rates as students move through the Secondary curriculum.

This is particularly the case when students proceed from Primary school to Secondary school.  In Primary school much of the learning is hands on, exploratory learning with a good deal of teacher support.  It is here that an effort is made to accommodate all types of learning styles. The language in text books continues to be appropriate to the age group and is supported by visual cues. On the other hand, text books in Secondary school rely much more on the written word. The books are written by experts who presume some prior knowledge has been taught, who are comfortable with the concepts, who assume interest will be automatic and expect a moderate to high level of linguistic ability. Furthermore students in Secondary school are expected to learn as much from text books as they do from their teachers. This exacerbates the problem for those students whose decoding and comprehension skills fall far below average.

It is one thing to hear a poly-syllabic word mentioned in context, where the meaning can be deduced; quite another to see it in print and then watch it morph into different parts of speech! There is a huge gap between the way language is written in text books and the way our students speak, read and write. This is particularly the case where students struggle linguistically. It is a gap which widens each week as students, who struggle to perform, get left ever further behind. They did not set out to fail, but is a system  that does not provide appropriately levelled reading material failing them? What is frustrating is that many of these students have different intelligences; ones that are not lauded by our education system. Once left behind, these students find education boring and pointless and so often resort to difficult to manage behaviours.

As adults we can choose what we read; we can avoid reading things that do not interest us. Not everyone would pick up the financial review or for that matter a fashion magazine for pleasure, although I have heard that there are some who read Shakespeare for fun! And that is the key; we read what interests us because we understand what is going on. We are familiar with the concepts and the vocabulary and we want to find out more. Not so with many children at school. Put yourself in their place: imagine you are made to read a random text in Old English and then write answers to questions you don’t understand because they too are written in Old English. You’d want to give up before you even started. Decoding the words would take up much intellectual energy, leaving little left over for understanding the concepts, and anyway why should you care? It’s not relevant to you nor will it ever be. This frame of mind is one held by many students who are expected to read and comprehend at levels that far exceed their capabilities.

So what can be done to help students who find themselves in this situation? Where do we as educators start? And when? Could the problem be that we start too early, before the child is developmentally ready for formal education? Or is that we try to cram so much into one hour periods of learning in the hope that they will become smarter? Should text books be reviewed or even discarded in favour of selected web-sites? There are probably as many answers to these questions as there are students, but that should not deter us from asking and seeking answers.