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What is reading?

"What is reading?" Ask a random person on the street this question and he or she might shrug and say, "Gee, it's just looking at the words on the page. If you can see, you can read." Well, the act of creating meaning from the symbols on the page is considerably more complex and draws on linguistic, cognitive, and experiential abilities beyond just the mere perception of typographical marks. The comprehension of written texts requires interpretation of language in print form. To make sense of those symbols, one must have a grasp of the "language code"-to have a storehouse of words in one's personal vocabulary and to understand how sentences are constructed in the language.

Reading is more than just knowing words and grammar, however. Think of a piece of text you perceive as gobbledygook: the annual report from your stock fund, tax publications, etc. You, as a fluent user of the language, can "read" the words but may have no understanding of the intended message.

To derive meaning from print, for it to make sense beyond mere "decoding," the reader must have a knowledge base, or "mental schema," in order to make associations with the concepts presented in the text. A person in the act of reading is actively, if unconsciously, engaged in a dialogue with the text, figuring out its meaning, linking it with known material or world experience, perhaps questioning or challenging the ideas presented on the page.

Definition of Reading

Many theories abound, but current thinking in the field of reading research proposes this definition of reading as "an interactive process in which the reader's prior knowledge of the world interacts with the message conveyed directly or indirectly by the text" (Smith, 1995, p. 23). Let's "unpack" that definition:

Reading is a process. As such, it has various stages (before-, during-, and after-reading) at which different tasks need to be performed.

Reading is interactive. The mind of the reader interacts, conducts a dialogue, actively engages with the text to decode, assign meaning, and interpret.

The reader applies prior knowledge of the world to this act.

There is a message to be conveyed or constructed.

Skilled readers understand the process and employ different strategies automatically at each stage. Content area teachers can enhance a student's ability to understand the process and employ effective reading skills through classroom activities referred to as "instructional scaffolding" (Vacca & Vacca, 1996).

Instructional Scaffolding

Instructional scaffolding of strategy instruction is a metaphor that refers to the idea of "initial, teacher-directed support, gradually withdrawn as the student gains facility with the skills." For each of the stages in the reading process that follow, the instructional scaffolding methodology can provide guidance to the student who needs support. Hallmarks of the instructional scaffolding methodology include (a) teacher modeling and explanation of the strategy, (b) guided practice, and (c) peer/collaborative learning opportunities.

Teacher modeling and explanation of the strategy involves the following steps:

Explain the strategy and why it is important.

Model (demonstrate) how to do it. The teacher uses a "think aloud" method to illustrate his/her thought process as he/she employs the strategy.

Explain when to use the strategy.

Guided practice involves the following:

Teachers and students practice the skill together, with the instructor providing feedback and correction.

The following peer/collaborative learning opportunities can occur either prior to or after reading:

Students work in peer groups to practice the target skills.

Through "reciprocal teaching," the teacher may demonstrate the skill on one "chunk" of text and then turn the reins over to a student who demonstrates the skill on the next section.