Independent vs. accountable: What’s in a word?

Every school year spawns a new list of educational fads and jargon. This year I’ve heard a new term: accountable reading.  I’m accountable for delivering my income taxes every April 15. I’m accountable for coming to a complete stop at every stop sign.  And yet I had never thought of reading as having to be “accountable.” But as one school district official explained to me recently: “We don’t refer to independent reading. In our district, we’re all about accountable reading.”

To be fair, as independent reading reclaims its essential place in our classrooms, educators are concerned about how to monitor and document the independent reading their students are actually doing. How do we discern the difference between a kid who’s “lost in a book” and just plain lost? 

And, of course, teachers have a responsibility to monitor, assess, and document their students’ independent reading. Knowing our students as readers is essential to our job as reading teachers—so thank goodness for the reading resources that make it easy to do just that; see Jennifer Serravallo’s Independent Reading Assessment and Franki Sibberson and Karen Szymusiak’s Day-to-Day Assessment in the Reading Workshop.

But dropping the independent in independent reading in favor of accountable to me would seem to diminish the spirit of real reading. At its heart, isn’t reading about the freedom to discover and craft one’s own rich and remarkable reading life? All students, within a classroom community of readers, work to find the authors, genres, topics, and themes that quicken their pulse and light their own boundless passion for reading.  To paraphrase Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one bright and precious reading life?”

Consider the intriguing term, ludic reading. Coined by Victor Nell, author of Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure, it’s meant to capture the blissful engagement avid readers experience as they consume books for pleasure. Nancie Atwell calls this pleasurable state The Reading Zone; Penny Kittle writes of Book Love; and Scholastic President Dick Robinson, of The Reading Bill of Rights.

And then there’s Donalyn Miller, who whispers of wondrous reading possibilities as she works to awaken the inner reader in every child. Drawing from Donalyn’s classroom library of more than 2,000 titles (with more stacked outside in the hallway), her students regularly read more than 40 books in a school year and leave her classroom as accomplished readers with a love of books and “reading accountability” that runs deep. 

Following Donalyn’s lead, don’t we want to lure our students into daily, voluminous, lost-in-a-book reading—and trust, with our help, that they’ll be swept away by the magnificence of a story? And moved to tears by the beauty of language? Or, as Victor Nell suggests “…acquire peace, become more powerful, feel braver and wiser in the ways of the world?” And by exercising their independent reading spirit, our students will pick up their next reading book—and their next and their next—the moment they finish their last.

This may well be a false dichotomy: passion and accountability are not mutually exclusive. By providing daily demonstrations of our own reading passion and inviting our students to share theirs we can do both—inspire passion and invite accountability. But by emphasizing accountability in our choice of words, might we not be sending a subtle message that, perhaps, reading isn’t so enjoyable after all?

Language is potent…every word counts. Just as we’re accountable for our students’ reading lives, we’re accountable for the language we choose to use… or as the literary critic and essayist Francine Prose recommends: “Put every word on trial for its life.” One word can change everything.

What do you think?

Comments

Thankfully, I have never heard the term "accountable reading" until now. That term reminds me that we make reading and writing more complex than it needs to be. I think "reading" does nicely for describing that joyful act that engaged and comprehending readers experience. When we make interesting texts accessible, mostly let students choose what they want to read, check that they are understanding and enjoying those texts, and teach what's needed for them to move forward on their own, we do more to improve reading than any formal accountability system can ever do. Best of all, we actually get joyful readers!

Daniel Pennac writes, "The problem is that we teachers are hurried usurers, lending out the knowledge we possess and charging interest. It has to show a profit and the quicker the better! If not, we might start losing faith in our own methods." For too long now we have "lost faith" in the concept of independent reading. We have to attach adjectives and modifiers to the concept like accountable in order to give it a sense of science that so dominates the field of reading education. To allow students to simply sit and enjoy a book seems antithetical to what we are about as teachers. Too often, teachers feel they need to be doing something. Guided reading, shared reading, assessments etc. To sit back and let students read seems disloyal to the whole enterprise. There are times when we have to give students the best materials to read we can find and then get the hell out of the way. It is an act of faith. Faith in students, and faith in ourselves as teachers.

Thank you, Lois, for an eloquent essay that shows how small things like word choice matter. “Independent” versus “accountable” reading is really about motivation. Perhaps the use of “accountable reading” springs from an institutional arrangement where the carrot or the stick model prevails. But as reading teachers, we must be concerned about our students’ intrinsic motivation to read.

In Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, best-selling author Dan Pink makes a strong science-based case that when performing cognitive tasks people are motivated by three factors: (1) Autonomy, the desire to be self-directed; (2) Mastery, wanting to be good at things—as in the more one reads the better one gets; and (3) Purpose. These motivational factors underlie “independent” reading. These factors, in Pink’s words, lead to “better performance and personal satisfaction”—not a bad goal for our students. I suspect they might also lead to better reading test scores for districts that are calling for “accountable reading.”

My favorite passage about reading comes from Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life: “I read for fire. . .When I pick up a book, the prayer that rises out of me is that it changes me utterly and that I am not the man who first selected that book from a well-stocked shelf.” When will educational accountants learn that the things that really count in life--love, integrity, compassion, and the inexpressible joy of finding the perfect book—are simply not quantifiable?

I’m a teacher who reads voraciously in my free time. Sometimes the texts I read are easy to understand, sometimes I need to get more background knowledge or talk with my book club. After 28 years of teaching I’m happy to say that my students have always had 30 minutes or more of independent reading in my second grade classroom. But I do understand the concern that during independent reading time, some children choose books that are too hard and they aren’t understanding what they are reading. When the books are short, it’s easy to for me to figure this out, but when the books get longer…The teachers at my school are thrilled with Jennifer Serravallo’s new Independent Reading Assessment (IRA) because it helps us know whether students are reading whole books with understanding. As the books children read become more complex, teachers need ways to discern whether each of their students are understanding character, theme, figurative language, setting, etc. One little girl in my class was capable of “reading” (word calling) Because of Winn-Dixie, but when we talked about the book using Serravallo’s guide, I realized she didn’t understand the story at all. It’s not just about a girl and a dog. We are now going to use the IRA to help us know as a school how our children are growing in their comprehension of the books they read through the years. The guide has also helped many teachers focus on ways to talk about texts with their small groups. Reading independently is absolutely necessary, but talking about books with others and the teacher builds true understanding.

Most elementary schools assign independent reading time some sort of motivating name and fun acronym such as- DEAR, Drop Everything and Read ;WEB, Wonderful Entertaining Books ; or OTTER, Our Time to Enjoy Reading. Please tell me what child would be motivated to read independently with the bland name “Accountable Reading ”? (None that I know!) Certainly there is a constant need for skilled teachers to help students learn to use their independent reading time wisely. The idea of independent reading seems so simple yet many new teachers ( and veteran alike) find implementing independent reading in the classroom a challenge loaded with a slew of problem behaviors including ; students who fake read, or take too long to select books, or select books that are either too easy or too difficult.
Proven best practices for motivating students to read independently (with accountability!) include:
-sharing books through reading aloud a wide variety of texts
- allowing students to share their books in rich discussions and book talks
-conferring individually with students
-keeping a book log of one’s reading
- recommending and sharing books using technology tools such as the class website, videotaped book reviews or social networking sites for sharing thoughts on reading.(www.ning.com )

Yes, lets help students grow to become more accountable during independent reading but let’s do so in a way that promotes motivation for reading. That starts with giving the independent reading block a child-centered name so students will want to participate!

These days most teachers are feeling overwhelmed, trying desperately to juggle district demands and the new CCSS as they work to meet the needs of their diverse collection of kids. All this while attempting to breathe some joy into school. It’s an enormously tall order, one that sometimes feels impossible to fill.

Now we hear of the latest intrusion…a simple shift in wording which may put a pang of panic into teachers’ hearts. As Lois so eloquently explained, moving from “independent” to “accountable” reading could bring with it a sense of dread—another drain on our attempt to help kids fall (and stay) in love with books.
I wanted to share a simple reading strategy devised some years back that has exciting benefits for kids and their teachers. (Our teacher/research team has now used it with kids as learners age four through adult.) It’s called the Subtext Strategy, and it’s rooted in dramatic play, something kids engage in from a very young age. The trick is in tapping into that natural ability that may have laid dormant through years of formal schooling.
How does it work? Rather than simply reading a text or even acting it out, learners are asked to “step inside the story world” (Author 2003), to become the characters, to use illustrations (if reading a picture book) and text to infer what characters are thinking and feeling. We call those inner thoughts and feelings subtext. Subtext is much like a submarine or a subway; it exists beneath the surface. Subtexting transports readers inside the text, leaving them empathizing with characters, understanding motives and actions, appreciating multiple perspectives, and comprehending the text personally... deeply.

The Subtext Strategy requires very little teacher prep when first introduced, and is easily utilized once kids have experienced it. And despite the sophisticated thinking it requires, kids love it. For the teacher, it provides on-the-spot assessment regarding kids’ understanding of a text, access to what Jeff Wilhelm refers to as the “inner world of the reader.” Whether brainstorming subtext with their peers, or recording a character’s subtext on ”sticky notes” placed on the margins of the book, readers’ interpretations and inferences from the perspectives of their characters offer clear evidence of any confusions along with their depth of understanding. Subtexting provides a pathway to deep reading for all learners (second language learners and strugglers, too!), while leaving behind compelling evidence of their comprehension for their teacher’s consideration. Engagement and accountability rolled into one!

Details on how to introduce the strategy can found in Chapter 1 of our book, Breakthrough to Meaning: Helping Your Kids Become Better Readers, Writers and Thinkers. Click the following to read it.

http://www.heinemann.com/shared/onlineresources/E00832/chapter1.pdf

Note: Since we first began exploring the use of the Subtext Strategy with fiction described here, we have devised many variations—reading nonfiction /critical literacy, personal, persuasive, and on-demand writing, demystifying standardized texts, along with other uses across the curriculum. Perhaps readers will find those helpful...

Maybe the accountability belongs more to the teacher. The teacher is accountable for being the best reader in the room, the role model, the one who is knowledgable about all kinds of books (and all kinds of readers) a la Donalyn or Penny. I still see teachers who are not themselves readers, who cannot talk books with students, and who spend class reading time on their computers. I want to see accountability visit them.