Lost the plot? Reading for
Keynote address Christchurch Reading Association,
Christchurch Sat 19 June 1999
When last did you read a book which you literally couldn't put
down; which pulled you - through word-power and idea-power - into
a world totally different from your own; which introduced you
to people completely different from those who inhabit your everyday
life? When last did you experience what Katherine Paterson (1998)
describes as the "deep pleasure that can only be experienced in
the intensive reading of a rich book"?
When last did you go to school waving a book and bursting to
share it with your colleagues? When last did you read an article
on education which so interested or annoyed you that you couldn't
wait to get to school to discuss it, find out what your colleagues
thought, test the ideas in your teaching practice, challenge the
author, explore the assumptions?
In the words of the Spice Girls, when last did you really really
If you've come along to get a neat recipe for making kids read
for 'enjoyment' or 'information' you're in for a rude shock! If
you haven't worked it out in 5, 10, 15, 20 years in the classroom,
an hour with me isn't going to help.
However, if you are like most of the teachers I know, busier
than you've ever been, submerged in a paper war, urged to implement
this that and the rest, urged to get higher qualifications, bullied
into IT training so that you're part of the steamroller, not part
of the road, etc, etc and if you're becoming increasingly frazzled
and stressed, then you'll see TIME as an amazing luxury - and
an hour spent listening to ideas as unimaginable riches. So I've
spent several days wrestling with words to get a whole string
of ideas down on paper in a coherent sequence, because I think
that if we really really really want students to read, we really
really really need to spend a whole lot more time thinking about
reading, asking whether we've lost the plot, and asking what we
actually want kids to read FOR?
The first thing I want to know is whether you agree with me that
our constant frenetic searching for new 'how to' recipes is ultimately
less satisfying, more stressful and less professionally productive
than taking time to wrap our minds round deep ideas, wrestle them
to the ground and sit on them triumphantly grounding them in experience
If so, could it be true, too, of the students we teach - that
the fractured kaleidoscopic nature of the school day and their
media-saturated screen-dominated post-school lives is the single
biggest enemy of really really reading for them - and us?
The idea I want to explore in this paper is the context we provide
for reading - in our schools and in society - and specifically,
five factors which I'm contending that ALL teachers could change
to influence the quality of their students' reading.
But first, how well are we doing? The researched answer is that
we are not doing very well at all despite teachers' protestations
that with reading recovery and a steady stream of teachers from
the States to see our methods, and a steady stream of Kiwi teachers
going to the USA to teach our methods, we must be doing brilliantly.
Well... I find the actual evidence a little less comfortable,
and while I think there's a lot that's good and we need to hold
onto, I don't think we can afford to be smug, and I don't think
we can afford to stop thinking deeply about reading.
A 1998 MOE report, Adult Literacy in New Zealand claims that
nearly half the New Zealand workforce cannot read well enough
to work effectively in a modern economy. In a recent Good Teacher
Why, for example on the NEMP tasks where only 80% of Year 8 students
able to say when Louis Pasteur was born, and only 46% were able
to say why he was famous? This means that roughly 20/54% of 12
year olds can't read 100 words to retrieve factual information
or make a simple inference. We are talking literal comprehension
here, not high level thinking skills. Sure, you can say 'Who cares
about Louis Pasteur?' They would have done better if it had been
'relevant' and presented on the screen. You also tell me that
it is because they are so-called visual learners. Good. So why,
given the mouthwatering task of watching a video of chocolate
eggs being made, could only 13? of 9 year olds and 19% of year
8s choose 5 our of 8 cards which showed the mains steps in making
We simply cannot go on countering researched reality with anecdotal
wishful thinking and myth.
In the last Good Teacher I commented on a North and
South article written by Martin Davey from Christchurch in
which he claims that there's been an exponential growth in the
number of children in our schools who can read but don't - who
simply see no purpose and pleasure in reading.
Instead of indulging in the McCully and Estall pastime of donning
denial and shifting blame, maybe we should stop looking for recipes
to woo kids to do what many just don't WANT to do, and look clearly
and deeply at the context we provide for reading, and how we can
influence it. Instead of looking at systemic and social barriers
and obstacles - ERO, implementing Curriculum Statements, excessive
paper work, children from illiterate bookless homes; children
with social and behavioural problems; parents who don't care or
who don't seem to know HOW to care, we need to ask whether there's
anything we, as teachers, can do within acknowledged constraints.
I'm going to introduce five contextual factors that I think each
and every one of us CAN influence within our own classrooms and
within our own practice. And that's a good place to start. It's
not enough, and I'm not suggesting it is, but it's a good start.
1. Reasons for reading
The first idea in exploring the context for reading is the idea
of why read? We need to ask ourselves how much damage we do hammering
the dual notions of reading for 'enjoyment' = fiction; reading
for 'information' = non-fiction.
In this magazine I was interested to see an article about a school
in Tauranga which had a hallelujah chorus about how the school
is promoting itself. I visited there last year and was appalled
to see a large notice proclaiming that fiction was 'not true'
and non-fiction was 'true'. Really. You could have fooled me,
and yes, I am a qualified librarian as well as a teacher! So if
you want to experience the deep satisfaction of reading lies for
enjoyment, read fiction?
Teachers perpetuate stupidity unless they stop and think. I asked
you when I started when you last read a book which you literally
couldn't put down; which made you stop and think; which pulled
you - through word-power and idea-power - into a world totally
different from your own; which introduced you to people and ideas
completely different from those which inhabit your everyday life?
One of the most brilliant books I've read recently is Captain
Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres. It was one hell
of a read - 435 pages set in war-torn Greece - a closely woven,
densely written fabric of five or six related stories and characters,
stories and quite a lot of blood, gore, rape and pillage. Did
I enjoy it? If anyone had asked me that when I'd finished it and
was limp with emotional exhaustion and satisfaction, I'd have
kicked their teeth in. If anyone had asked me to draw a book jacket
and write a paragraph on what I like most about it or my favourite
character, I'd have used a torrent of vile swearwords, got onto
the Internet, downloaded and plagiarised the paragraph you'll
find ion the Amazon site, and I bet you'd have been none the wiser.
Of course I didn't enjoy it, if you mean superficial, quick, instant,
slick entertainment. I HATED it; I LOVED it, I LIVED it; I wallowed
in the wonderful language. I ate it, smelt it, tasted it rolled
in it like a dog in dung. The Observer said, "Captain Corelli's
Mandolin is an emotional funny, stunning novel which swings with
a wide smoothness between joy and bleakness, personal lives and
history... it's lyrical and angry, satirical and earnest."
Is it fiction or non-fiction? It is the 'truest', the most deeply
emotionally resonant, profound and relevant experience I've had
in a long time. There are two questions here:
Is this type of print-based experience only possible if you have
a history of reading, of deep, challenging reading, or preparing
for the marathon of Captain Corelli like one would prepare for
a running marathon by reading little and lots, day after day?
Can we provide students with reasons for reading more compelling
than "for enjoyment" and 'for information"?
Can we substitute the simple notion of READING FOR IDEAS.
If you ask me to explain some of the key ideas from an Internet
site, from a book, from a magazine article, from a video story,
you're immediately providing me with a different context for responding.
You're signalling to me that you don't just want me to retell
the story, find an answer to a question. You're signalling to
me that you what to know what I think was really really important,
what was really really interesting, really significant, what 'spoke'
to me; what key messages I got. Of course, if I'm not used to
thinking, I'll need you to model it over and over before I get
the idea, but you haven't got far with me asking me if I enjoyed
that book, so why not give it a go?
So, please, please, please give me reasons for reading other
than the utterly hackneyed notions of reading fiction for 'enjoyment'
and reading non-fiction for 'information' when there's lots of
evidence to show that it just don't work.
The second contextual factor which every classroom teacher can
challenge and influence is the cherished notion of relevance.
We need to ask exactly what we mean by it. While I agree that
books are like mirrors; you want to see yourself reflected, I
don't think this means just your exterior appearance and circumstances.
I think there's a world of difference between literal relevance
and emotional and psychological relevance. Does a poor black kid
from a slum want to read a story about a poor black kid from a
slum? Get real. As Barbara Hardy commented memorably, "narrative
is a primary act of mind". We think in story; we dream in story;
we construe ourselves, our present and our past, in story. We
need story to explain the world - the world outside and the world
within - and get it into perspective; get a perspective on it.
In short, we seem to have lost the plot. We are trying to reshape
shallow stories as the print equivalent of screen-based candy
floss. We provide anaemic language, utterly depressing thinly
disguised social studies tracts, we provide coloured fragments
of chunked up text in boxes, and we ignore the very thing that
kept me glued to 435 pages of Captain Corelli. I was desperate
to find out what happened next. The story was compelling and the
language was so rich and vibrant that each chapter became a profound
We desperately try to find stories relevant to boys because they
don't read and we want them to enjoy reading. So we look for the
print equivalent of chewing gum - shallow, sweet, savage, superficial.
What would you recommend to Yr 11 boys like those silly kids who
hijacked a performance of Macbeth? Why bother? Their idea of relevance,
deep emotional satisfaction and resonances has been forged in
a culture which worships (and pays vast amounts of money to) thugs
who run round with a ball belting and biffing each other and getting
drunk afterwards and assaulting anyone who looks sideways at them.
Poor old Hamlet didn't stand a chance. What's wrong with these
kids? Have they run out of porn and violence sites on the Internet,
and should we provide them with the print equivalent so as to
ensure relevance in their reading? Get real. Might it have been
more relevant set on a rugby field with Gertrude in unisex rugby
togs so Hamlet could legitimately beat the hell out of her.
Instead of blaming them, their parents, etc, and instead of the
ridiculous excuse I heard on the radio the next day, that Macbeth
wasn't 'relevant' to them, let's look at the context we have provided
for them to date for finding Macbeth relevant. Each of those boys
went to primary school. What's the bet that each had teachers
earnestly trying to get them to read for enjoyment. What's the
bet they had at least half a dozen book character parades, dressing
up as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Hairy MacLary, drew
dozens of covers for books which already had perfectly good covers,
published their own books, drew their favourite scenes and characters,
and were asked hundreds of times whether they'd enjoyed that book.
On average they would have met three or four real live humanoid
authors under the excellent Writers in Schools Scheme.They may
even have read some of their books. So it works, doesn't it? They
were all set up to appreciate Hamlet?
This isn't a cry for 'back to the classics' but it IS a cry for
us, as teachers, to recognise that this is an age of merchandising,
marketing, branding and spindoctors, and there's no point in wallowing
in nostalgia. We need to look at the appeal of Bevis & Buthead,
Kenny and the South Park Gang and Homer Simpson and celebrate
their irreverence and anarchy. Kids choose their own heroes, but
there's nothing more offputting than seeing teachers take over
these heroes and try and promote them to promote reading. When
Wishing Star and those other romance series were at their peak,
I attended a conference where earnest librarians were discussing
whether they should buy them and promote them. Why promote what
promotes itself? The only reason was that they hoped that by promoting
what the kids already knew they wanted to read, they, and reading-at-school,
would be seen to be hip and trendy and with it. Oi!
My heroes might be less obvious, but many kids won't find them
unless I promote them. It's quite simple. If they'll find it without
me, why should I promote it. If they won't and I believe in it,
I'll promote it. I'll try to share and explain my passion for
it. I'll try to model the way I read it, and the way I think about
We need to help students find reasons for reading, and to find
the plot, find the richness, coherence and interwoven complexity
of life coated in language which triggers the richest images in
their minds and the richest emotional resonances in their hearts,
and in the words of the Tararua ad, "GOOD THINGS TAKE TIME".
Time is what we don't have, and time is what we don't give. But
we could. Reading ONE good book slowly demonstrating by example,
the magic of the language, the power of the lot may achieve what
a kaleidoscopic procession of pseudo-books and TV lookalikes does
not. We can't compete with TV and the Internet, so why try? Reading
is a habit. A habit is something you do habitually. That language-activated
technology which creates unique pictures on the TV screen in your
head only works if you use it habitually, daily, weekly, monthly.
Tim Wynne Jones (1997) said,
My contention is that what we do in books - what we do best -
is simply not being done anywhere else. The electronic world is
endlessly diverting but that's the problem - it is endless, which
is its greatest draw, and finally, its greatest drawback. There
is something to be said for endings. Closure.
I'm not saying that book fairs are a waste of time - they persuade
parents to buy books - but if you think that dressing up as Green
Eggs & Ham is going to make lifelong readers, you gotta get
really really really real. If books have an edge over the flickering
screen, it's precisely because printed language is like limp little
black dooflappies on the page if you haven't got the cognitive,
imaginative software to read it.
Teachers have never had a more crucial role to play in demonstrating
to students what they can create in their own heads from squiggles
of black print. If they played deep reading as often as they played
sport, maybe... I think we pay a lot of lipservice to reading,
but the time we devote to really reading, reading for plot, reading
for ideas, is woefully inadequate.
Curriculum explosion and curriculum fragmentation haven't helped.
I don't have any problem with the new Curriculum Statements individually.
Collectively they are overwhelming, especially in the assumption
I'm encountering among more and more teachers that ERO expects
every single curriculum objective to be covered.
As a country we haven't acknowledged the extent of the problem.
In short, if you teach for breadth it will be at the expense of
The extent to which ALL the Curriculum Statements now suggest
the use of inquiry, problem-solving, resource-based learning methods
implies that these methods are quick and easy and you can run
five or six projects in tandem in different curriculum areas.
This is bizarre. Could you do five or six PhDs simultaneously.
This is, at their level, what we are asking them to do. No wonder
kids skate over the surface of information, seldom engaging with
and wrestling with ideas long enough to translate information
into knowledge. This is not just what I think. It is clearly documented
as an emerging phenomenon in the NEMP 1998 information skills
research. We are teaching for breadth, not depth, and reading
for ideas will never happen unless there is TIME to read deeply.
Whether it is reading deeply for the ideas that drive a powerful
story, or reading deeply for the ideas that make a topic interesting,
complex, fascinating, reading takes TIME, and it takes skills,
and the skills need to be applied flexibly and strategically.
4. Screenagers rule OK
One of the current media commentators, Douglas Rushkoff, whose
book, Playing the future; how kids' culture can teach us to
thrive in an age of chaos introduced the neat term 'screenagers'
uses the metaphor of surfing to describe how highly visually screenagers
literally surf through life and the net on their skateboards,
snowboards, remotes and computer keyboards. I said in Term 1 Good
Teacher that I like his notion of the postlinear grammar of modern
media requiring different and more sophisticated skills. He says:
But the skills we need to develop in order to become adept at
surfing channels (and computer networks, online services, the
world wide web, even our own e-mail messages for that matter are
the very opposite of what we traditionally valued in a good TV
viewer. We are coming to understand that ... the viewing style
of our children is actually the more adult... the ability to piece
together meaning from a discontinuous set of images is the act
of a higher intellect, not a lower one."
How do you reconcile his view of these highly visually literate
kids who can piece together meaning by surfing channels, websites,
whatever with the MOE claim that half of our workforce is below
a functional level of workplace literacy. Rushkoff supplied the
answer. Unlike most adults who confuse kids' confidence with pushing
buttons - their superficial level of technological literacy -
he recognises that the surfing metaphor aptly describes how they
skate over the surface of information - visual or textual - and
he emphasises the role of the teacher in helping them to engage
with material in depth. he says:
teachers must discover what they can offer that a computer cannot.
Exactly, that's what I said above about books.
Unlike a computer a human teacher can be a partner in learning
and dedicate himself to giving his pupils the necessary criteria
to judge their data's integrity, make connections between different
facts and formulate opinions and arguments of their own. The best
teachers will instill in their pupils the confidence and enthusiasm
to express themselves as widely and articulately as possible.
I call this information literacy. You can call it what
you like, but the challenge Rushkoff gives us is a real one, whether
your field is reading or information literacy. What he is saying
is that screenagers have developed a broader attention range but
have a shorter attention span. So how do we capitalize on these
sophisticated surfing skills, their ability to range broadly,
but, it appears, not deeply.
Do we, in how we approach reading, mimic the fractured fragmented
multi-dimensional asynchronous images that shaped their superficial
surfing, or do we deliberately provide the antidote in giving
them the time and the modelled experience of wrestling deeply
with ideas, meanings, word-based images and experiences/ I'm pleading
for the latter.
Let's do as Rushkoff suggests - look for what they can't do;
look for what the software, the Internet, videos, films, videogames
and their print equivalents DON'T do, and do it for and with students
with power and passion.
Tim Wynne-Jones (1997) said:
The world is distracting, fragmented. There is no escaping it.
No immunity. No safe houses. The so-called Age of Information
is quite willing to bring 'the shapeless avalanche of events'
right into your parlour. .. The infobahn is essentially endless
with more road signs than rest stops... The electronic media,
all lumped together is, to my mind, a cybertower of Babel with
an infinite number of storeys, but little in the way of Story.
Informative, beguiling, but - finally - pathless. It may very
well reach all the way to Heaven, but, for most users, it is a
place to loiter. A place in which to lose oneself.
Rushkoff claims that screenagers have rejected the whole idea
of linear, literal, metaphorical story. While I agree that their
screen heroes from South Park and the like, indicate a sophisticated
ability to detect and embrace chaos and anarchy and to screen
out worthy social messages wrapped in print, I cannot see the
so-called interactivity of much screen-based story as a substitute
for 'real' book story.
The fact that Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass only became
a blockbuster seller after Random House invested some $750,000
in promotion should not blind us to the fact that it DID become
a bestseller, purchased, by teenagers themselves, not just by
Teenagers read what they want to read, and what they WILL read
is real story, not fudge or candy. It's what Pullman himself described
as "big", books that are "more imaginative, gripping and subtle
than most adult books." So the message here is clear.
The world IS different Screenagers, fragmentation, surfing, technological
sophistication and literacy are facts of life. But if we, as teachers,
don't recognise and give them what they will not, and increasingly
even less so, get elsewhere; if we don't recognise that surfing
the surface of information is not the same as wrestling with ideas,
building knowledge, yielding control to an author to pull you
into different worlds and ideas, we are selling kids a cheap and
shoddy media derivative, not real, deep, incisive knowledge-building
and experience-building reading.
5. Balance and flexibility
The fifth contextual factor where I think we could all do a lot
more is in providing balance and flexibility in how we teach students
to approach reading.
This is my tenth year of teaching Learning to Learn courses for
the University of Auckland's Continuing Education programme. Most
of the participants are people who are intending to return to
study, and feel they lack the skills to cope. Many are, interestingly,
students who did well at school but have done badly in their first
semesters at university and realise they need better skills for
learning. Many lack skills for reading, skills for notemaking,
skills for organising and writing essays and skills for remembering
and 'performing their knowledge' for essays and exams. I am very
grateful for schools for their continuing supply of inadequate
learners because it keeps me from starvation as I try to combine
publishing free magazines for teachers with freelance teaching.
But quietly, as a teacher, I ask myself what on earth we have
in twelve plus years of education that has taught these intelligent
people so little about learning and reading.
I always ask people what they will do when they have a few days
to do an essay, a long reading list and a wodge of lecture notes,
handouts and photocopies. Usually someone will talk about scanning
and skimming. Whoopee! So I ask them to share and write down their
ideas on EXACTLY how to go about it. Even if they have left school
in the last ten years, I have not yet got even one passable description
of the process.
So, I can provide you with ten years of evidence that many otherwise
intelligent people leave school still convinced that the best
way to read to learn is to read something slowly and carefully
They believe that the slower and more carefully you read the
more you understand, and that quality of reading equates with
slowness and thoroughness, not speed. In short, they have left
our schools with a model of reading which is the immediate opposite
of what Rushkoff suggests they can do so confidently in a screen
environment, surf channels, sort, sift, glean meanings fast.
So what do I conclude? I conclude, with ten years of evidence
to back me that we need to model different and far more flexible
approaches to reading.
Each and every teacher should teach, model and demand evidence
of students' ability to scan and skim text, glean meaning from
FAST reading through multiple information sources - screen-based
and print-based - collate, analyse, synthesise and EVALUATE as
in sorting fact from opinion, determining authority in terms of
information source, reliability and accuracy, comparing information,
stripping out the key ideas, interrogating information sources.
Is it happening? In some classrooms, yes. Throughout whole schools
and whole sectors, throughout teacher education? Many seem to
think that kids are going to become information literate by plugging
them into computers. This is simply another example of our capacity
to believe in for self-delusion.
All of these skills can be taught without coming within a bull's
roar of technology. I'm talking about cognitive technology. It
is not learnt by osmosis. It is not easy, but it is also not hard
to teach students to scan, skim and use information with critical
discrimination to build knowledge. The danger is confusing talking
about it with teaching it. Katherine Paterson says:
In his wonderful book about books, The Gutenberg Elegies,
Sven Birkerts reminds us that with the advent of the printing
press and the consequent proliferation of books and reading material,
the nature of reading itself changed.
Just as 'poetry' changed radically when it was no longer primarily
memorised and declaimed, so there was a sea change in the act
of reading itself. In the Middle Ages and until about the middle
of the 18th century, very few people owned books at all, and the
average book owner had very few books - a Bible, a devotional
tract or two, perhaps an almanac - all of which were read over
and over again. So the act of reading was necessarily intensive.
But by the early 19th century those people who could read were,
by and large, reading extensively. In addition to books, all kinds
of journals and newspapers were available, so the reader read
a page or an item only once, racing to get to the next bit of
I think what we've got now, and Rushkoff would agree with this,
is another sea change.
Many homes, just as in the Middle Ages, have no books, or just
a Bible and Best Bets! TV Guide is till the best read publication
in New Zealand and I am deeply grateful to them for sponsoring
the literacy pages in Good Teacher. The screen is ubiquitous,
and I have worked with teachers whose kids have access to computers
and Encarta and the Internet, but not a daily newspaper.
Being able to surf, sift, and glean meaning from complex text
by reading it once; being able to collate, analyse and synthesise
information and CREATE knowledge through the head, using COGNITIVE
technology is the mark of the new literacy. But knowing that some
text must be explored deeply, slowly, systematically and interactively
in the true sense of interactivity - interacting with the ideas,
the mediated experiences of experts in knowledge or experts in
life, living the narrative, seeing the sequence of events, processes
and ideas is just as integral to this new literacy as being able
to surf and sift.
In summary, I think we can ALL play a part in equipping our learners
for this new literacy. We can all provide a context for reading
1. giving students reasons for reading beyond reading for enjoyment=fiction
and reading for information=non-fiction. We can show them how
we read for rich, interesting and fascinating ideas in all types
of text, book and screen;
2. giving them an idea of 'relevance' beyond mimicking the superficial
resemblance of their fragmented, media-defined, chaotic lives
in the books we read and promote;
3. finding the time to wallow in the best and explore the power
of narrative and ideas; we can embrace the idea that less is more;
that we need to rethink many of our current practices; if we can
teach them the rules of the scrum we can teach them the rules
of deep and meaningful engagement with language and ideas;
4. acknowledging that the world has changed; they are screenagers
and have skills, expectations and strategies which are more profitably
harnessed than ignored. These skills, provide an excellent base
for demonstrating deep and challenging interaction with ideas
and mediated knowledge;
5. actually TEACHING, real concrete skills and strategies for
engaging with text - to read for gleaning meaning, significant
facts, key ideas at lightning speed across a variety of information
sources and resources, to read for deep understanding and critical
discrimination; to wallow deeply in language and knowledge when
it is worth the effort.
If we can do this we will be preparing our successors to succeed
in the age of chaos we have created. Simply, we can't afford not