During the summer we celebrated our twins 13th birthday with an intentional trip to and around the Grand Canyon. Biking around the south rim, hummer riding through the red rocks of Sedona, and kayaking on Lake Powell through Antelope Canyon were highlights for each of us. Because we wanted this trip to be informative, inspirational and enjoyable, my husband, Doug, and I did research before we traveled on best guides/tours and road stops/restaurants. Doug spent some of his childhood in Arizona and has been to the Grand Canyon several times, so I depended on him to be the “more knowledgeable other” (Vygotsky) to help make the trip a success. But Doug also knew he was not an expert on all things Grand Canyon or Arizona, so we chose to do a few guided tours, which utilized experienced guides who provided much more information and insights, and who based on our family’s unique goals helped maximize our time.
On the last day of the trip I had the twins send postcards to themselves summing up their experiences. Our daughter wrote of her inspiration, “I will never forget what it felt like standing on the edge of the beautiful Grand Canyon with my family,” and our son wrote of his enjoyment, “It was a blast getting AIR over the rocks on the hummer ride in Sedona.” Yes, the trip accomplished all we dreamed it would.
Just like our trek out west, the amazing journey of becoming a reader requires many essential components. Our successful travel involved background knowledge, new information, personal goals, space and time, and most importantly responsive, skillful guides. Similarly, the path to reading has well-documented and universally utilized elements that can be summarized to include phonemic awareness, phonetics, comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary (see National Reading Panel, 2000). These provide a balanced approach for educators charged with giving the gift of literacy, a responsibility that requires both science and art.
The science of guiding readers is best understood as “responsiveness’ because the brain employs multiple regions during the task of reading. Each of these cortical regions specializes in the parts or components required for reading, and contribute unique areas of expertise. Each region must work in concert with the other regions so that text is recognized and understood. What would reading be if only the regions of the brain that decoded print were on track? What would be the point of all the cognitive work if text that was decoded was not also understood (comprehended)?
The good news is that more current science is offering us more perspective into what was only hypotheses, said another way “good guesses”, a few centuries ago (see Adams, 1990). With the advances in technology such as the fMRI, neuroscientists can observe live brains while reading. When they share these insights through studies and reports, journal articles or even books, educators become more informed of the organic complexities of learning to read (see Shaywitz, 2003). This progress allows teachers to understand their students in precise ways by knowing more about the possible why and how of any one of these components of reading and what makes readers get off track or experience difficulties in learning to or progressing in reading.
Reading is not natural to the brain, meaning it, like many skills, must be learned. This reality infers an obvious truth, in order for something to be learned there must be teaching. Teachers who guide readers are those how pinpoint which of the components of reading each students’ brain are on track, and which are needing more support, training or practice. While it might make the work of teaching reading very prescriptive or systematic and error-free, even completely technologically disseminated, if each of the regions of the brains of the 7 billion people on the planet right now worked the exact same way, but that simply is not true. Even with the consistencies, neuroscience reports talk in terms of generalizations and variances (see Harvard Medical Schools, On the Brain article “Reading and the Brain” at http://neuro.hms.harvard.edu/harvard-mahoney-neuroscience-institute/brain-newsletter/and-brain-series/reading-and-brain).
Teaching reading so that students become skillful readers requires and will always require guiding, because each students’ brain is unique. This responsiveness by skillful teachers allows for students’ time to be maximized for meeting goals and experiencing reading success, i.e. decoding, comprehending and enjoying text. Responsiveness is not guess work, it is starting with the reader first and applying the science, assessing what is on track and what is not, and supporting the reader to continue moving forward. Computers cannot deliver this type of guidance, just like reading the formulaic information on the various tours or locations on the internet did not equal what we gleaned and experienced by having real life guides on our excursions in Arizona.
The art of guiding readers is best understood as responsiveness, as well. What challenges or motivates one reader will not necessarily be true for another reader. Good teachers utilize many tools based on the needs of their students: strategies, genres, materials, advice, prompts, and resources, to name a few. To shame teachers for building a vibrant tool kit and encouraging readers to activate each of their brain regions, including their emotional areas or meaning-making areas which can aid readers in many ways, seems to be short-sighted in light of the science on reading.
While researching and planning helped, our time in and around the Grand Canyon was benefitted most particularly through the personal tour guides. Their skillful experiences, amiable personalities, and responsiveness to our goals and questions made the most of our short time in the southwest. While we stopped at one particular point on the south rim during our bike tour, our guide was able to answer some questions that we had, sharing specific information as well as personal experiences he had while rock climbing there. Later the twins repeated some of the details from that earlier conversation with our guide during the snack break, making their own connections, and building memories that will last a life time.
All of us want our students to be rise to new heights at reading, our teachers better prepared, and instruction time used in the most meaningful ways. The goals for our Arizona family trip: more informed, inspired, and engaged/enjoyed, are good ones for every reader in our state and the world. This can happen as teachers respond to each of their students, guiding them with the fullness and balance in the science and the art of teaching reading.