Reading Engagement Project Overview
Imagine a classroom in the later elementary grades. At one table, children are working on an extended project. The students have selected a topic, perhaps life in colonial times or threats to the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Students find books within the classroom and school media center relevant to their topics. They treat books with care and learn new content with delight. Notebooks are brimming with organized clusters of information gleaned from multiple sources, including Web sites and reference materials. Embracing the challenge of figuring out the complexities of their topic, such as how the water cycle in the region influences changes in the Chesapeake Bay, students share resources and help each other piece together an understanding.
Students at the table are remarkable. They are good readers and good citizens who are working hard in school. We have seen them in many schools and in many classrooms. Yet, educators face an urgent dilemma because such students are too rare. Too few learners gain this level of independent reading and learning competence. Without extensive assistance from teachers, students in the bottom half of the achievement distribution may never gain these competencies and self-confidence. How, then, do we build sustaining classroom contexts to help a large majority of these students?
To understand and to create pathways for fostering reading comprehension within classrooms, we need a language for discussing what successful comprehenders do. We use the phrase engaged readers to describe students like the ones previously described. These students possess the four main qualities of engaged reading. The most obvious characteristic is cognitive competence, referring to comprehension skills and cognitive strategies for learning from texts. They are able to use background knowledge, form questions, search for information, summarize accurately, organize their new-found knowledge, and monitor their comprehension as they read books.
A second attribute of engaged reading is motivation. Engaged readers want to learn; they take satisfaction in successful reading, and believe in their reading skills. Importantly, they persist in the face of difficulty and exert continuing effort until they have attained their goals for understanding a passage or have completed a portion of a project.
Third, engaged readers are knowledge-driven. For their project, they have consolidated what they already know. Having reviewed their prior knowledge, they take notes of what they can recall. They may have created diagrams to help themselves build an understanding of their topic. During reading, they consciously add to this initial knowledge base, expanding their conceptual structures deliberately.
Fourth, engaged readers are socially interactive in learning. At their tables, there is a buzz of productivity. Discussions about distracting topics and interpersonal conflicts are relatively rare. In sum, engaged readers are strategic, motivated, knowledge-driven, and socially interactive.
The opposite of this portrait is all too familiar. Disengaged readers do not possess the cognitive strategies that enable them to be productive in independent work. Although some of them may have adequate skills for learning from texts, they lack curiosity about new ideas. They lack the desire to master new concepts in books. Often, they are not confident as readers. Many believe that if new information does not come immediately from texts, it is not possible to understand the material. Finally, these students are not socially collaborative in literacy activities. They see learning as a solitary activity; they do not want to "give away" their new knowledge, and they gain little gratification from sharing literacy activities.
Ample evidence suggests that when teachers create conditions that enable reading engagement to be extensive and satisfying, students' reading comprehension and their measurable achievement increase (Guthrie & Cox, 2001; Guthrie, J. T., Van Meter, P., Hancock, G. R., Alao, S., Anderson, E., & McCann, A., 1998). In other words, students' growth in reading comprehension is substantially influenced by the amount of their engaged reading. Engaged reading is not merely a recreational activity. It is not simply a form of enjoyment, to be contrasted with the hard work of reading for meaning or new knowledge. Rather, engaged reading is valuable, and perhaps necessary, for reading achievement in the later elementary grades (Guthrie, Schafer, & Huang, 2001). Our model of the relationship between engagement and achievement is simple. Engaged reading is the primary pathway toward the competencies and expertise needed for achievement.