Engaged and Unengaged Reading (page 2)
A reader can respond differently even to the same book. Lloyd Alexander, an author who attributes his writing success to childhood reading, discovered Treasure Island at home as a child and loved it—pure engaged reading. He lived with Jim, he pondered the story when he was away from the book, and he longed to return to the people and events of the tale. Years later he was assigned the same novel in a high school English class. This time the reading did not produce the same involvement. Class discussion centered on elements he found uninteresting, assignments interfered with his experience, and he failed the final test “because I couldn’t remember the construction of that damned blockhouse” (Alexander, 1993). The teacher held “discussions” with the class but asked only factual questions, gave assignments that did not include Lloyd’s focus, and based success on a test of specific and unimportant details. Instead of helping Lloyd get deeper into the story, the teacher’s approach actually kept him from the book, turning an earlier engaged reading experience into an unengaged one.
Classic unengaged reading often comes during traditional reading instruction time at school. There the focus is not on the text as a purveyor of meaning but on the text as underbrush, where the secret skills of reading hide out. The sentences and paragraphs serve as camouflage for initial consonant blends, prediction questions, comprehension checks, vocabulary words, and the objects of a multitude of other skills lessons. This is not to say that the skills of reading are unimportant. The skills need to be learned, and students need the confidence that comes from understanding how language works and from an awareness that they are skilled and competent readers. The problem comes when students are given a good story to read with the primary goal of identifying skill components in it. This emphasis is a bit like sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner and seeing only vitamins and minerals on your plate or, worse yet, being served a pile of pills instead of the steaming turkey and trimmings because, after all, those nutritional elements are what is important for fueling our bodily furnaces.
Does this mean that any book assigned in school automatically suffers the kiss of death? Of course not. An assigned book may begin as unengaged, uninteresting reading and yet become important, even invaluable, to the reader. For that to occur, however, it must receive the reader’s personal stamp of approval. Somewhere between the covers, even with the full knowledge that the book is required reading and a part of the final grade, the reader must become personally involved in the text. At that point, the book moves from assigned reading to personal reading—from unengaged to engaged. If it never makes the switch, it never develops the power to influence or affect that one reader.
When we already have an interest in what we read, engaged reading comes naturally. No one wonders if the instructions to assemble a swing set for a much-loved but impatient three-year-old will make good reading. The purpose is determined, and the reading engages immediately. Before the first word is read, we know the instructions are worth it. At a bookstore sale table, a Civil War buff picks up a book on Stonewall Jackson and is likely to buy it. A child with an interest in dinosaurs is drawn to a book on the subject. Even when a book is not particularly well written, the person who is interested in the topic becomes an engaged reader without persuasion or effort.
How do we determine if a reader is engaged or unengaged? An engaged reader is not aware of the reading process. Engaged readers don’t even see words after the first sentence or two. In a story, they see scenes, people, action. In nonfiction, they test theories or think of applications or chew on the facts. But in neither instance do they focus on the skills of reading. They are unaware of how many pages they have read or how long they have been at the book. They pace themselves accordingly, gulping down great whacking passages quickly or dawdling over a line that gives them particular delight. They never say, “Look at me. I have chosen the correct sound of y at the end of happy—long e. I didn’t confuse it with the long i sound, like at the end of fly. I am comprehending this paragraph with 80 percent accuracy and can pick out the topic sentence.” During engaged reading there is no focus on skill, decoding, or vocabulary. When engaged readers come to a word they can’t pronounce or define, they skip right over it without hesitation or guilt. A real reader engaged in a book is no more aware of reading skills than a running back threading his way through the defensive team is aware of his ability to run. He is not saying, “Right foot, then left foot, now pivot 45 degrees on the next step.” His focus is on the game, and he simply uses his body to get where he wants to go. When something gets in the way, both the athlete and the reader improvise—self-correct—so the goal is still in sight and the action is uninterrupted.
© ______ 2008, Allyn & Bacon, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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