Reading Apprentice Program
by Vita Watkins, English Division
Can you read? Really read? The Reading Apprenticeship program is one that reminds teachers that students may not be able to really read from the start.
The program is informative in many ways: Not only does it awaken instructors to the reality of their students’ current reading skills, but it also gives teachers different, concrete strategies to address many deficiencies and reluctancies, as well as to suit many different learning styles. The program reminds instructors to take it back to basics, to slow things down, and to model for students the thinking behind active, engaged reading.
One aspect that was helpful and insightful was the concept of teachers sharing their experiences with reading. Reading, like any skill, develops and improves with time. Informing students of this fact helps them accept their reading levels and know they will improve with practice and reinforcement. The discovery that their instructors may also have struggled with reading can relieve and even entertain students. The ability to read is a skill we nurture; it’s a skill that is socially privileged, and it’s a skill at the foundation of academic (and therefore future) success. While it is not necessarily fully developed at the time a student reaches community college, it can be honed and improve dramatically in this setting.
The safety of the Reading Apprenticeship classroom is one of the key aspects of the program. RA looks at the academic setting as part of the solution, emphasizing the “personal” and “social” dimensions of reading, within the secure environment provided by the RA community. Two more “dimensions” of the RA classroom are acknowledged and fostered by the program, and all four, “personal,” “social,” “cognitive,” and “knowledge-building,” are bound together by the pervasive Metacognitive Conversation, in which students and teacher maintain a stated awareness of strategies used by apprentice and accomplished reader alike to make meaning from texts. Metacognitive strategies create the opportunity for students to improve their reading, as well as their reading comprehension. This engages students’ thinking about a text on multiple levels. Metacognition also helps students to be aware of the different perspectives from which to see and approach a text: For example, a text assigned in sociology is read with a different approach than a text assigned in English, or one in history. The Metacognitive Conversation emerges after the use of some of the easily adopted, (though initially a little awkward!) RA routines, such as Think Alouds, or Talking to the Text. In these two, the instructor first models the way in which he or she thinks while reading a new text. Each method used by the teacher to make meaning (whether it’s activating prior knowledge, questioning an assertion, or wondering aloud about word choice when reading a poem), becomes apparent to the apprentices. In the words of RA, "the invisible is made visible." The means by which “expert” readers in their field make meaning from complex or discipline-specific texts lose their intimidating mystery, and become an adoptable set of strategies. (Clearly, the knowledge-building dimension of the classroom is necessary to buttress the increasing ability of the student to make expert meaning in a new discipline.)
Another benefit of the Think Aloud is that it engages the student actively, while giving the teacher a glimpse of the thoughts and interpretations the student is building about a text’s meaning. This is important for instructors, as well, as they can hear the ideas, concerns, or confusion about a text as they emerge. Some texts are daunting for students, and sometimes instructors may forget this because of their far greater experience in the discipline. It’s surprisingly pleasant as well as beneficial for instructors to remind themselves of their early experience as novice readers, and to appreciate the point their students have reached on the reading continuum.
The Reading Apprentice program can benefit all instructors helping students to improve in the area of reading and comprehension. As instructors, we want to see our students succeed in their academic endeavors; but how can that happen if we do not offer them the tools they will need to succeed? RA invigorates our methods of providing this fundamental tool, as critical to anthropology as it is to English, to satisfaction as to success. Reading Apprenticeship reminds us of the continuous pursuit of reading expertise; it reminds us that we can help our students to take the necessary steps to become better readers, by making visible the very steps we take daily to arrive at textual meaning.
Staff Development at GCC provided the opportunity for three instructors to take the online Reading Apprenticeship course last fall, and such opportunities continue to arise (http://ra.3csn.org/ra-professional-development/online-course-reading-apprenticeship-for-community-college-instructors/). We have all been pleased by our classroom exploration of RA’s ideas and easily implemented techniques. Perhaps the most exciting news about RA in this time of economic woe is that studies support its methods as ones that produce measurable improvement in students’ abilities, and that these methods are sustainable—a good investment for your classroom, and a good one for the college!