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Cris Tovani on Helping
'Fake Readers' Become
Proficient Life-Long Readers Professional Development

Cris Tovani has been widely acclaimed for her work with students and teachers in the area of reading comprehension. Author of the best-selling I Read It, but I Don’t Get It, Tovani chatted with Education World about how her own checkered reading past motivates and inspires her efforts to help students build real meaning from their reading and become life-long readers. Included: Tovani’s thoughts about fake reading and how to prevent it, how teachers’ can share their reading passions, and teaching reading in this age of accountability.

I Read It, but I Don't Get It, by Cris Tovani, has been widely acclaimed by middle- and high-school teachers for its honesty and practicality. Tovani is an accomplished teacher and staff developer who writes with humor about the challenges of working with students at all achievement levels. Cris's classroom is a place where students are continually learning new strategies for tackling difficult text.

Cris Tovani (above with student*) taught elementary school for ten years before becoming a high-school reading specialist and English teacher. A nationally known consultant, she chooses to continue teaching high school students full-time. She has also worked for many years as a staff developer for the Denver-based Public Education and Business Coalition (PEBC), the consortium that has received national acclaim for its work in reading comprehension reform. In addition to teaching and consulting, she is an adjunct instructor at the University of Denver and the University of Colorado at Denver.

*Photo courtesy of Photopia and Stenhouse Publishers.

Education World: In your book, I Read It, but I Don't Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers, you share that early in the school year you explain to your students how you cheated on book reports when you were their age. You share all the details of choosing books from the library that had not been read in two years, re-shelving them so your teacher could not track them down Pretty sneaky stuff! But why do you tell your students that story?

Cris Tovani: Soon after I Read It, but I Don't Get It was published people started confiding in me that they did similar things. Smart people -- like lawyers, accountants, and business people -- all admitted to it. I was shocked that others knew about "fake reading," and surprised that no one ever called me on it.

I also have discovered that too many adolescent readers know how to fake read. They have become so good at playing the "game of school," they have figured out how to get the grade without "getting the comprehension." I share my fake reading experiences with my students because I want them to know that they are not alone. I also want them to know that someone is going to call them on it.

I want my students to know that it is not too late for them to become better readers. But I also want them to know that fake reading isn't going to fool me or help them become better readers. Being a straight-A fake reader myself, I know all about the tricks kids use to make teachers think reading is taking place. I want students to know that I became a reader at 28 and if that wasn't too late for me, it isn't too late for them. Being up front about the whole issue allows authentic reading to take place much sooner.

It's important that these readers know that if they are to improve they must read. When I work with struggling readers my emphasis isn't on numbers of books read or pages of text skimmed. I assign time spent actually reading. With time, I know their reading will improve. Time spent reading is honored. Time spent fake reading is wasted.

There is an old expression: "It's tough to con a con man." I want my students to know I was a great con man when it came to reading. I want them to know that I know what it's like to be in high school and not get it. Our time to become better readers is precious and very limited. It can't be wasted playing the game of school and fake reading. Time must be spent practicing, thinking, and learning how to become better readers, not better game players.

EW: Fake reading is more than producing phony book reports?

Cris Tovani: Fake reading is what I did from second grade into adulthood. I'm not sure how to define it. Perhaps a sketch of me as a reader would help explain the term

I was a good decoder. I could sound out any word put in front of me. When teachers asked me to read aloud, I sounded fluent. I was also very verbal. I went to class, I regurgitated comments the teacher made in lectures and, given the time, I could talk my way through most assignments. I guess I looked and sounded like a good reader.

I had numerous ways of avoiding text. I listened to what others said about the reading. That included teachers, my mother, who was a lit major and avid reader, and students who actually read. I would repeat snippets of conversations as if they were mine.

In high school, I had every copy of Cliff Notes known to man. In college, I discovered volumes of "lit crit." I found doctoral theses written on pieces of literature and, after copying a few key sentences, I would re-shelve those pieces much the way I re-shelved books as a child. I was probably able to get away with this because I was never asked to think originally about my reading. I was asked to retell. I was asked to discuss literary elements. I knew how to get into study groups for science and social studies classes. I could sit back and wait for a more able reader to do my thinking for me.

Today, I would be a much better fake reader than I was in my day. Teachers are so overloaded with covering content and meeting state standards that catching kids cheating isn't a priority. Most teachers have a difficult time deciding between covering the content or giving kids an opportunity to construct meaning. With papers and watered down synopses of novels on the Internet, my job of regurgitating information would be much easier than it was.

Today teachers are challenged more than ever to find time to ask students to think about their reading. Sometimes, in our haste to cover content, students are robbed of the opportunity to wrestle with meaning. Fake reading becomes an attractive option.

I Read It, but I Don't Get It, takes educators step-by-step through practical, theory-based reading instruction that can be adapted for use in any subject area. The book features:

* anecdotes about real kids with universal reading problems;

* a thoughtful explanation of current theories of comprehension instruction and how they might be adapted for classroom use;

* "What Works" sections that offer simple ideas teachers can immediately employ in their classrooms no matter what subject they teach;

* teaching tips and ideas that benefit struggling readers as well as proficient and advanced readers; and

* reproducible materials you can use in your classroom.

EW: Time for a true-false quiz: If a kid can't read well by sixth grade, it's too late. True?

Cris Tovani: We don't discourage would-be golfers, artists, gardeners, or musicians if they aren't proficient by sixth grade. Why would we do it with kids learning how to read? I guess I am living proof that it's not too late to learn how to read. It may be too late to score well on the fifth-grade proficiency exam or to be a level 42 reader by a certain grade, but it certainly isn't too late to become a life-long reader.

Reading is one of the most difficult cognitive tasks we ask children to do. With each grade level, the amount of reading increases. The material becomes harder and, just when explicit reading instruction needs to increase to help readers meet the demands of the reading, instruction stops.

We give up on struggling readers too soon. We herd them off to special classes. We lower our expectations in an attempt to cover curriculum. We take away their opportunities to read by feeding them the content.

Too often struggling readers don't see the real-world payoffs of being literate -- so they quit just about the same time that we give up on them. Becoming a good reader is like anything else. It takes time and practice. If we believe becoming literate is a life-long pursuit, why then do we put a time limit on their reading achievement?

It would be great if golfers could be held to the same rigid standards of mastery that our young readers are held to. Maybe then I could get a tee time.

EW: You say that one of the best ways a teacher can improve students' comprehension is to "become a passionate reader of what you teach." How can that rub off on students?

Cris Tovani: I know a lot of dedicated teachers who have committed their lives to teaching adolescents about the content they love. Unfortunately, many of those teachers end up turning students off to their classes because of the difficult, inaccessible text they ask students to read. If we as teachers love our content so much that we want to spend the next 25 to 30 years teaching it to others, then we have a responsibility to find engaging text that will encourage them to study further, not dread coming to class.

Now more than ever, teachers have access to interesting text. Newspapers, Internet sites, and exciting nonfiction offer alternatives to dull and dry textbooks. We can't rely on the textbook to do the teaching for us. We must use our expertise to excite and entice students to study our field further.

Only by being passionate readers of our content can we sift out the banal and discover what intrigued us in the first place. We need to find the text that grips our students and tantalizes them to read more. We must avoid the temptation to use curriculum that is "teacher-proofed." If we are to hold the title of expert, we must honor the title by being passionate readers of our content. It is only then that we will be able to captivate our students.

EW: But if teachers are always picking the most exciting literature to use with students, what are kids going to do when they get to ho-hum reading passages on standardized tests?

Cris Tovani: This summer I was encouraging teachers at a summer institute to find engaging, accessible text for their students to read. My experience tells me that if the text is boring and too difficult to read, many students won't read it. If we want to cover all of our required content and improve our students' abilities to read, we've got to find better text.

All of a sudden an arm attached to a gruff-looking principal shot up from the back of the room. "Interesting, well-written text is fine," he said, "but what about students who plan to go to college? Everyone knows that in college and adulthood people have to read boring difficult text."

He had a point. In the real world, readers are expected to read all types of text. As a teacher, I am often asked to read dry, difficult text that holds little interest for me. However, I don't read every piece of boring text that crosses my desk. Much of it goes unread, directly into the trashcan. I don't arbitrarily throw it away. I have a very specialized screening process for the text I read and the text I throw away. In order for me to spend time getting through a piece of uninteresting, ho-hum text I must have a purpose. I must have a reason for reading the piece. There must be something in that piece that will make my life or job better. If there is no reason for me to read the piece I throw it away. I am not the only adult who does this. When asked, adult readers tell me they too only read what will entertain or benefit them in some way.

If I use this information to inform my instruction, I will teach my students to set a purpose for their reading. I will teach them how to ask a question about something they hope to learn. Or I might have them consider who wrote the piece and challenge them to anticipate what that person might want them to get out of it. Just telling kids to read the chapter in order to prepare for a test is not enough. We need to guide their reading and teach them how to sift and sort important information. The fact of the matter is that as adults we don't read everything, especially if the text is boring, unless we have a purpose and can see how that reading in some way will benefit us.

As far as standardized tests go, if adolescents don't have a stake in doing well, many will opt out of reading ho-hum text much the same way adults opt out. If test designers hope to truly begin to measure comprehension, it would serve them well to find interesting text that would give students an opportunity to demonstrate how well they really read.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

A Conversation About I Read It, but I Don't Get It Teachers who subscribe to the MiddleWeb listserv participated in this far-ranging conversation about I Read It, but I Don't Get It and their work with struggling readers. Cris Tovani participated in the discussion.

Thoughtful Reading
Cris's practical and inspiring ideas for teaching reading come to life in this videotape series. The four-part series shows Cris working with a wide range of students, from college-bound seniors to students who have been referred to her classroom because of their struggles with reading. You'll see Cris leading the whole class, launching small-group activities, thinking through instructional design, teaching individual students, and assessing learner needs and strengths.

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