why reading is the best teacher
Recently, this Nagy and Herman (1987) image, came up on my Facebook feed. It stopped me in my tracks. I had just that day been telling my senior ancient history students why they need to read - and what they they need to read. I went as far as saying: I can't teach you how to think. I can't improve your vocabulary or your ability to synthesise information. If you want to be better than you are now, you must read.
But what is it that I want them to read? And what is the point of reading, if they do not engage with the text? These are not new questions, but they are ones I grapple with when my seniors are trying to improve and refine their skills.
My students have access to a range of material that they can read as part of their learning. I emphasis the difference between reading for research and reading for literacy development. I know that they can read and identify relevant information for their assignment. What I am interested in, is their ability to weave analysed historical evidence into their argument - to draw on issues of reliability, accuracy, time context and motive. I like to call this 'wordsmithing' - not a word, but a concept that resonates with my students as they try to make meaning by skillfully using words.
So what do they need to read? The answer is simple: they read the very material they are using for their research. This is the content that they are engaging with and they are already making decisions about its usefulness. My suggestion to them is: once you have taken your notes, sit back and read HOW the author has communicated his/her meaning. Look for evidence of critical analysis of historical evidence. Look at their vocabulary choices. Look for how sentences have been constructed. This type of analysis allows students to engage with the "how" of writing and not just the "what" of content.
But that's not all! As we know, there are many ways to communicate meaning and what makes perfect sense to one student, is a literacy challenge to another. Journal articles are often written in a different style to a textbook or to a scholarly blog. Students should be exposed to a range of material and encouraged to critically analyse HOW the author has communicated meaning. So, what questions can they ask themselves?
- How has the author married her line of argument with the quotation from Herodotus?
- How has the author made comment about the fact that Suetonius was writing 300 years after these events and yet chooses to quote him?
- How did she call Caesar a liar without calling him a liar?
- What precise vocabulary has the author used?
- Has the author constructed their argument concisely? How?
- What can I learn from how the author is communicating their argument?
These questions are very different to the standard inquiry questions that drive research. By closely reading the work of experts, students have the opportunity to develop their own 'wordsmithing' skills as well as understand historical arguments. And if they can do that, then we are all happy history teachers!
Of course, we know that reading is important for so many more reasons that the ones I have outlined above. Reading any text that challenges us, improves our ability to think, read and write. It introduces us to new words, new phrases and punctuation techniques that we have not been brave enough to use before - but allow us to be so much more precise in communication if we try.