Reading Research with Alice Horning

PUBLISHED: Sep 10, 2018

In This Episode.

Dave and Steve welcome Alice Horning to the podcast to discuss the researching on reading and students’ acquisition of literacy skills. Alice is the former editor for the Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, and the author of texts such as “Reconnecting Reading and Writing.” Alice brings a wealth of expertise concerning the research on the state of reading and literacy, and how to help students develop those important skills.

Episode Archive

Podcast Transcript

Voiceover: Welcome to the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast, we bring you research driven solutions to critical thinking education. Why? Because as Bertrand Russell said, most people would sooner die than think. In fact, they do so.And now your hosts Steve Pearlman and Dave Carillo.

Steve Pearlman: Hi, everyone, Steve here. We’re excited today to focus on the very important topic of reading and literacy and its connection to critical thinking. Dave and I probably spend a little more time on the podcast talking about writing and pedagogy, and we want to make sure that we devote the much needed time to the discussion of reading and literacy, which is where we are today. And we are honored to welcome Alice Horning, who has years of experience in researching literacy and reading skills and their implications for not just education, but for our society as a whole. Alice is professor emeritus of writing and rhetoric and linguistics at Oakland University, where she still serves as a consultant. She previously was the managing editor for the Council of Writing Program Administrators Journal, and some of her publications include Reading, Writing and Digitizing Understanding Literacy in the Electronic Age from Cambridge, Scholars Publishing and Reconnecting, Reading and Writing, which she co-edited with Beth Cramer in 2013 from Parlor Press. And you can find that at the WACC clearinghouse. She’s done extensive research on reading and literacy, which you’ll hear about today, and so without suffering you to listen to me anymore. Let’s go right to our discussion with Alice. So, Alice, welcome to the podcast. Thank you. For the listeners who aren’t familiar with your body of work, which is rather substantive, could you give a sense of what your background is?

Alice Horning: Sure. I guess I’d say I have been a university faculty member for gosh, more than I want to think about more than 30 years for sure. Most of our time at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, where I’ve taught reading, writing and linguistics courses and a variety of other kinds of things like business and professional writing. And so, of course, is in the honors college that have picked up on the things that I’ve really focused on that have gotten me. I think to this podcast, which are studies in critical literacy, digital literacy, critical reading, those kinds of things for about the last 10 years or more, I have really focused my research on critical reading, critical literacy issues.

Steve Pearlman: I would imagine a lot of our listeners would draw some immediate connections between critical literacy and critical reading and critical thinking. But how would you immediately start to form that connection? How do you see it?

Alice Horning: Well, to me, critical thinking is you presented in this podcast series is sort of like the big. If you were thinking in terms of Venn diagrams, it’s sort of like a big circle. And then there’s critical reading digital literacy, information literacy, writing. All of those things would be smaller circles within a bigger circle. So all of it involves or requires critical thinking in one form or another. And the librarians, particularly are our partners in crime, often not sufficiently engaged

Dave Carillo: Just to get this conversation really rolling, and especially for our listeners who might not be familiar with the particular emphasis that you’ve been putting on reading. Do you mind sort of contextualizing that what’s the issue with reading right now in terms of students in this country? What do you have? What have you been trying to really emphasize in terms of reading and getting students to do when they read that you haven’t sort of seen happening in your in your research and your scholarship?

Alice Horning: So what the data is telling us in terms of qualitative and quantitative studies of students reading abilities is not a pretty picture, to put it mildly. Large scale studies like one that was done by a city and is actually replicated every year in a certain way by act, they put out a report of college and career readiness that is a summary of students’ performance on the Act. And the percentage of students who are hitting the act and this is this is like two million students take the act every year and the percentage of students who are hitting the acts determined cutoff score of twenty two. I think it is now in the reading portion of act has been declining over time and it’s now somewhere down in the 40s like forty seven, forty five, forty seven percent and the student who earns a score of twenty two on a scale of zero to thirty six on the reading portion of twenty two. And the reading portion. He’s not a whiz bang crackerjack reader. Now that’s a paper and pencil forced choice. Timed test students read for excerpts for texts and answer 10 multiple choice questions on each. So there are a hundred things wrong with act, but what it has going for it is it’s a lot of students and that of students that don’t do very well on that. Similar sort of even more depressing result is on Nape the National Assessment of Educational Progress. High school seniors in 2015. Thirty eight percent proficient in reading on Nape. That’s high school seniors in a national, truly representative national sample of high school seniors. And when you look at qualitative studies, the results are equally bad or worse, depending upon which study you look at. So what we’re seeing is that students don’t have very good reading abilities, and so there is like lots and lots of work to do.

Dave Carillo: To play devil’s advocate, wouldn’t someone then, you know, come up to you? Or don’t you see individuals come up and say, I don’t understand what the big issue is? Students learn to read by the time they’re in fourth grade, they can. They can read a book or they can read an article.

Alice Horning: Yeah, but they don’t actually read books and articles. They do learn basic comprehension. But if they don’t read, which is the real source of the problem, they don’t read books, they don’t read articles. This is what I refer to as the don’t, won’t, can’t problem. They don’t read very much, certainly not extended nonfiction prose, and they won’t read it unless somebody requires it of them. That is to say teachers. And what’s really true is that they can’t read in the way that most instructors high school and college mean reading, which is to say critical reading or reading with critical thinking elements and components included. That’s what they don’t have. Basic comprehension, sort of. Maybe mostly kind of. The vocabulary piece is often quite weak, and they certainly don’t have the critical skills that the three of us for sure and lots and lots of other people want and the teachers are expecting and hoping for.

Steve Pearlman: So what would you say to the people who make the argument, and it’s probably not going to be many of our listeners, I would imagine. But what would you say to people who make the argument that they might be thinking critically about the world and they might be thinking critically about academics in ways that just don’t involve reading? So why is reading so critical? Couldn’t they effectively do the same thing through other media? And is it sort of this archaic notion that we have that reading still holds a prominent place in academia?

Alice Horning: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I guess I have two pieces to my answer to that. One of them is the Audible service through Amazon for audio books. Its slogan now is listening is the new reading to which I want to have my own slogan that said that appends the word not in capital letters with many exclamation points, because listening is not the new reading. So that’s one piece of it. The other piece of it is that Donald Lu, a highly respected reading scholar at the University of Connecticut who oversees a lab that does very interesting research on reading, reading, comprehension and all the issues we’re interested in has. Has written that the foundation of what he calls the foundational literacy of print, being able to get meaning from print, being able to process vocabulary, do all of the basic reading skills of comprehension, figuring out word meanings, that kind of thing, that those foundational literacy, these alphabetic text based literacies are only becoming more and more important as we go to screen based digital, whatever it is we’re doing now. Images, texts, all of those things rely in a fundamental way on alphabetic fundamental foundation of what he calls foundational literacy. So you’ve got to have that as a base and students have to have that as a base, and at the moment, they really don’t.

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Steve Pearlman: Where’s the breakdown? If they’re all theoretically being taught to read, where’s the breakdown in terms of not just, let’s say they’re reading skill, but in terms of the methods in which they’re being taught to read? Or is there something that faculty could be doing and educators could be doing that would be more effective practice?

Alice Horning: This is, I think, and you know, one of your previous podcasts with Daniel Willingham from the University of Virginia, I think spoke about this. Where things start sort of start, fall apart is when kids get to middle school and then they seem to fall into some kind of black hole and they stop reading whole books. If they ever were reading whole books, they’ve stopped reading whole books, and they’ve certainly stopped reading extended nonfiction prose. And I’m not sure but that I don’t mean to demean our, our K-12 colleagues or my colleagues at the college and university level. But we are sort of co-conspirators in this in that we don’t require students to read whole books and whole articles. We don’t set up our assignments in such a way as to help them learn the skills of critical thinking and critical analysis. And we don’t really push those things in a way that encourages students to develop the skills they need. And moreover, we don’t even help them with it online. So, you know, we all know students who given a topic for a research project or whatever. They’ll run up a Google search and whatever comes up on Google, that’s what they’re going to use. And they do not evaluate for authority accuracy, currency relevancy, appropriateness and bias. They don’t do that kind of analysis that is sort of fundamental to critical reading, critical literacy. You know, all the things we care about. And so that’s kind of, in my estimation, that’s where the breakdown is and we need to be addressing that. All of us K-12, college, university, we all need to be working on this much more than we are.

Steve Pearlman: I don’t know if you’ve seen any research on this, but you mentioned middle school as the fall off point. And I know that’s also when a lot of kids these days also get their phones. I do think there’s a connection

Alice Horning: I really do. And I think there’s more and more research that says we all need to be paying way more attention to how much time we’re spending with screens both for, you know, our collective mental health and for these issues, these educational issues. Absolutely.

Dave Carillo: Alice, I want to go back to something you said in your last answer. You were talking about this kind of critical literacy that students lack as they’re in this black hole. They’re doing their research and they go on to Google and they get a bunch of information and they can’t really evaluate it. And I was hoping you could sort of elaborate on that particular issue. Hopefully, we’ll eventually get in this discussion to some of the things that our listeners and their colleagues can do in their own classrooms to help alleviate or to solve this problem. But in the meantime, let’s go further down into it. What is this about the evaluation of sources? What is this about this idea of critical literacy or going on at Google? How bad is it on your end of things since you’re concentrating on that element of it?

Alice Horning: I think it’s pretty bad everywhere. Even good readers are not looking at materials, whether it’s print based or digital or on a screen, on a piece of paper. I don’t think that makes any difference at all. They’re just not looking at things using the tools of critical analysis, the tools of critical thinking.

Dave Carillo: Yeah. You said that even good readers are doing this kind of work. So I guess to sort of follow up with the same kind of question that Steve asked, Where’s the breakdown there? Because if we’re at least able to say that there are better readers and there are weaker readers and there are strong readers, but you’re still not seeing this kind of critical literacy is what you’re saying most teachers want or expect. What’s the breakdown there? Why is it that we can say that even good readers are doing this?

Alice Horning: I’m not sure I know the answer to that. I think that probably none of us stress this as much as we could and should, and everyone is very pressed. College and university students are pressed because this gets into larger issues in higher ED that have to do with funding and have. To do with the way we structure classes and the expectations and requirements and so forth. So that’s some of it. So students are working a lot. A lot of them have family responsibilities, particularly non-traditional students. So they’re very, very, very, very busy and they don’t have a lot of time. And so whatever comes up on a Google search is simply the expedient answer in the K-12 area. I I don’t know, since I’m not a K-12 teacher, I’m not a high school teacher. I don’t have enough experience to say how students are pressed. But I do know that even good students, you know, are trying to assemble a resume, if you will, for admission to college. So they have often work, they have extracurricular activities, they have lots of classes and not a lot of time because we only have one hundred and sixty, however, many hours in a week and you have to eat and sleep and take a shower now and then.

Alice Horning: So I think some of it is just that we’re very pressed. All of us are very pressed and a lot has been written about the way that fooling around with digital devices tickles our brains in certain very appealing ways, and it’s really hard to tear yourself away from that stuff. So all of that is a big part of it, but we need to be working on these things, these issues. We need to be working with students and we need to be getting into their heads as a way of thinking, of engaging in critical thinking with all sorts of material that they come in contact with. I think this applies to every kind of screen, big screen, little screen and everything in between. I think it applies to television. I think it applies to talk radio. I think it applies to everything digital. I think it applies to print. I think it applies to newspapers, magazines, journals. Doesn’t matter what it is. What I think we really need to get to is a place where we’ve got this in their head.

Dave Carillo: You seem to have a clearer idea, more or less, of what you need to be doing with students or where students are. How do you talk to individuals who come up to you at conferences and have no idea? How do you push them in the right direction in terms of getting their students to develop these kinds of critical reading? Critical thinking abilities

Alice Horning: Done maybe 12 or 15 of these things around the country where I, you know, I’ll go to a campus and talk to faculty both the English or writing faculty and faculty across a curriculum about strategies, but also more easily accessible and less expensive than me because it’s free is a book that I published a few years ago with a colleague was with Kramer, who’s an information literacy librarian called Reconnecting, Reading and Writing, and that’s available through the WACC clearinghouse as a free download. So it’s not like I’m promoting something I’m selling. I’m going to make money on, and that book is full of what to do and how to do it. In my own chapter is specific strategies Monday Morning Strategies for dealing with reading, and there are a number of other pieces in there from librarians, as well as from writing teachers that give a lot of very practical advice. Another book through the WACC clearinghouse that is available now online seem deal free download, but is also coming out in a print version that people could actually spend money on, called What Is College Reading, which addresses that question by and large across the curriculum. We have articles in their chapters in there from people in the sciences and social sciences, as well as from the humanities. So that’s another source. And then there is a third book published by in CTE called Deep Reading, which is another good collection of articles.

Steve Pearlman: In addition to the texts. Maybe what’s a crux for you in terms of a turning point in how you approach this subject matter or what would be if you could? I don’t want to centralize this because obviously this is a complex matter. Maybe there’s nothing much more complex than reading and composing and so forth of critical thinking. But for our listeners, where would you say would be? A couple of key points on which to focus in their practice of their educators,

Alice Horning: There needs to be a lot more focus on time spent working with complete arguments, preferably book length arguments. But more realistically, if students could follow, say, proper academic journal article all the way through or even a New York Times magazine cover story that is a report of an investigative project that looks into a topic and runs for. I don’t even know how long those things are, but a full length article.

Dave Carillo: Alice, I’m going to jump in really quickly because, you know, Steve and I do do a lot of faculty development, and we’re we’re oftentimes just sort of steeped in working through strategies for our colleagues and different ways of approaching the Critical Thinking Act and helping them to get their students to engage in some of what you were saying earlier reminds me of of a little bit of what you said in your article. Reading across the curriculum is as the key to student success. You know, that last sort of section of that article, you talk about four specific strategies to strengthen students’ reading abilities and two of those. Speak to what you said, which was this sort of like a more consistent focus on classroom teaching about critical reading skills. And then another one was developing opportunities for modeling and practicing those critical reading skills. And that’s what I wanted to see if you could expand on for our readers because the modeling and the practice is often a huge challenge for faculty

Alice Horning: To very specific things. One of them is for a teacher to take the material that they’ve assigned and start reading it aloud and talk to the students about how they think about the text as they are reading it. This comes as revelation to students. They have no idea how a person who has these critical skills, how they actually approach a text. And so what might you underline or highlight if you’re working on a printed text? What might you make notes about and why do you make those notes? What connections are you making all those things? Students are utterly astonished when you do that, so that’s one thing. The second thing I would say that teachers should be doing is focusing their evaluation on two criteria. One of them is authority. So thinking about where a source comes from, who wrote it, how current is it? What are the credentials of the person who is providing this material? The other thing that needs to be a focal point is evaluating for bias. And this is the area that is often the most difficult for students, at least in my experience. They just don’t see bias. They don’t see it linguistically. They don’t respond to biased language. They don’t see fallacies and argument. They don’t see slant. And it’s very hard to get them to see it. But again, if you if teachers can take materials in on, say, the same topic and lay them side by side, that’s one way to get students to see bias. So authority and bias are really the crucial areas that teachers should be paying attention to and really focusing on the all these things make students see the world and see their own sources in their own work very differently and help them with critical thinking

Dave Carillo: In those guidelines for modeling and sustaining practice. Really helpful. What are you doing now? What are you sort of working on? What are your most promising projects?

Alice Horning: One of my great frustrations over all the time I’ve been working on reading issues is that I don’t think that our field and by our field, I mean English studies, rhetoric and composition, whatever you want to call, whatever it is we do has not been paying enough attention to reading. And so I intend to do a study of the last five years of publications of all the major journals, conference programs for Forces’ and CTE and so on to look at how much attention reading has been. Getting and speaking of bias, I’m going to try to go into this with an open mind and have some very hard and fast guidelines for my evaluation, but I’m pretty sure what I’m going to find is nothing or not much of anything. There are a few people publishing and reading. Willingham is one. There’s another Carrillo out in the world. There’s three or four other people, but there just isn’t a whole lot on reading.

Steve Pearlman: Alice, thanks so much for joining us today. It was really gratifying to benefit from your experience in the field and your knowledge about literacy.

Dave Carillo: Yeah, Alex, we cannot thank you enough critical reading. Critical literacy are such important topics today that we think that you’ve done a great service for our listeners by sharing your expertise with us.

Alice Horning: My pleasure.

Steve Pearlman: Thanks, everyone for listening. We’ll get you next time on the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast. Take care.


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