“Crashing the Party” of Academic Success

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Earlier today I spoke by phone with Cynthia Greenleaf, co-director of the Strategic Literacy Initiative at the nonprofit agency WestEd. Cynthia helped develop a pioneering program, called Reading for Understanding, to help teenagers improve their reading skills. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Annie: I think many of us are familiar with the challenges young children face in learning to read, but less so with the experiences of adolescent readers. What particular hurdles do struggling teenage readers face?
Cynthia: We realized in our research that many adolescents have some misconceptions about what reading is. They think of it as simply understanding all the words. They’re not not think about reading as thinking alongside the text—they had never experienced that kind of deep engagement with a text.

Annie: How do you help them achieve “deep engagement with a text”?
Cynthia: We started with the notion of the “cognitive apprenticeship,” which comes from a body of research looking at how skills are learned. We call our program a “reading apprenticeship.” Teachers play the role of a tradesperson who knows the trade, knows how things are going to go. Students are talented but naive apprentices who need to learn the craft. And who knows—the apprentice may someday go beyond what the “master” can do.

Annie: In a reading apprenticeship, what kinds of behaviors does the teacher model for the student?
Cynthia: One of the really important pieces we focus on are the affective dispositions involved in reading—the willingness to grapple with complexity, to sustain the journey through a text, to marshal the internal resources to engage with the text, even if it initially seems dry or boring.
These dispositional dimensions are very important. Students who have a long history of struggling with reading often have a very passive and resigned attitude toward reading—given a text, they don’t expect to be able to read it. They think reading is some kind of magical ability that other people have, but they don’t. We teach them to take what we call a “party crasher” stance:
I may not have been invited to this party, but I’m here. They learn to ask themselves: what do I know, what do I not know, what do I need to know right here and now to understand this text and move forward. We help them develop what we call “academic resilience.”

I especially love that last part, about taking on a “party crasher” stance. So many people (young and old) feel excluded from the party, the “club” of people who are able to do well in school and engage successfully with difficult material. Cynthia’s insight is that such students should be encouraged to understand that they belong at the party, too—that reading and thinking is a process of problem-solving, that no one has all the answers to start with but that reading is a way to get to the answers.


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