Earlier this year, the reading world bid
goodbye to one of its stalwarts, Jeanne S. Chall,
Professor Emerita of Reading from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Professor Chall
had been active in reading education for almost 50 years.While Chall's contributions to reading
theory and practice were many, from readability to stage theory, she was most often identified
with the reading wars, the battle fought between those advocating phonics instruction and those
advocating whole language, which relies in part on instruction using sight words.
Chall's belief that decoding skills played a key role in the reading process forced her into a
position of representing phonics. Her view of reading theory, however, always included rich
language input along with skills in phonics. The reading field seemed to push her into the role
advocating phonics and lost sight of her strong beliefs about the importance of world knowledge,
well-written literature, and developmental stages.
As guardian of phonics,Professor Chall was often viewed as a bottom-up theorist, that is,
one who emphasized the ability to decode or put into sound what is seen in a text. Other bottom-
up theorists included Gough (1972), LaBerge and Samuels (1974). The bottom-up model was
firmly in place when I learned to read. Teachers emphasized decoding skills and spent almost no
time helping emerging readers recognize what they, as readers, brought to the information on the page.
The top-down model of reading does just that, focusing on what the readers bring to the
process (Goodman, 1967; Smith, 1971,1982). The readers sample the text for information and
contrast it with their world knowledge, helping to make sense of what is written. The focus here is on
the readers as they interact with the text. For those reading theorists who recognized the importance of
both the text and the reader in the reading process, an amalgamation of the two emerged-the
interactive approach. The interactive model (Rumelhart, 1977; Stanovich, 1980) stressed both
what is on the written page and what a reader brings to it using both top-down and bottom-up skills.
Chall, who actually took a more interactive stance in the great debate, served on a blue
ribbon panel that helped create Becoming a Nation of Readers in 1985. These reading theorists
and practitioners described skilled reading as constructive-that is, the reader constructs meaning
from and makes sense of the printed page. The panel also described skilled readers as fluent,
strategic, and motivated. Moreover, they suggested that skilled readers practice, develop, and
refine their reading over their lifetime.
More than a decade and a half later, these descriptors still illustrate the reading process for
skilled readers. I'd like to apply these tenets to a reading lesson, and I have divided the lesson into
before, during, and after reading.
Skilled reading is constructive
The notion of constructing knowledge refocuses the locus of control in the reading process
on the reader. It is not enough for readers to decode the information from the text, but rather they
must bring to mind their own world knowledge and worldview. It demands that the teachers
activate their students' schema -- that is, help students recognize the knowledge that they already
have about the topic of a text. This would be akin to the building of a foundation in the process
Activating knowledge about a topic is particularly important for second language readers
whose world knowledge often far exceeds their linguistic skills. Teachers need to provide
opportunities for all readers to think, write, or discuss what they know about the topic of the
reading. In addition, teachers
need to focus the students' attention on features of the text that can aid in
building a scaffold for what they will read: titles, photographs or illus-trations, and if appropriate,
the actual structure of the text. (For example, a newspaper is structured a certain way that
facilitates skimming, scanning, and locating specific information; a textbook uses chapter titles
and subheads to organize topics and concepts.)
Skilled readers are strategic
Teachers can help students recognize the great variation inherent in the reading process and
to understand that we do not read each piece of writing in the same
way. For example, quite different skills are needed to locate and read the list of show times for a
new film in the newspaper than to read a journal article on cell properties. Teachers can serve as
guides to the variety of skills and processes used in reading. They can pose questions to help
students reflect on their reading processes: Why are we reading this particular text? What
information do we need to glean from it? How closely do we need to read? It is important to
help ESOL readers, who may not have even basic literacy in their first language, to understand
differences among texts and to vary the reading skills they use.
Skilled readers are motivated
This descriptor focuses the teacher of reading on the selection of material. Obviously,
selecting relevant and interesting material for readers is key to their engagement in the process.
But teachers can improve student motivation by creating classroom opportunities for sustained
silent reading (SSR). In-class SSR, widely used in public schools, can also be part of an adult
reading program. This type of reading had been shown to be effective for ESOL readers
(Pingreen and Krashen, 1993; Mason and Krashen, 1997).
Class time during which students are allowed to choose their own reading material should
beonsistently scheduled. Over time, teachers can create a class library with popular material.
Double copies would be helpful so that students with similar interests can discuss the same book
or article. The class library can be filled with newspapers and magazines as well as novels and
Top of Page
Skilled readers are fluent
Fluency in reading is a balance between the skillful decoding and ongoing comprehension.
This fluency assumes that the decoding of most words the reader encounters
is automatic. Readers have only a limited amount of cognitive energy
to use during the process. If they spend most of their time on decoding, then they have no energy
left for connecting the ideas of the text to make meaning. Therefore, being fluent demands that
readers have internalized decoding and can focus conscious energy on comprehension. Decoding
can be particularly problematic for second language learners because they often have a very
limited oral based lexicon.
A number of exercises can help readers improve their automatic processing skills. These
include identification exercises, matching words, identifying parts of words, and flash cards for
sight words. (Editor's note: See Lee Haller's article for examples of reading
Making It Concrete: Using Post-its
To improve top-down skills, ESOL teacher Judy Powers has her students use post-it notes to
mark a text as they are reading. The notations on the post-its include: asking a question,
answering a question, creating a mental picture, expressing opinion, connecting to life, and
connections to reading. These "notes" could include key information, a new vocabulary item,
interersting descriptions, or whatever focus seems appropriate. Although students read on their
own, they review their reading process by using post-its, also making their reading a more active process.
I remember once helping a student who was studying a chapter in an introductory text for a
college course. I asked him how he learned the materials. He responded that he read the chapter
through. I asked what he did next, and he responded that he read the chapter a second time. I
then asked if he took notes and he said no. I suggested that he examine the headings throughout
the chapter and notice the differences in font size and shape. I then explained that these headings
could serve as a guide for his notetaking. He looked at me in amazement and said, "What a good
This type of direct explanation of what you, yourself, do as a proficient reader is often very
helpful for your students: using graphic cues, note-taking, rereading, and summarizing paragraphs
or sections. Having students read the summary at the end of a textbook chapter first, for example,
provides a good overview. It can help create a schema for students as they approach the
beginning of the chapter.
Think Aloud Protocol
Modeling your own reading process might also serve your students. You could choose a
text that the whole class might be reading and go through a public think-aloud. In other words,
tell the students what you are thinking as you read a text for the first time. I would suggest that
you practice on a text to prepare yourself. However, as you share your own process with the
students, you should use an unfamiliar text to make the task more authentic.
The typical postreading exercise tends to focus on comprehension exercises. I would
suggest that rather than short answer or multiple choice exercises, readers might be asked to think
about a visual representation of the text: a folded paper with pros and cons; a Venn diagram with
traits and similarities; a web map with several different ideas connected by arrows.
Post reading activities and questions should also take into account the six-level hierarchy of
skills that Bloom suggests in his taxonomy. The first level is knowledge, which includes recall or
recognition of information. The next level, commonly used in post-reading tasks, is
comprehension, where the reader might explain, describe, or rephrase a text. The next four levels
focus on the following:
- application, where the reader applies the information learned in the text;
- analysis, where the reader would make inferences or derive generalizations;
- synthesis, where the reader combines several ideas; and
- evaluation, where the reader judges the value or importance of a text.
These levels provide a simple yet helpful guide to the types of questions that you might ask
Skilled readers practice, develop, and refine their reading over their lifetime. This
summative descriptor indicates the importance of practice to develop expertise in reading. With
support, practice and inspirations, all readers can improve.
Paul Abraham is the Director of the Master of Arts in Teaching ESL and the Chair of the
Education and Human Services Department at Simmons College. He can be reached at
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