Should I Expect Students To Read Material I Haven’t Covered?

Jason Buell wrote a comment about this really interesting video on reading comprehension a few days ago.

It really made me think, and I had mixed reactions to it, which is why I didn’t respond right away.  I like the point that meaning is something we make.  The video, though, seems to have a bit of an axe to grind at the end. I had no idea that American elementary school classrooms spend that much time on reading comprehension (I wonder if it’s the same in Canada?).

Here’s where I diverge from the video’s viewpoint: “if you don’t have prior knowledge of cricket, no strategy is going to help you” understand a passage about cricket.  By this logic, I should not expect my students to read any material in the textbook that they don’t already know.  But why should that be?  I expect them to watch screencasts and have conversations about things they don’t already know.  My students seem to perceive reading differently.

To extend the analogy, I expect my students to see a passage of text they don’t understand, look for a chapter heading, notice that it is “Cricket”, look up cricket in the glossary or maybe on Wikipedia, and make sense of at least the first paragraph (from the video):

  • it’s a sport
  • played in teams
  • uses balls
  • keeps score
  • popular in England
  • and patience is valued


My hopes for student reading of technical material are that they would

  • read at least the introduction and summary
  • recognize that reading the intro and summary is a useful idea
  • take note of which words they don’t know
  • put sticky notes pointing to sentences that threw them off
  • notice the moment where they went from understanding to not-understanding, and make a mark in the book, and ask a question about it
  • notice when they are making inferences, make a note of those, and be sure to double-check them
  • do this with patience and compassion for themselves, and not write themselves off as stupid just because sounding out the words didn’t instantly make them make sense


If my students have already been taught how to strategize about their reading, many of them don’t show it — and don’t know it. It’s likely that, if I pointed to a page and ordered them to find the main idea, they could.  But if they never actually do this of their own volition, because they can’t recognize why or when to do it… well I guess that’s what they call pseudoteaching.  Which explains why I find the need start from the beginning.  Also explains why I’m afraid I’ll fall prey to the same booby-trap.


    • Thanks for the suggestion — I will check it out. I found three similarly-titled books: The Right to Literacy by Lunsford, Moglen and Slevin (which I assume is the one you suggest), The Right to Literacy in Secondary Schools by Bennett, and Literacy as a Civil Right by Greene (ed.). Any thoughts about the other two? The whole approach definitely intrigues me.

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