“RIAP” stands for “Reading Institute for Academic Preparation.” It is a California State University initiative to improve the teaching of reading in high school. My campus was funded to run an institute this year, so I spent the past two days in Sacramento at a leadership meeting.
The idea is to recruit 20 local high school teachers and give them a year-long seminar in reading theory and practice. We got two three-inch thick binders and four heavy boxes of books. And that was just for us. The materials for the participants come later!
The RIAP institute introduces the participants to the ERWC assignment template and selected modules (see a previous post on the ERWC), shows them how to assess the needs of their students through a “College Access Study,” teaches then how to design their own lesson module based on the assessed needs, and introduces a generous amount of reading theory and class room practice. RIAP teachers are then expected to become leaders on their campuses, helping to introduce new thinking and practices. In our RIAP, we plan to recruit 3+1 teams consisting of one English teacher, one science teacher, one math teacher, and one administrator, although the administrator will not attend every session.
Including content-area teachers is an important feature of our plan. Science and math teachers often don’t recognize that literacy issues are part of the reason that students struggle in their classes, and if they do, they often blame the English teachers. Reading and writing are important aspects of any course, and each discipline has its own stylistic and organizational peculiarities. Science and math teachers need to teach reading and writing too.
In the past, up to third grade was about “learning to read.” Fourth grade and beyond was about “reading to learn.” We now know that we can’t stop teaching reading in the third grade. Our expectations are simply too high.
We are confused, too, by those who take to reading naturally. There is no substitute for the voracious self-directed reading that some of us do at an early age. When I was young, my mother went to the library every week. I always came home with stacks of science and history books, and science fiction novels. Later, I started reading the L.A. Times every morning. Fifty years of books and thirty years of daily newspaper reading lead to a large vocabulary and a lot of general background knowledge about many things.
Would I have become addicted to books and newspapers if YouTube had been available? I don’t know. It is hard to imagine. However, much of the reading instruction we do now is an attempt to bring fluency and comprehension to those who did not acquire it naturally through voracious reading. In fact, most of our students have no appetite for reading at all. Reading is an acquired taste.
At the RIAP leadership meeting there was a presentation by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey, both from San Diego State. Doug talked about brain scan research that suggests that knowledge of vocabulary is associated with memory, not with the language center. An ambiguous word like “bug” lights up different parts of the brain if it is associated with “Volkswagen,” “insect” or “spy device.” This is scientific confirmation of Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of “heteroglossia,” the idea that the words we use resonate with the voices that spoke them to us. The connotation of a word continues to echo the places we heard or read it in, and the contexts in which we found it.
Will a word that came out of a vocabulary list in a classroom, a product of drills and sentence-making exercises in a regimented and coercive environment, ever provide pleasure in a natural setting? Can a teacher’s well-intentioned scaffolding and structuring ever match the joy of words first encountered after bedtime, hiding under the covers with a flashlight? Well, sometimes the joy of reading comes late, and sometimes a teacher can inspire it. But it has to be a special kind of teacher, and that is where RIAP comes in.