TITLE: Reading Skills and Practice AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: January 28, 2006 2:12 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Few people would try to run a marathon without training for lots and lots of miles. Few would imagine that they could make their high school basketball team without playing lots of ball and working on their skills. And I doubt any of us think that we could earn a spot in the local symphony by noodling on an instrument for five or ten minutes a day. Yet it seems that many grade school students expect to succeed in school despite the habit of reading 10 minutes a day or less. A UNI colleague from the College of Education recently shared this nugget from research into children's literacy. The article he cited (Keith Stanovich, "Matthew Effects in Reading", Reading Research Quarterly, 21:360-406, 1996) reported that fewer than 10% of sixth graders read as much 40 minutes per day on average, and 50% of them read only 10 minutes per day. So what? That paper is over nine years old now, right? Well, first of all, I doubt that the trend in the last decade has been for students to read significantly more. The trends in television viewing (four hours per day?!) and computer usage have almost certainly prevented students from reading more, and today's students may well read less. Second, and most immediate to a university professor, those sixth graders are now are college students. How can anyone become sufficiently skilled at reading with so little practice? I spent more time daily as a sixth grader shooting baskets than that. No athletic coach would let her players do so little drill work on the fundamental skills of the sport. My piano teacher tells me that I should practice at least 30 minutes a day if I want to make more than glacial progress. And I certainly want my students to get more practice programming than that. I know that it doesn't always happen, but in some of my courses -- for example, programming languages, with weekly assignments, and compilers, with the large team project that keeps them steadily busy throughout the semester -- students have an opportunity to practice daily, or nearly so. My advice to students sounds a lot like what piano teachers tell there students: program a little bit daily, and develop habits that will serve you well the rest of your career. But that's programming. Many writers and writing teachers tell folks the same thing about writing... Write daily. Create habits. But do we tell our students the same thing about reading? One consequence of the difference in reading habits and skills among sixth graders is that, over time, the gap in reading skills and academic performance between the better readers and the poorer readers grows larger. This is sometimes called the Matthew effect, as in the title of Stanovich's paper. This name alludes to a verse in the Christian Bible, Matthew 25:29, which says, "For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away." Sadly, bad reading habits as a youngster tend to compound over time, and the usurious interest rate that our kids pay is a huge handicap in the classroom and workplace. How can anyone expect to succeed in college without being able to read really well? I doubt some students ever think about it much. When some do, I'm sure they figure they can just "get by" as they always have. Later, when school suddenly seems to be more difficult, they decide they don't like school and aren't cut out for the nerdy stuff. On the flip side, I think that many students think that they don't have to be able read well to do computer science anyway. How wrong they are. College-level computing texts contain complex ideas, written in a technical jargon that can feel like a foreign language to newcomers. If you can't read the textbook I assign, or the lecture notes I write, then you are left to understand ideas and implement them in code with little support. The guy who cited the statistics I mentioned above went on to say, in an e-mail to a open discussion list,
I'm afraid that many of our students have read so little that they simply do not have the experience to cope with the textbooks used in our courses. Many of them do not choose to read except for what informational reading is necessary for daily survival.
The implication for us as faculty is that we cannot expect students to succeed in our courses based on the reading skills they bring with them. Some faculty suggest that we should simply fail the ones who can't make the grade -- and the numbers say that that could be half or more of them. An alternative is that we have to teach them to read, at least how to read, understand, and write the material in our discipline. We will have to define words for them, both technical jargon and words that are likely outside their working vocabularies. Really, though, that's just an extension of what we already do, which is to explain the ways computer scientists and software developers see the world and think about problems. Most CS professors know that we have to show students examples of how to write -- programs they can read and the emulate in their own code. These programs grow in size and complexity throughout their careers as students and developers. My education colleague suggests that we might do the same sort of thing for reading, say, by talking aloud while 'reading' -- "stating what you are looking for, reading passages aloud and voicing important points, then stating questions these points raise in your mind; and voicing your expectations of what might come next". I do things like this with programs in class. In my compiler course, I did a low-grade version of this in our second week, working through a simple compiler that I wrote a couple of years ago. Some of my questions of the code questioned my own design style, which could well have been more object-oriented than it was. I've not often considered doing this with the textbook, though I seem to run across suggestions to do so every few years. (I have done this in my AI course with a journal paper -- Alan Turing's Computing Machinery and Intelligence. It is usually a great success, because students really get into Turing's claims and counteracts.) Find x in this geometry problem. A friend sent me this cartoon yesterday, and I laughed. But it's less funny if we think that our students may be unable to read deep enough to understand the problems we set before them, or to comprehend the textbook that augments our lectures in teaching students how to solve problems. Rather than dumbing down our courses or our textbooks, we may have to take new interest in teaching our students to read -- and not just code. The alternative is to "maintain high standards" and depopulate our majors at a time when our country and world desperately need more citizens educated in computing or at least prepared to live, vote, and make decisions in an increasingly technological world. "Find x." Okay, it's still funny. -----