NCTE

The Act of Reading: Instructional Foundations and Policy Guidelines

OVERVIEW

Reading is a sociocultural activity in which readers construct meaning from text through the lenses of culture and personal experience (Barton, 2007; Gutierrez, 2008; Perry, 2012). Contrary to popular conceptions of the act of reading, readers do not merely “decode” or “unlock” meanings encoded by authors. Even a simple word like dog is interpreted through the lens of personal experience which, in turn, is filtered through cultural representations of dogs and other animals. This does not mean, however, that readers can simply make up meanings without regard to the author’s intentions. Readers must construct responsible readings (Rosenblatt, 1978/1994) that take account of the text, the reader’s assessment of the author’s intentions, the reader’s background knowledge and experience, the sociocultural context, and the activity of which reading is always a part.

 

The act of reading is always embedded in an activity, some purposeful act that makes a particular set of demands on the reader. The role of text in religious rituals is illustrative. For the words to “count” as part of the ritual, they must be read (or sung, included in call & response, shouted) in the right way (standing, sitting, or kneeling) at the right time and the right place (a place of worship). The familiar, if ineffective, practice of round-robin reading works in much the same way. In this case, successful “reading” requires giving the appearance of paying attention, not interrupting other readers, being able to pick up the text in the right place when called upon, as well as reading the text fluently when it is one’s turn. In the same way, a literature discussion in a 10th-grade English class requires that students observe prescribed rules of participation as well as make relevant comments in order to successfully demonstrate that they have read and understood the text under discussion. From this perspective, readers don’t learn to read once and for all as much as they learn to read particular texts, in particular ways, for particular purposes, and in particular contexts (Gee, 1990; Wallace, 2003). The purpose of reading instruction, then, is to expand the range of ways and purposes for which students read.

 

Notably, a sociocultural model of reading acknowledges the role of skills in reading and learning to read. Phonics, for example, plays an important role in reading, but readers generally use their knowledge of phonics in concert with both their knowledge of the regularities of language and their experience and general knowledge of the world to construct meaning from texts (Dudley-Marling & Paugh, 2004). However, from a sociocultural perspective, conflating reading and learning to read with phonics is at odds with both theory and research on what readers actually do in the process of making sense of texts. Equating reading with the mastery of an autonomous set of reading “skills” will always be insufficient to understanding the reading process. In summary, aspects such as the readers’ purpose and background knowledge, the social and cultural setting, and the nature of the text all affect how readers interact with texts (Street, 1995, 2013; Smagorinsky, 2001). Effective reading instruction acknowledges the complexity of reading.

 

FOUNDATIONS FOR EFFECTIVE READING INSTRUCTION

Effective reading instruction is underpinned by key principles that derive from a sociocultural model of literacy and related research including, for example:

 

Ultimately, an effective literacy learning environment immerses children in a language “bath” that includes regular opportunities to learn and use various forms of oral and written language as a means of drawing on their background knowledge in support of classroom learning and to fulfill a wide range of purposes with a variety of audiences in different (sociocultural) settings. In the following section, we offer a representative sampling of instructional strategies that emerge from these principles.

 

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR TEACHING READING

 

GUIDELINES FOR POLICYMAKERS

 

Reading is a human activity—the glue, the bridge, the vehicle that connects students to themselves and other worlds, whether formatted digitally or in print (Goodman, Fries, & Strauss, 2016). Reading promotes knowledge acquisition and vicarious journeys, encouraging exploration of multiple experiences, plot lines, points of view, and interpretations that enhance the knowledge bases of readers, tying together meaning through their personal and cultural lenses. Furthermore, reading serves many purposes: looking inward and outward to establish identity and connect with self and others (Koopman, 2016).

 

RESEARCH CITED IN THIS STATEMENT

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ADDITIONAL RESEARCH SUPPORTING THIS STATEMENT

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STATEMENT AUTHORS

This document was revised by a working committee comprising the following:

 

This statement is a revision of On Reading, Learning to Read, and Effective Reading Instruction: An Overview of What We Know and How We Know It by the Commission on Reading of the National Council of Teachers of English (2004).